by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

With all the problems facing this country, the issue of “who sits where” shouldn’t rank very high.

But last week it did, after two Muslim women were denied seats behind Barack Obama at his rally at Joe Louis Arena, seats that would have placed them in full view of the TV cameras broadcasting his speech.

The women were moved away, they said, because they each wore a hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf. That image, volunteers told them, was politically sensitive for Obama.

And so the women were moved. And they complained. And it became a big story. And they demanded an apology. And the campaign apologized. But they demanded a personal apology from the candidate.

And so Obama, who seems to suffer the unique affliction of too many people wanting to support him – Muslims, Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – called and offered apologies from his own mouth.

All because of two scarves.

You’d like to say this kind of thing would never have happened with Abe Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, and you’d be right – but not because they were finer candidates than Obama. Rather because they didn’t have to deal with television.

Today, image is everything. B-roll is everything. Think how many times you saw Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky, an image used to drive home his inappropriate relationship with her. Think how many times you saw that photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983, and how it was used to dilute Rumsfeld’s case against the dictator.

You can say it shouldn’t matter. But in a nation where we would rather make up our minds off a quick glimpse, “Who’s in the picture?” makes a big difference. Manipulating the media

Personally, I was not surprised those women were asked to move – I’m just surprised the askers were honest about it. Politicians have been manipulating photos since the first tray of developer was tilted. Do you really think candidates love kissing babies? Do you really think JFK regularly played football on the beach? Do you really think George W. Bush lands on aircraft carriers wearing a bomber jacket?

This business of molding the image is as old as TV itself and has become more significant in the age of high-def. Whatever demographic a politician is trying to appeal to, you can bet that demographic will be represented in the frame.

What I’d like to know is, who gave the Obama volunteers their instructions to move the Muslim women? That seems an awfully bold decision for a couple of campaign workers to make on their own, doesn’t it?

As of publication, no one has come forth and admitted giving the orders. The volunteers are being blamed for their own poor judgment. Maybe that’s the truth. Or maybe they’re being sacrificed to keep fingers from pointing closer to Obama. Images of old ignorance

In any case, someone in Obama’s world is to blame for insensitivity here. But others are at fault as well. Namely, those who would have used those images had the women been seated. There are people out there who want nothing more than to paint Obama as some terrorist sympathizer, who point to his middle name – Hussein – and hiss it through clenched teeth.

These are people who likely would have used such an image in a subtly negative way, maybe some TV campaign, tight on Obama and the hijab-clad women, with a suggestive voice underneath (“When Obama speaks, who’s really listening?”).

The fact is, there is a knee-jerk distrust of Islam in America today that has a parallel in the anti-Japanese fervor of World War II or the anti-Communism fever during the 1950s. That kind of fear sparks foolish and regrettable history. There are plenty in this country who would see those two Muslim women behind Obama and tell themselves, “If those people are for him, I’m against him.”

And that’s a shame. If Obama is smart, he will try to frame this as “Hey, if my biggest problem is all types of people want to support me, I’m not doing badly.” Whether others will buy it is another story. As always, it depends who is in the picture, and who is looking at it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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