It's no surprise that Nelson Mandela's memorial service would produce a rain of stupidity and feigned outrage from conservatives over Barack Obama's behavior, since they see it as part of their purpose to police his every word, gesture, and blink for signs of transgression. The only appropriate reaction to this stuff (OMG, he shook Raul Castro's hand!) is probably mockery, but there is one thing that's worth a bit of consideration.
Whenever a bunch of world leaders get together and have time to stand (or sit) around and shmooze, there are going to be interesting photos that result. That's true even if nothing weird happens, like George W. Bush looking over at the most powerful woman in the world and saying to himself, "Hey look, a dame. I think I'll stroll over there and give her an unsolicited back rub." Any time we see powerful people just acting like people, there's something interesting about it. So when Obama, British prime minister David Cameron, and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt were photographed taking a little group selfie, it was bound to be noticed as one of those they're-just-like-us moments.
But because some photos of the moment show Michelle Obama with a serious expression on her face as she looks in the other direction, lots of people immediately fit this into a familiar story line, the one in which the First Lady is a castrating harpy always ready to smack her husband down if he gets too close to another woman, particularly a white woman. "Looks as if somebody will be sleeping on the Oval Office couch for a while," wrote the New York Post under the headline, "Michelle not amused by Obama's memorial selfie." Wonkette went with Michelle Obama *Pissed* Y'all."
As Roxane Gay pointed out, there was also a photo taken "of Laura Bush looking unamused while her husband speaks to a beautiful woman in the row behind them. Is she disapproving? Is she worried about her marriage? Is she 'having none of it'? Or is she just sitting?" Now to be fair, the President himself bears at least some of the blame for the image of their marriage in which she's the stereotypical disapproving wife. Any time he says something like, "I make mistakes" or "I'm far from perfect," you can be sure he'll follow it up with "as Michelle will be happy to tell you" or "just ask Michelle." Perhaps he intends to communicate that theirs is a marriage of equals marked by complete honesty and open communication, but it makes her sound more like Alice Kramden than anything else.
Having said that, think for a moment how people would react if Obama took a picture like this one:
That's Harry Truman with Lauren Bacall in 1945. At the time, he was 61 and she was 21. Imagine a photo with Obama gazing up at, say, Jennifer Lawrence's gams in the same way. Or how about this one:
That's Ronald Reagan in a smooch a trois with the reigning Miss America and Miss Universe. Granted, Reagan was seen as a jolly old grandfather while Obama is a relatively youthful 52, but once again, just imagine the reaction if our current president was photographed getting that friendly with a couple of blond beauty queens.
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