Ay, There’s the Snub

Clinton, Obama, and the silly story du jour

It took, this time, less than two hours for the name to fix the narrative. On Monday at 11:30 p.m., while the State of the Union address was being parried and pundited, the Baltimore Sun sidestepped the speech with a headline on its blog: “At SOTU, Obama’s Clinton snub was the news.”

The post described the now-rehashed-ad-nauseam Handshake That Wasn’t between the Democratic presidential rivals—“Obama stood icily staring at Clinton during this, then turned his back and stepped a few feet away”—then went on to explain how the Non-Shake was “the news” that would overshadow President Bush’s last State of the Union:

The sense in the press gallery was that Obama didn’t cover himself in glory. Someone even used the word “childish.” (Not this writer.) Judging by how much conversation there was about this brush off in the press gallery, Americans will be hearing a lot more about this tomorrow and in coming days.

And, oh, have we ever. Within hours, To-Snub-Or-Not-To-Snub became The Question—one that was considered and analyzed and answered by fray-frenzied Hamlets of the political press:

Was it a snub? (Boston Globe’s Political Intelligence)
It WASN’T a Snub! Obama Explains All… (Huffington Post)
Was Hillary Snubbed? Obama Says No (Huffington Post)
Obama on the State of the Union “Snub” (ABC News)
Obama Says It Was a Turn, Not a Snub (New York Times’s The Caucus)
Obama says Clinton ‘snub’ didn’t happen (Houston Chronicle)
Obama’s Snub? He Says No (MSNBC)
Obama and Senate ally: Clinton wasn’t snubbed (Baltimore Sun’s The Swamp)
Obama Campaign: No Snub Intended (Time magazine’s The Page)
Hillary on ‘The Snub’ (The New Republic’s The Stump)

Except—actually, scratch that. The whole ‘he snubbed-her/he-snubbed-her-not’ query line quickly stretched its peskily curved question mark into a much more straightforward (and exciting!) exclamation point. It went from ‘The Snub (question mark?)’ to ‘The Snub (exclamation point!)’ as reporters and pundits alike chose analysis over accuracy, “What It Meant” over “What It Was.”

Maureen Dowd presented The Snub* as proof of the “outrage” Obama has harbored for Clinton since her initial “iciness” toward him. (He’s “emotionally delicate,” MoDo offered.) Time’s Mark Halperin reported on “The Snub Before the Snub”: Obama’s alleged refusal to cater to Party leaders’ desire for him to watch the SOTU next to Clinton. (Axelrod denied this.) That consummate opinion-maker, Whoopi Goldberg, got in on the action, announcing on yesterday’s The View—via Ben Smith’s “Snub watch” updates—how “very proud” she was of Clinton for the candidate’s “bravery.” Mark Ambinder pointed out, the moment was recorded only in still images, which made The Snub*, as much as anything else, subject to Spin:

If you’re an Obama supporter, he was politely responding to a question from Claire McCaskill and did not know that Sen. Clinton was eager to shake his hand. If you’re an opponent, you saw the “real Obama”—not the Jesus his staff portrays him to be, but an arrogant upstart for whom “New Politics” means the Politics of Me.

So the candidates spun for themselves. (Clinton, fanning the flames: “I reached out my hand in friendship and unity, and my hand is still reaching out.” Obama, trying to squelch them: “I think there is just a lot more tea leaf reading going on here than I think people are suggesting.”)

And last night, politics met celebrity as Inside Edition ran its own version of the story, entitled, elegantly, “SNUB!.” The piece Ken Burns effect-ized the already-iconic still image of The Snub* for all it was worth, consulted “body language expert” Tonya Reiman for an analysis of the image, and ultimately concluded that the whole affair “may go down as one of the great snubs in recent history.”

Right. The whole thing would be pretty comical, all this melodramatic he-said-she-said—the photographic analyses, the body language experts, the headlines, the subtexts, the sound, the fury—except that, frankly, it’s getting hard to keep laughing. It’s one thing to mention The Snub* as a footnote to the Kennedy Endorses Obama story, or to the State of the Union summary; it’s another to treat such a silly sideshow as a main focus of the news cycle. Yesterday, the House passed a $161 billion economic recovery package. Today, President Bush is flying to Hawaii to talk with other major world economies about climate change. Two presidential campaigns are ending. Another is enjoying renewed momentum.

And what are we hearing about?

Yep: S-N-U-B. And whether that’s due to our obsession with conflict-driven coverage, or to our fickle tendency to take down candidates even as we build them up—or to neither, or to both, or to something else entirely—the story quickly became yet another endorsement of the old “Clinton-as-victim” narrative. A narrative that, while it may (arguably) be of political value to the Clinton campaign, does little good for the rest of us. But, hey, it makes for a Dramatic Story. As Whoopi Goldberg put it, the Kennedy-endorsement-stripped Clinton who showed up so “bravely” at Congress on Monday was as exposed “as if someone snatched off her clothes.” And this morning, Fox News—giving more air time to The Snub* than to the Florida primary returns or any other news—took things, as Fox often does, a step further, explicitly and insistently turning The Snub* into A Female Thing. Under varying, and varyingly gleeful, taglines (DEMOCRATIC DIS, SNUB-GATE, SNUB-A-DUB-DUB), the folks at Fox & Friends offered their takes:

Steve Doocy: You’ve got to wonder whether or not, now, the Clinton campaign is trying to make hay of this unfortunate photo that’s out there, where you can see that Barack Obama has his back turned…it looks as if now, the Clinton campaign is saying, ‘This is bad for him, maybe we should play the female card.’
Alysin Camerota: I’m now playing the role of a woman—where, in the lunchroom in high school, the cool kids are sitting together, and it’s a clique. And you might have just been dissed by that clique, and you approach, gingerly, and you’re like, ‘Hi, guys, is there any seat available here?’ And they like turn their back, or they’re just talking among themselves.
Doocy again: Look what Barack Obama did - he turned away. This snub has got the National Organization of Women in New York absolutely in a brouhaha.

Doocy was basing his analysis of the “brouhaha”—as were several other commentators this morning—on the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter’s statement railing against Senator Kennedy for endorsing Obama. The statement was absurd—and, as we noted yesterday, it has been disavowed by NOW’s national office. But, more to the point, it had nothing to do with The Snub*: the statement Doocy et al were using as fuel for the latest Clinton-v-Obama fire was released hours before the State of the Union took place.

That false premise fits perfectly, though, with the whole Snub* story’s, well, snub-text. Sen. Claire McCaskill, with whom Obama was speaking at the State of the Union instead of shaking hands with Clinton, might have put it best. The Snub* has “been blown,” she said, “into something that frankly just wasn’t.”

Then again, she’s endorsing Obama.


*or maybe it wasn’t

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.