Abraham Lincoln knew the value of a good photo. In February 1860, the former congressman from Illinois posed for Matthew Brady in the pioneering photographer’s New York studio. The resulting image concealed some cosmetic flaws, giving Lincoln a determined look. It was widely distributed and credited with helping him win the nomination and the presidency.
Since then, presidents have enlisted the aid of photographers to put themselves in the best light against the most compelling possible backdrop. A press aide in Richard Nixon’s administration popularized the term “photo op,” and in the age of internet video the tactic is more relevant than ever.
But there has never been a photo op quite like the one President Donald Trump staged on Monday, when noxious gas, flashbangs and rubber bullets were used to force protesters from Lafayette Park to clear the way before Trump strode to St. John’s Church and posed holding up a bible.
And perhaps there has never been a photo op that has gone so spectacularly wrong.
As demonstrations spread throughout the US over the killing of George Floyd in police custody – and a few protests turned violent –Trump warned governors they were being “weak.” In Rose Garden comments before the church photo op, he pronounced himself the “president of law and order.”
Retired generals, faith leaders and even a few Republican elected officials excoriated Trump for his response to the protests.
“As an Episcopalian, I was mortified by the use of one of my denomination’s churches as a backdrop for President Trump’s call for a military crackdown,” wrote author Diana Butler Bass. “As a Christian, I was shocked when he brandished a book of love to sanction violence against American citizens. As a person of faith, I was offended as he made God as a prop, seeking to further divide the nation into tribes of righteous followers versus heathen protesters. And, as a human being I was appalled to watch Trump – with his history of bigotry and racism – cloak himself in a mantle of faith.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany likened the Trump walk to Winston Churchill’s visits to bomb-damaged neighborhoods of the UK during World War II. But that’s wrong on every level, wrote Michael D’Antonio. “Churchill was a leader who sought to unite,” he argued, “Trump is a divider who seems more inclined to perform than to lead.”
The real purpose of the photo op? “The world knew that when protesters gathered near the White House last week, Trump had briefly been taken to shelter in a bunker,” said D’Antonio. “He had looked weak and this would not do. Encouraged by … his daughter Ivanka, he decided to demonstrate he was in command by leaving fortress White House and striding to a nearby Episcopal church – historic St. John’s – where a small fire set by protesters had done damage to the basement.”
The moment rattled a nation already on edge. “America’s dystopia in the Trump era has reached a new and ominous cliff,” observed Frida Ghitis. “Cities have exploded, driven by anger and frustration, in the midst of the worst health crisis in a century and the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The country is heartsick, frightened, divided. And President Donald Trump is failing on every front.”
In memory of George Floyd
Police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s how long mourners stood in silence at his memorial service this week in Minneapolis.
“On Thursday, it was the Floyd family showing us amazing grace through their sorrow, wrapping their loving arms around us, making us forget our problems and our pain,” wrote Roxanne Jones. “They allowed us to breathe for a moment and get to know George Floyd, the man, as he was in life – instead of knowing him only by the horrifying circumstances of his death, another unarmed black person dead after an encounter with police.”
Dr. Erica Farrand, a pulmonologist and critical care physician in the Bay Area, wrote that she has wrestled with racism and discovered that, “in an effort to work harder and be better, to fit the mold and gain a platform, I had unconsciously (or consciously) stopped bringing my whole self to work.”
“Three days after George Floyd’s plea ‘I can’t breathe’ was met with apathy and violence,” Farrand added, “I stood at the bedside of another black man. His bed in the ICU was surrounded by machines and monitors, the tubing for three different masks snaked toward his face. I leaned in close and introduced myself. ‘I’m Dr. Farrand. I’m a pulmonologist and I am here to help.’ He pulled his oxygen mask down and replied, ‘I can’t breathe.’… So triggering are those three words for me that when this patient whispered them, my immediate response was, ‘I promise you are safe.’”
Justice gets a step closer
The charges against Derek Chauvin were upgraded to second-degree murder Wednesday, and prosecutors also charged three of his fellow police officers. Legal analyst Elie Honig called it “an important step toward justice.”
But Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison warned that winning convictions will be “hard.” He’s right, Honig noted. “Rest assured, each defendant will have capable counsel fighting every inch of the way. Trial juries are inherently unpredictable; anybody who tells you any trial is a sure thing has never tried a case.”
Holding police officers and their departments responsible for wrongdoing requires surmounting high hurdles. When justice fails in the criminal courts, there’s no guarantee it will succeed in civil lawsuits.
The Supreme Court’s longstanding qualified immunity doctrine makes it extremely difficult to hold police liable for misdeeds, wrote Sina Kian, a former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts. But that could change, since the court is weighing whether to hear multiple challenges to the immunity doctrine. “The court can’t fix all of the country’s problems, and it certainly can’t solve racism,” Kian wrote, “but it can remove the judge-made impediment to accountability that has fueled the problems being protested. Now’s a good time.”
During the Obama administration, Cedric L. Alexander was asked to serve on a task force on policing, which came up with 59 recommendations for improvements. “Under (Trump’s) former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the work of the task force and its recommendations were essentially discarded,” wrote Alexander, the former public safety director for DeKalb County, Georgia.
“Today, if a young person of color asks me what they should do if a police officer stops them,” Alexander noted, “I answer: Put your hands on the steering wheel where they can be seen, cooperate and comply. And should they answer me back, as they likely would today – Even if I did all that, we are still getting murdered – I would have nothing to tell him or her. With my decades of experience, I would have nothing to say…
“The problems we face at this moment are part of our long history. But the complete absence of leadership – political, moral, policy, strategic – strikes me as genuinely unprecedented. What’s the plan now, America?”
