Why are photo ops (except Trump's) so brutally boring?: Neil Macdonald

It would be wonderful if politicians used the deadly dull canned moments of photo-ops to actually say something, writes Neil Macdonald.

It would be wonderful if politicians used these deadly dull canned moments to actually say something

Donald Trump poses for a formal photograph with leaders of other Allied Nations ahead of an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on June 5 in Portsmouth, England. (Jack Hill/Getty Images)

Any reporter who's ever covered the Middle East can tell you about the Arab leader photo op. It is one of the most curious acts of solipsism ever invented.

The beloved leader-for-life, a king or a president, always a man, appears on some hideous filigreed-and-gilded couch or chair, chatting with an important visitor. Maybe sweet tea is served. No questions are allowed. That's it.

Lickspittle journalists from the state-controlled media are invited to record the event (usually, no audio is permitted), which is then broadcast at the top of the evening newscast, with gushing narration about the awe and respect and deference shown the leader by his important visitor.

I've seen Jordanian television lead its newscast with three identical, consecutive scenes, all on the same royal couch.

It's hilarious, and most Western reporters cackle sarcastically when they first see it. I certainly did.

In reality, though, photo ops in our democracies aren't much different.

Politicians pose and grip and grin, and mouth blandishments, and, like the beloved Arab leaders, are careful to say nothing. 

The prime photo op directive, it seems, is to say absolutely nothing. The only difference in the West is that leaders don't order journalists to turn off the audio. (I'll bet they would if they could).

So reporters scrutinize faces for the slightest flicker of authenticity. Did the Italian PM roll his eyes for a moment? Did Angela Merkel seem to suppress a snicker? Did Melania Trump look exhausted and scared?

The exception, of course, is Donald Trump.

In this image from NATO TV, Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, second right, appears to be pushed out of the way by U.S. President Donald Trump at a group photo shoot in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (NATO TV via Associated Press)

No need to examine him for tells or tics. Ever since his elevation by the American public he represents so perfectly, he's been barging into photo ops, elbowing his way to the front, running his mouth, looking desperately bored when anyone else is speaking, using other leaders as props, and disrupting everything.

I love it. After a lifetime of suffering through photo ops, it's refreshing. Trump might have a mouth like an open sewer, but at least he says something.

Watching him crash around NATO's 75th anniversary get-together earlier this month was particularly enjoyable.

He turned a photo op with NATO's obsequious secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, into a 52-minute news conference starring himself, bellyaching about Congressional Democrats.

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, on Dec. 4. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

He then did the same thing to French president Emmanuel Macron, beside whom he held court for 41 minutes, telling Macron he should take back French citizens who went off to fight for ISIS and are now stranded in detention camps in Syria.

"Would you like some nice ISIS fighters?" he asked Macron. "I could give them to you."

Macron sputtered that Trump should be serious, and that foreign fighters are a tiny part of a big problem.

President Trump and France's President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting on Dec. 3. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

It was fascinating: problems normally handled quietly by diplomats, erupting like burst pimples, right out in the open.

During Trump's relatively brief 35 minutes with Justin Trudeau, he bluntly asked our prime minister, in front of everybody, why Canada isn't contributing two per cent of GDP to NATO, as required. Actually, asked Trump, "What are you at? What's your number?"

Trudeau flailed, tried a little boring message track about his government's commitment to raise defence spending (I was sure he was going to start talking about helping the middle class), and finally, after consulting with his retinue, replied 1.4 per cent.

 Well, maybe Canada should be put on a payment plan, gloated Trump.

It was those Trump performances that Trudeau and Macron were giggling about at a reception later, when they were caught on camera with the audio turned on.

Trump calls Trudeau 'two-faced' after NATO leaders caught venting

3 years ago
Duration 1:08
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was captured on camera making comments that seemed to be about U.S. President Donald Trump at the NATO leaders' summit in London on Tuesday.

The video went viral, and made headlines, because it was normally scripted leaders caught in a rare moment of honesty. Trump, on the other hand, prefers making fun of people to their faces.

A colleague, after watching the NATO coverage for a few days, wrote me asking: "Why don't more politicians besides an old white racist use these deadly dull canned moments to actually say something?"

Good question.

Great question, really. Instead of sniggering at receptions, why don't our leaders stop behaving like wax sculptures of themselves?

Wouldn't it have been wonderful, when Trump started bitching about Canada's NATO contribution, if Trudeau had had the bottle to say something like: "Sure, let's talk about American military leadership. Your country invaded Iraq based on a lie, solved nothing, and caused not only hundreds of thousands of deaths, but created ISIS. And now we're learning from your own government correspondence that you had no idea what you were doing in Afghanistan, a mess you actually managed to drag Canada into, and we all spent a lot of blood and treasure for nothing. Great job, Mr. President. Everybody's impressed."

Or, when Trump made his smarty-pants offer to send France some nice ISIS fighters, if Macron had replied: "Really? Well, let's talk about that. You've been dumping your own prisoners on another country's soil, and holding them indefinitely without due process. Your country has also practised torture as an official policy, and you just pardoned three war criminals. Spare me, Mr. President. Also, and I say this as a Frenchman, your long-tie look is ridiculous."

Instead, the posing and empty statements live on, and will be happening long after Trump lurches off to enjoy the money his resorts have raked in during his presidency.

Why does such photo-op mummery persist?

Vanity and fear, I'd submit. Some of our leaders, like the Arab potentates, actually think they're so interesting they need only mouth pleasantries to make people listen in fascination.

Others take refuge in scripted replies and posed photo ops because they're afraid, probably with good reason, that they'll say something stupid.

But Trump has made that all right. Hasn't he?


Author's Note: A rather doleful column I wrote last September about wrestling with a decision on whether to have surgery done on my Border Collie pup Lola, after we discovered she'd been born with hip dysplasia, generated an awful lot of response from commiserating dog-owners. I can report that we went ahead and basically had her hip joints removed that month, and that she has recovered brilliantly, and now runs like the wind. She's young and light and flexible and athletic, just like me, and that apparently made all the difference. As did post-op laser therapy and underwater treadmill exercise. Worth every penny.

- Neil Macdonald

Lola enjoys laser therapy as part of her recovery rehab. (Neil Macdonald/CBC)
Lola chills in the underwater treadmill. (Neil Macdonald/CBC)

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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