A tale of two photos

The latest battle of images proves that the Elian saga had to be resolved by means of law, not propaganda.

By Joan Walsh
Published April 22, 2000 8:09AM (EDT)

Early Saturday morning, we woke to the news that Elian Gonzalez had been seized from his Miami relatives and returned to his father. "Hurray!" said my sleepy daughter, climbing into bed with me to watch CNN. For weeks, she's been worried about Elian, convinced, with a 10-year-old's black-and-white certainty, that he should immediately be returned to his father.

Throughout the saga I had tried to be fair, explaining the problems with life in communist Cuba, why the exiles were upset, but she'd always brushed it away as irrelevant. "He needs to be with his dad, Mom," said my daughter, with greater resolve than Janet Reno.

But then we switched to Fox News, and we saw the photo. In the 45 minutes we had been watching CNN, we'd seen no footage of Elian's removal. But Fox was regularly broadcasting video of the crying boy being carried away, as well as the Pulitzer-destined AP photo: A federal agent, goggle-eyed and dressed in combat green, appearing to point his gun at a terrified Elian and Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who saved him from the sea last November, as they were discovered hiding in a closet.

We both flinched at the image. Nora grabbed my arm. "What are they doing, Mommy?" Tears came to my eyes irresistibly, even though I believed Reno had done the right thing. The momentum of the morning had changed, for a while. I tried to reassure Nora that Elian would be fine; the government was only worried the Miami family had guns in the house (wrong, their lawyers said later; they'd taken them out two days before), and they had to make sure the boy was safe.

She settled down, and I went to work. A few minutes later Nora came into my office. Channel-surfing, she'd seen footage of Elian getting off the plane, she said, in the arms of the female INS agent who'd carried him from the house. He was happy; smiling and waving, clapping his hands, excited to see his dad. I rushed to the TV to try to catch the footage again, but I never saw it. I didn't think it existed, except in her psyche. She needed to see it, after the trauma of the AP photo and video, and there it was.

Soon Dan Rather was sounding a similar note, insisting the government and the American people "needed" another photo, a more reassuring image -- a shot of Elian with his Miami family and his father, Rather suggested -- to counter the public relations nightmare the AP photo represented. "Haven't they won the battle but lost the war?" Rather kept asking a puzzled CBS correspondent, while insisting the photo was all the American people would remember about the raid.

The reporter effectively said no, stating the obvious: Reno and the Justice Department knew there would be photos of the raid, probably disturbing ones, and went ahead anyway. Mostly, the government was relieved that no one had been injured, the reporter said, and happy that Elian was finally back with his father. Oops, off message; Rather moved on, and soon he was badgering other CBS interviewees about the damning photo.

Of course, the photo would be the day's big news. From the beginning, Elian's drama has been a narrative of images: The adorable little boy wearing Mickey Mouse ears, with the new puppy, on the slide in his new backyard. Then the narrative shifted. His Cuban father, Juan Miguel, was adorable, too, handsome in his new suit, getting off the plane with his lovely wife, Nelcy, and chubby infant son Hianny. On the heels of that photo, the home video of a clearly coached Elian defying his lovable father tipped public opinion firmly against the Miami relatives.

And all these pictures took center stage because of the horror of the one image we couldn't see: the drowning of Elian's mother, Elizabet Broton. Hence Nora's need -- and our need -- for an indelibly happy image of the boy, whether in Miami, Washington or Havana.

By noon California time on Saturday we had a new image: a smiling Elian in his father's arms, next to his baby brother, the telegenic Gonzalez family reunited. No doubt such photos will soon grace the official Cuban government Web sites about the case. Castro knows propaganda.

But the new photos can't make what Reno did right, just like the brutal pictures of the raid didn't make her wrong. (If imagery was ever enough to justify federal action, the home videos of Elian defying his father would have been grounds for his removal by any means necessary.) The attorney general had the law on her side, even if the early war of images went against her. I admit I flinched Saturday morning, but I'm glad that this time Janet Reno did not.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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