Kevin K. McAleenan served as Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection and acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security before resigning in 2019. “The rage in black communities across the nation,” he wrote, “is real and well-founded. The question is not whether racism in law enforcement exists, but how to combat it … there must be commitment to real and sustained reform from within police organizations. Significant progress has been made over the last two decades in a number of departments all across the country, but much, much more work remains.”
On Tuesday, former President George W. Bush wrote that he and his wife Laura “are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country.” The tragedy, he wrote, “raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society?”
That was the moment that law professor Dorothy Brown said she became convinced that 2020 would be the year serious police reform would become possible. Bush, widely blamed during his presidency for a failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina, in which many African Americans died, “has decided to be on the right side of history … George W. Bush made the right choice.”
When former Defense Secretary James Mattis published his memoir last year, he said, “I’m old fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents,” Peter Bergen recalled. The widely respected retired general threw out that rule this week when he flamed Trump in a powerful statement that accused him of spending the past three years dividing America. “Trump has now been on the receiving end of multiple blistering critiques by many of the top retired US military generals and admirals,” Bergen observed.
“As we head closer to November,” wrote John Avlon, “more center-right politicians may start to show spine out of a desire to not get taken down with the rapidly derailing Trump train. Others will come down with cases of convenient amnesia, but the military voices already speaking out remind us that protecting our country is a much bigger deal than phony-tough fealty to hyper-partisan politics.”
Conservative commentator Scott Jennings wrote that “the President cannot govern this situation by photo-op. I was not sure what to make of his march to St. John’s Church across Lafayette Square as I watched it unfold live on Monday. I wish he could have taken one step further and stepped into the church and opened the Bible he held. I wish he had invited faith and civil rights leaders to go there with him. And I wish he would have sat in the front row for a church service aimed at praying for peace, calm and unity.” Still, he wrote, “When the President says he wants both justice for Mr. Floyd and a restoration of law and order, I believe him.”
For more on issues relating to the George Floyd protests:
Peniel Joseph: What black children will learn from George Floyd’s death
John Kasich and Nina Turner: We know policing can be made more just, because we did it
Theodore W. Small, Jr.: What my Florida town can teach us about racist policing
Rebecca MacKinnon: Trump is making America more like China
Bakari Sellers: How we can start systemically reforming the police.
The longest year
Less than halfway through 2020, the year is shaping up as a combination of epic crises, wrote historians Manu Bhagavan and Jonathan Rosenberg. It recalls 1918 and 1929 and 1968: “A global pandemic has left more than 100,000 Americans dead in a matter of months. Over 40 million are unemployed. And we are bombarded night after night with deeply unsettling images from around the country as thousands protest the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a police officer. The national fabric is unraveling before our eyes,” wrote Bhagavan and Rosenberg.
“Americans have looked to our presidents to provide protection, meaning and comfort, especially in moments of crisis,” observed David Gergen. But President Trump has ‘gone AWOL’ at a time when the US is mourning the Covid-19 victims, along with the killing of George Floyd. Trump’s “flight from responsibility is yet another sadness among this week’s tragic losses.”
Trump is trailing in the national polls with less than five months to the election. His rival, former vice president Joe Biden, drew praise for his speech Monday from Jill Filipovic: “Whatever you think of Biden – and he wasn’t my pick for the Democratic nomination – it was almost startling to hear from an empathetic, rational adult who understands he’s asking to be the public’s most prominent servant, not its petty disciplinarian,” she wrote. “Biden promises to listen, lead, and to try to do right by the whole country, not just the angry few who don red hats and shout the loudest at political rallies.”
If this is 1968 all over again, wrote Joshua Zeitz in Politico, the person who Trump’s plight summons up is President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Like Johnson before him, Trump’s is the party in power – the party that has failed to provide peace, prosperity and social order. Republicans control the executive branch, the Senate and the Supreme Court. They alone own the chaos, rancor and instability that many voters have come to abhor and dread. Trump campaigns like Richard Nixon and George Wallace, but in reality, he is Lyndon B. Johnson: a man who has lost control of the machine.”
John Sutter: Reimagining the world after Covid
Karen L. Cox: With racist monuments in place, there can be no peace.
Sara Stewart: Why you shouldn’t give up on going to the movies
Peter J. Hotez and John Hewko: Will a Covid-19 vaccine signal an end to the anti-vaccine movement?
Timothy Denevi: This week in America would make RFK weep
Rabbi Shai Held: Finding hope in a hopeless America
What’s at stake
CNN correspondent René Marsh knows what’s at stake when it comes to wearing face masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19. Her 14-month-old son is being treated for brain cancer.
“After just four months of chemotherapy, my son’s tumor is now, amazingly, undetectable on MRIs,” Marsh wrote. “He continues to receive chemotherapy to protect him from a potential recurrence.”
But “the medications he takes to fight cancer also kill his white blood cells, which are needed to fight infection” and thus he is at special risk from Covid-19.
So she has a request for people: wear a mask in public and observe social distancing.
“Wearing a mask isn’t political. It isn’t an encroachment on your freedom. It is the most humane, decent and selfless act we can do to save humanity from this deadly pandemic…”
“Not wearing a mask says every man for himself. Not wearing a mask is the equivalent of a drunk driver’s mentality. … Not wearing a mask says you don’t care about my son’s life or the lives of the close to 16,000 children who are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, as estimated by the National Pediatric Cancer foundation. Is that who we are?”