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When Art Gives Offense

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008 10:42 AM

From the second I saw the New Yorker's cover on Obama-as-Muslim-terrorist, I knew it was a ticking time bomb. But when I reached David Remnick, the magazine's editor, over the weekend, he was in what's the big deal? mode. Obviously, he said, people would see that it was a sharp-edged satire.

Maybe the world looks different from midtown Manhattan, but it was obvious that the illustration was going to draw immediate fire--in fact, both the Barack Obama and John McCain camps united in denouncing it.

From a marketing point of view, it was pure genius: Take all the worst rumors and slurs against Obama, splash them on the cover of a liberal magazine, sit back and enjoy the buzz.

But let's face it, the cover was offensive. It was deliberately offensive, in the sense that Remnick and company felt they were going overboard in mocking all the phony smears. But that involved putting the smears out there in high-impact, strikingly visual form.

Did the cover succeed in skewering the very thing it depicted? I don't think so. Few commentators, on the left or right, seem to like it.

It would have been smarter for Remnick to write a little essay about why he was publishing the cover, rather than having to play defense on CNN yesterday, saying his magazine was channeling Stephen Colbert. Instead, there was nothing in the magazine to explain why the art--titled 'The Politics of Fear'--was not what it seemed at first glance.

Perhaps it could be argued that a liberal magazine that has been sympathetic to Obama has the standing to make fun of what Remnick says are clearly lies. But imagine if the Weekly Standard had run the same cover, and then Bill Kristol said well, don't worry, it's just a satire. Liberal commentators would be calling for his head.

The artist, Barry Blitt, defended his work to the Huffington Post: "I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is."

And he did put the New Yorker on the cultural map this week.

HuffPost's Rachel Sklar says that "presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke, but still: this is going to upset a lot of people, probably for the same reason it's going to delight a lot of other people, namely those on the right: Because it's got all the scare tactics and misinformation that has so far been used to derail Barack Obama's campaign -- all in one handy illustration. Anyone who's tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who's tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism-- well, here's your image."

National Review's Jim Geraghty sees the cover as some kind of . . . liberal alibi?

"If Obama loses, the editors of The New Yorker would prefer to be able to blame it on 'paranoid fearmongering' rather than the public actually rejecting Obama on the basis of his positions or lack of experience.

"Inevitably, in response to this cover, we will hear several days of discussion about the cover, whether it was out of line or tasteless (yes), and what spurred this decision, etc., what Obama's actual ties to Islam are, what his ties to various shady donors are, his ties [to] longtime supporters who tried to blow up the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, etc.

"Thus, if McCain wins, we will see someone -- probably in the pages of The New Yorker -- write, 'Of course the Republican smear artists fooled the American people into seeing a great man as a terrorist; Google the terms, 'Obama,' and 'terrorist', and 80 bazillion links come up,' even though the context could just as easily be, 'Obama pledges to capture terrorists,' 'New Yorker cover portrays Obama as terrorist' and 'McCain denounces New Yorker cover portraying Obama as a terrorist.' "

At least he treats it as (bad) satire. Power Line's John Hinderaker says, wait a minute, there are nuggets of truth here:

"Obama isn't a Muslim, and his wife doesn't carry an AK-47. But Obama's long-time associations with anti-Americans like Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn and Jeremiah Wright are not 'rumors' or 'misinformation.' Nor is it 'crazy ignorance' to note that Obama's candidacy was endorsed by Hamas (although Hamas later withdrew its endorsement when Obama tacked toward the center) or that his wife says America is 'just downright mean.' Obama doesn't want to deal with these very real issues, and prefers to respond to the straw man that he's a Muslim. The New Yorker tried to help him in that effort, apparently, but I doubt that it did him any good. That image of a flag burning in the fireplace hits uncomfortably close to the mark."

Flag-burning? Close to the mark? He's an America-hater? I'm missing something here.

Elsewhere on the right, Michelle Malkin has a simple message: Get used to it.

"Welcome to public life.

"Guess what? In Washington, political cartoonists and caricaturists spare no one . . .

"Wipe your nose, grow a pair, do your little Jay-Z dance move, and take your own advice to your daughters: No whining.

"It clashes with your glow."

Lefty bloggers are taking the cover seriously. The Nation's John Nichols says that "the problem, of course, is that not everyone in America is as up as Remnick might hope with the cocktail chatter at the right parties on the fashionable upper west side -- or, as summer progresses, the Hamptons.

"The Obama camp complains that the image of a robed President Obama and a combat-fatigued First Lady Obama is 'tasteless and offensive.'

"While it is surely true that Obama's campaign specializes in whining, this gripe ought not be dismissed quite so casually as most of the headquarters hand-wringing.

"To be sure, the New Yorker cover art is satire -- perhaps not as smart or stylish as what you will find in a random issue of The Onion, but satire all the same. The problem is not that The New Yorker has tried to make a mockery of right-wing efforts to smear the Obamas. It is that The New Yorker has not done a very good job of it."

