The Obama cover kerfuffle

The cover of the latest issue of the New Yorker, supposedly a satire of the misconceptions about Barack and Michelle Obama, has set off a firestorm on the Internet.

Published July 14, 2008 2:58PM (EDT)

Normally, you wouldn't expect a magazine with a decidedly liberal slant to be the publication responsible for a cover that depicts Barack and Michelle Obama in the most unflattering light possible, seemingly endorsing every lie and smear about the couple. But that's just what the New Yorker did with its current issue.

The cover art shows the Obamas in the Oval Office; Barack Obama is dressed in what's intended to look like traditional Muslim garb, while Michelle Obama is depicted as a black revolutionary, complete with a gun slung over her back. A portrait of Osama bin Laden hangs over the fireplace, in which the American flag is seen burning.

Reaction to the cover has been quick, and most people who've commented on it so far have condemned it. In a statement, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive -- and we agree." Even John McCain's campaign concurred with that sentiment; in a statement of his own, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said, "We completely agree with the Obama campaign, it's tasteless and offensive."

The magazine says, as Burton noted, that the art is intended as satire. In an interview with the Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar, editor David Remnick said:

I ran the cover because I thought it had something to say. What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's -- both Obamas' -- past, and their politics. I can't speak for anyone else's interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama's supposed "lack of patriotism" or his being "soft on terrorism" or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers. That somehow all this is going to come to the Oval Office.

The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are.

And in an e-mail to Nico Pitney, also of the Huffington Post, Barry Blitt -- the artist who drew the cover -- wrote, "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."

The cover of the New Yorker often has little to do with the articles inside it. In this case, though, there's a tangential relationship, as the magazine's Ryan Lizza has a really interesting profile of Obama, done by looking through the lens of his rise in Chicago. In fact, if I were Lizza, I'd be pretty upset at my editors today, as this controversy has ensured that his article is going ignored. Like so many articles in the magazine, it's long, complicated and detailed, and reporters and commentators who are discussing the cover are skipping over the article, presumably for reasons of time. (The reason I'm behind the curve on posting about this, in fact, is that I took the time to read Lizza's article.)

And from the Obama camp's perspective, if they had to deal with a cover like this one, it was at least well timed. Lizza's article isn't a hit piece, but it paints a complicated and at times unflattering portrait of Obama, one that would have had some potential to be politically damaging to the presumptive Democratic nominee were it not for the attention the cover's getting instead. It's somewhat buried in the article, coming near the end instead of where most publications would put it -- near the beginning, in the traditional place for what's known in the business as the "nut graf," the paragraph that summarizes the thrust of the story -- but Lizza's thesis alone could have had some adverse effects for the Obama campaign. "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary," Lizza writes, continuing:

Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago's churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them ... In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.

Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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