Tonawanda News

December 15, 2013

DUVALL: Presidential selfie a nonstory

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — When is a picture not worth a thousand words? Apparently when it’s taken by the president.

I found the kerfuffle over the presidential selfie during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service a particularly egregious non-story.

Boil it down to an over-simplified point and it sounds bad: The president of the United States was taking selfies at a beloved world leader’s funeral.

If that’s what happened I think we would all be fairly appalled.

Of course, that’s not at all what happened.

President Obama was attending a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. He was seated near British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The Danish PM at one point asked Obama and Cameron to smile for a photo. Michelle Obama is to the president’s left and the expression on her face looks unamused.

Finger-wagging Republicans pounced on the cheap sound byte and people who already dislike Obama piled on with faux outrage and embarrassment. 

Let’s clear up a few things: First, the president didn’t take a selfie. By definition a “selfie” (which is a word now, I’m told) would require the person in the picture to also take the picture. He wasn’t. He was posing for a photo, something people (especially presidents) do all the time.

Also, our president is a middle-aged man. Sorry, but no middle-aged man in the world would ever utter the sentence “wanna take a selfie?” He was being polite.

Next thing to consider: The first lady was just caught in a bad moment. She wasn’t tut-tutting her selfie-serving hubby. It’s a childish narrative and serious leaders don’t deserve to be reduced to some ridiculous Lucy and Ricky sitcom stereotype.

Finally, there’s some context necessary for the event itself. There were serious speeches and moving tributes to the great anti-Apartheid crusader. There were also many moments of levity. South Africans sang and danced. This was all parts a celebration, not some dreary funeral with a bunch of red-rimmed eyes. 

Sorry, Republicans, but the president was decidedly not snapping kooky photos at a funeral.

But more than the cheap points scored by tagging a politician in the ever-running Beltway tit-for-tat, I’ve got a larger question: Why shouldn’t the president take a selfie?

Politicians and pundits pantomime these lives most people don’t even want them to live. Pols want us to believe they’re not like regular people. But we want politicians who seem authentic, genuine, affable. 

There’s a disconnect here and it baffles me.

Why should I think less of Obama for snapping a selfie? When I was at the Met in New York I snapped a half dozen shots of myself in front of famous paintings and sculptures. They’re great photos and it was fun to revel in the childishness of the whole thing.

Besides, at some point today’s Facebook generation will run the world. Then we’ll have serious people who look decidedly unserious when we check their Facebook history. The Internet will be flooded with photos of a someday-president mugging for his (or her) cellphone. We won’t have to ask if they smoked pot in college because there will be Instagram photos of them doing it for all the world to see.

We can’t sanitize our personas anymore. The world is too small.

So we caught the president in a moment of genuine, if slightly goofy, levity. Where’s the scandal?

Mr. President, I say selfie to your heart’s content. 

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.