The even larger problem, Nichols says, is that "Barack Obama has yet to fully or functionally introduce himself to the American people." Well, he is new on the national scene. But hasn't he established that he's not a Muslim terrorist?

At the New Republic, Eve Fairbanks says the cover "seems to me ultimately more dull than provocative -- a collection of the most obvious smear narratives about Obama, lumped together and mediocrely illustrated. It's no better than Perry Bacon's infamous Washington Post story, 'Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.' Both outlets claimed not to support the allegations they were visually or rhetorically putting forward -- ob viously! -- and yet a reader would have to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of each outlet's ethos to immediately intuit the intended ironic distance."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum has a different reaction--a failure of nerve:

"I had two reactions, myself. To be honest, my first one was that it was kinda funny, a clever way of mocking all the conservative BS that's been circulating about the Obamas.

"But at the risk of seeming humorless, that reaction didn't last too long. Maybe it's because this kind of satire just doesn't work, no matter how well it's done. But mostly it's because a few minutes thought convinced me it was gutless. If artist Barry Blitt had some real cojones, he would have drawn the same cover but shown it as a gigantic word bubble coming out of John McCain's mouth -- implying, you see, that this is how McCain wants the world to view Obama. But he didn't. Because that would have been unfair. And McCain would have complained about it. And for some reason, the risk that a failed satire would unfairly defame McCain is somehow seen as worse than the risk that a failed satire would unfairly defame Obama."

McCain may be playing hardball, but he's hardly suggesting that Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist.

Doesn't anyone out there like the cover?

John McQuaid, for one, detects "an absurd decorousness in the denunciations":

"Free expression is a bulwark of American liberalism, part of what makes it what it makes it superior to political philosophies that rigidly enforce what words can be uttered and images can be shown. When liberals start policing the 'poor taste' of cartoons so that some people don't get the 'wrong idea,' it only reinforces the notion that all the fearmongering was effective, and perhaps right -- and also shows how weak and tenuous Democrats fear their position on terrorism remains."

The New York Times investigates and discovers a humor deficit when it comes to the Obama campaign:

"There is no comedic 'take' on him, nothing easy to turn to for an easy laugh, like allegations of Bill Clinton's womanizing, or President Bush's goofy bumbling or Al Gore's robotic persona.

" 'The thing is, he's not buffoonish in any way,' said Mike Barry, who started writing political jokes for Johnny Carson's monologues in the waning days of the Johnson administration and has lambasted every presidential candidate since, most recently for Mr. Letterman. 'He's not a comical figure,' Mr. Barry said."

Hey, give us time.

Meanwhile, the media's veep-vetting continues. TNR's Jonathan Cohn is uneasy about Sen. Jack Reed, who's supposedly in the mix because he's going to Iraq with Obama--a rather thin, ah, reed if you ask me:

"What's giving me pause? Reed's appearance on ABC News 'This Week' last Sunday. He was there as an Obama surrogate, squaring off against Joe Lieberman, who was speaking for John McCain. And Reed was, I thought, terrible. Over and over again, Lieberman made harsh accusations about Obama--that Obama was irresponsible, radically changing his positions, etc. And Reed seemed capable neither of answering those criticisms or launching similar ones against McCain. (And, no, this is not because Lieberman was right; mostly, I thought, Lieberman was wrong.)

"It's no secret that Reed isn't the most lively and exciting speaker. And, by itself, that's not a huge deal, since Obama has enough charisma for the entire ticket. If anything, picking a reserved, steady running mate might help Obama assuage voters who find the prospect of electing such a young and dynamic candidate unnerving.

"But debating ability is an essential skill for the vice president, and not just in the campaign: A successful president needs a surrogate who can fight for him. Charisma may not be important, but the ability to hit back against critics is--particularly for somebody like Obama, whose appeal rests in part on his ability to transcend (or, at least, to seem to transcend) such fights."

I wonder if Reed even knows he's trying out--in the media's eyes.

Talking Points Memo unearths an e-mail exchange between the AP's Ron Fournier, now its Washington bureau chief, and Karl Rove. The subject was fallen soldier Pat Tillman. Rove had asked: "How does our country continue to produce men and women like this."

Fournier's reply: "The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight."

Finally, unlike some previous GOP presidential candidates, McCain passed up the chance to take a pop at the news media in this NYT interview:

"Easiest thing for me to do in my life is to complain about the media. That's the easiest thing to do, I enjoy it, it makes me feel so much better, and I feel persecuted, and picked on -- No! Look, this isn't beanbag, this is a tough business. I've just got to go on with my campaign and put one foot ahead of the other. The media in America, I think, at the end of the day, is going to judge all of us as fairly as possible because I think most of the media -- of course not all, look, not all politicians are honest, not all mayors are good mayors, OK, but I think at the end of the day most journalists, particularly those are involved in national campaigns, are interested in journalistic standards and reporting the facts to the American people.''

And while McCain hasn't yet mastered the art of getting online himself, he says his aides show him Drudge, Politico and Real Clear Politics. Talk about a free plug!

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