Of Symbols and Meaning: Or, How to Read Too Much Into Anything

BY Gwen Ifill  January 7, 2011 at 11:40 AM EST

Just a few weeks before Christmas in 1996, I was seated in the front row in an auditorium at the Old Executive Office Building across from the White House. My job, then for NBC News, was to cover the announcement of a clutch of new administration officials for President Bill Clinton’s second term.

There was nothing very unusual about it. Bill Richardson, a member of Congress from New Mexico who was about to become United Nations ambassador, was giving his acceptance speech at the podium. Leon Panetta, Robert Rubin, Gene Sperling and Franklin Raines awaited their turns. And over Richardson’s shoulder, the newly nominated Commerce secretary William Daley listened, smiled along, and then – with C-SPAN cameras recording everything — abruptly slumped to the floor. I froze with shock.

Daley, who had just completed his own brief acceptance speech, was almost immediately helped to his feet by, among others, Vice President Al Gore and President Clinton. He walked mostly on his own power out of the room.

You can see it here.

Daley, as it turns out, was fine. But some hours passed before we knew that for sure. If we had had Twitter and Facebook back then, he surely would have been erroneously declared dead several times during that time span. And someone would have, of course, been terribly wrong.

There is always a temptation to over interpret events, especially the unexpected and dramatic.

The week just past provided lots of opportunities as House Republicans returned to Washington to assume their new majority on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and President Obama turned his White House staff upside down on the other.

On the floor of the House, new leaders seized the opportunity to send a message by taking turns reading from the U.S. Constitution. Democrats climbed on board to read as well, hoping to dilute the GOP’s patriotic moment. (Some of the meaning was drained from the symbolism when new Speaker John Boehner chose that same time period to hold his first news conference.) But, one was left to wonder whether Congress had been spurning the Constitution all these years by skipping the symbolism and getting right down to business.

At the White House, officials carefully rolled out a ritual staff shake-up to make it look as undramatic as possible. First, they let it be known over several days who would be coming and who would be going.

Then, the president casually dialed up The New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny to confirm press secretary Robert Gibbs’ imminent departure. It was also no accident that reporters were allowed to see new Chief of Staff William Daley heading into the West Wing for a meeting on the day before his appointment was announced. If the White House does not want to let us know who is coming and going, we don’t. See: Elena Kagan/Sonia Sotomayor.

And when White House staffers followed Vice President Biden’s lead to deliver a prolonged standing ovation for exiting interim chief of staff Pete Rouse at the Daley announcement, it was clear the White House wanted us to know that Rouse was not being pushed out of the job. (He is staying on as counselor to the president.)

Look for more symbolism in coming weeks. The State of the Union is always ripe for interpretation – who stands, who sits, who frowns. And next week’s House vote to repeal the health care law will be carried out with much drama even though it does not have a prayer of surviving a Senate vote or a presidential veto pen. Watch, too, as both parties race to seize the pro-tax reform mantle. Everyone seems to be for it, although it is not yet clear what that means.

But symbols do have their meaning. The gigantic gavel Boehner carried at his swearing-in was meant to convey power in much the same way as the ceremonial (and also gigantic) gavel that Nancy Pelosi wielded after the passage of health care.

And, as far as symbolism goes, fainting at one’s presidential announcement apparently does not mean all that much. When Daley returned to the White House this week, he got through the whole thing without fainting at anybody’s feet.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.