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Mussed for Success: Barack Obama's Smooth Wrinkles

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006

Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, offers an easy smile from the cover of the fall issue of Men's Vogue. He has been shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has given him the high-gloss treatment for which the Vogue brand is famous. This is not one of those under-the-microscope portraits favored by newsmagazines in which every pore is visible and every mole made plain. Those images portend a story that will be mostly grit and very little glamour. On the cover of Men's Vogue, the senator looks freshly exfoliated.

The occasion of the cover portrait and the accompanying story is ostensibly to mark the publication of Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope." But mostly it is to lavish him with praise and place him before a readership that likes its political profiles leavened with articles about tennis, architecture, a $13,500 bicycle, $18,500 binoculars and dogs as travel companions.

The September/October issue is only the third for Men's Vogue -- which has featured George Clooney and Tiger Woods on past covers -- and it marks the start of bimonthly publication for a magazine with an ad base of 300,000 readers. So far, the emphasis has been on style rather than fashion, with past cover boys wearing nothing that could be termed trendy and with Obama dressed in his own clothes.

The story, written by Jacob Weisberg, reiterates the awe in some quarters for Obama, and the cover duly contains the words "star" and "president." (Weisberg is the editor of Slate, which is owned by The Washington Post Co.) The senator, as has become his custom, politely deflects the accolades and the lovelorn blather. But he doesn't deny presidential ambition: " 'My attitude about something like the presidency is that you don't want to just be the president,' he continues. 'You want to change the country. You want to make a unique contribution. You want to be a great president.' "

As he looks out from the cover -- and from the inside pages -- of a magazine that is dedicated to aesthetics, it seems fair to assess his own.

In the cover image, he is shown wearing a crisp white shirt and a pale blue tie with a pattern of fine stripes. But since there are no grand flourishes, the eye zeroes in on the details. The barrel cuffs. The fact that the forearm button on the left sleeve is undone. The tiny wrinkles along the seams. One gets the impression that Obama wasn't fussed over and primped -- at least not lavishly.

The picture of him in his white shirt and his quiet smile against the wood-grain backdrop of his Chicago home office is all about ease, control and confidence -- but not specifically power. Inside the magazine, the senator is photographed in his Capitol Hill office and he once again is wearing a white shirt and a blue tie, this one with tiny white dots. In this image, the tie is loosened, his sleeves are rolled up and the shirt is wrinkled. Leaving it so obviously mussed was, without question, intentional. The subtext is clear: The lawmaker is at work. He is not posing or posturing. It is as though the photographer -- without assistants, without a sittings editor -- popped in for a minute and Obama swiveled around in his office chair for the shot. Click, flash. And he went back to the hard work of government.

There is a photo of Obama standing on the steps of the Capitol and being swarmed by a group of students as if he were a rock star. They are in shorts and T-shirts. He wears a dark suit with his tie snugly knotted. And there is a Camelot-like portrait of the family cuddling on the grass in their Chicago back yard. He wears khakis, and his shirt sleeves are pushed up as he hugs his two young daughters. His wife, Michelle, looks on -- her legs tucked under her and a strand of neat beads around her neck. A reader would be forgiven for trying to find evidence of a touch football game in the photo.

In each image, Obama is pictured in warm light or soft focus. He is pondering, nurturing, working. But never glad-handing, pontificating or fundraising. The pictures celebrate the idea of Obama rather than the reality of politics.

Obama also is included in a portfolio of Washington images saluting American style in the September issue of Marie Claire. He is photographed on the Kennedy Balcony of the Russell Senate Office Building. Again, he wears his own clothes. He is shown in profile with his hands in his pockets and his eyes cast downward as if in deep thought. The pose subtly recalls the White House portrait of John F. Kennedy in which he stands with his arms folded and head lowered.

The senator may not have been groomed and dressed for his appearance in the glossies, but his image has been exuberantly romanticized.

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