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Gwen’s Take: The optics of a national crisis

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  August 15, 2014 at 10:04 AM EST
Demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown Thursday in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown Thursday in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

No matter what you hear about vacations and congressional breaks, August is never a slow news month. Wars are launched, hurricanes strike, and civil unrest unravels on the streets of towns like Ferguson, Missouri.

In moments like this, optics matter. Remember the photograph of President George W. Bush gazing passively from a plane that flew over, but did not land, on the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast in 2005? That was damaging.

Remember the town hall meetings where members of Congress were heckled on everything from Syria to immigration from coast to coast? When the YouTube videos inevitably surfaced, it was not pretty.

Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal realized she could refocus the optics of a police action this week when she showed up at a press briefing to ask the Ferguson police chief whether she could expect to be tear gassed – again – for peaceful protesting. (His answer: “I hope not.”) Not a comforting response coming from a law enforcement officer to an elected official.

Countless other protesters – and reporters – realized they could make a greater impact with pictures. So Twitter and Vine were consumed this week with videos of tear gas, arrests and college students with their hands raised over their heads.

Sen. Claire McCaskill realized the power of optics when she got herself to a black church in Ferguson to speak to her constituents about the violence breaking out all around them. “We need to demilitarize this situation — this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” she said.

Gov. Jay Nixon realized it too, belatedly, when he canceled his scheduled appearance at the Missouri State Fair so he could fly to Ferguson Thursday. There, he announced he would make “operational shifts” in the police management of the situation.

And President Obama, already under predictable fire from critics who said he should not be on vacation while foreign policy crises were consuming the world in Iraq, Syria and Israel, also recognized that the mild paper statement he’d issued earlier in the week could not stand.

When he interrupted his Martha’s Vineyard vacation Thursday to speak on crises in Iraq and in Ferguson, he made sure to wear a jacket with an American flag pinned to his lapel, appear before a podium decorated with the presidential seal and speak sternly of the need for “healing,” “peace” and “calm.”

But he started by talking about the optics.

“Many Americans have been disturbed by the images we’ve seen in the heartland of our country,” he said.

“When something like this happens, the local authorities have a responsibility have to be open and transparent,” he added.

It was not an emotional statement, but it was a presidential one. And that’s what optics are all about. Then he went to play golf.