Drawers still empty

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So Jared Kushner kind of forgot to disclose his meetings with Russian officials in his application for security clearance. In their story on April 7 about this oversight, the New York Times used this image by Al Drago for the NYTimes.  We see a depiction of a domestic relationship of father- and son-in-law and an international relationship of nepotism and dependence.

Trump has decided to use the Resolute Desk as his principal desk in the Oval Office.   As a man most adept at manipulating and maintaining an image, the desk and its props are intended to show the hard work, focus, and skill he’s exercising on the job.

Most of the stuff on the desk is government-mandated. There’s a terrifically over-detailed narrative from the blog electrospaces about the phones and wooden box — these are required accessories to the Presidential desk. Even in this choice of secure and non-secure telephone lines, Trump made changes to suit the image he wishes to project of himself. As the author notes, “Trump called them “beautiful phones”, but nonetheless some small changes were made, apparently to better fit the image that he wants to present of himself.” (quote and more discussion at http://electrospaces.blogspot.com/).

I was curious about the angle of the photograph. Consider that this is the work of Al Drag. Drago loves The Angle — sometimes literally, choosing to angle his lens off-kilter to exaggerate shapes, forms, or viewpoints, but usually, he frames his political subjects in unexpected ways to create an angled commentary on the action, so that Rand Paul appears as a cardboard cutout rather than in person, or Trump, gesturing at a lectern, stands near a nostalgic cardboard figure of John Wayne — and in that juxtaposition, we suddenly see the real man trying so hard to create a “tough guy” image.

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In this Drago photograph there are doubled images, seen through doubled angles. First, the actual image looks the way it does because Drago stands to Trump’s right, facing the side end of the desk.This angle aligns Trump’s flourish of hair just under Andrew Jackson’s portrait, painted by Ralph E.W. Earl (a painter famed for, as Christian Science Monitor puts it, churning out streams of PR images of Jackson for a populace, allies, and political leaders skeptical of his intentions and abilities) — and nicely, the two men are even wearing similar dress. Jackson has on his own bold flourish of thinning white-man hair, black military jacket, a thin white edge of collar, and the red satin edges of lapels of a cloak turned inside out to show the color. And directly below Jackson there’s Trump, slumped over, in his dark suit, white collar, and wide red tie.  Because of Drago’s angle, we see Jared Kushner occupying the chair placed to the far left front corner, his head, hairline and gaze a near-match for painted Andrew Jackson.

Second, this image appears to reference, albeit with a reversed viewpoint, a well-known photograph of Nixon with H.R. Haldeman, Dwight Chapin and John Ehrlichman, working in the Oval Office. (Nixon used the Wilson desk, not the Resolute — look at the corner closest to your sight line for verification; it’s not the rounded corner of the Resolute in the Trump photograph.). (Time Life Pictures/ Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images, and this image and caption info from a story on NBCnews.com ).

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This photograph often shows up in stories about Nixon’s downfall, a kind of stand-in for the meetings (meetings conducted to plot for, oh, breakins, bribery efforts, money funnelling, and so on) for which, understandably, there are no photographs. In Drago’s image from 2017, Jared sits where Haldeman is positioned in 1972. Haldeman was, of course, Nixon’s chief of staff who ended up at the center of the Watergate scandal — he was eventually sentenced for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Haldeman was a former ad exec credited with successfully repackaging Nixon for his White House run. Tellingly, Haldeman, famed for his status as, what he himself called it, “the president’s son of  a bitch”, and Ehrlichman, center in this image, were the “Prussians” in Nixon’s administration, and both paid dearly for their lawbreaking and loyalty for Nixon. In 2017, Drago managed to depict the same scene from the opposite side of the desk, and we have Kushner in Haldeman’s place, fitting as the son-in-law whose presence repackages the image of a bullying, combative, deeply conservative president into that of the hope of a more moderate tone. And Kushner’s success at cordoning the President from outside influences likewise suggests Haldeman’s preening self-awareness of his role to President Nixon.

There are, of course, only so many places to position a chair near the desk of the President, but Drago’s choice of angle did strike me as, let’s just say, interesting.

The other thing that struck me is what is on Trump’s desk: two popular magazines, one newsprint daily tabloid with a lurid cover, and one slim trade paperback. And his ‘cheat sheet’ of notes printed on a piece of 8 1/2 x 14 inch paper, neatly highlighted in yellow.

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 7.22.35 AMIt’s a desk-scape that lacks intention to work, other than the page of notes for the phone conversation. Other presidents have veered between minimalist (Obama) to maximalist (Truman’s trinket showcase wins on this, though Nixon’s grandstand piles of telegrams supposedly sent in support of the Vietnam War is a close second.).

(images: Truman’s desk, Nixon’s mountain of telegrams, Reagan’s showcase to himself.)

In Drago’s image, Trump toys with a drawer with a gesture that his critics might think lacks respect. But in fact, president after president has been photographed treating the furniture of the Office (both the physical office and the symbolic office) with casual ease.

So Trump is well in line with his nervous drawer-sliding. The more I’ve looked at the image, the more I am haunted, though, by the sense of the empty drawer. Kushner’s placid, still face and his surprisingly casual outfit (khaki pants? crewneck wool sweater, button-down collar, and jacket?) are a quiescent, pre-naturally calm image. Trump, a man I think is profoundly lazy but hyperactively reactive, is in motion. His hair swirls about over the top and sides of his square-edged skull, his face is a series of ( ) ^ and ~. Jared looks at him across the polished expanse of the Resolute desk, made of wood from the HMS Resolute and given to the United States in 1880 by Great Britain. The desk has been used off and on; some presidents have preferred simpler styles, FDR requested a modesty panel for this one; JFK added a hinge to that front panel. The last President to use is was, of course, President Obama.

Trump frowns in the effort of having to stop and listen to someone else’s thoughts, and his hand moves the drawer in and out, out and in. And upon zooming in on the image, the drawer is, indeed, empty.

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