To everything there is a season: election season is a time to strain at semiotic gnats (and a time to swat them away). A small media firestorm erupted Wednesday following the release of pictures and viral video showing the stage built for Obama’s nomination speech at Invesco Field. And thus the affair of the “Democratic Temple at Delphi” was born.
Many critics immediately seized on the set’s neo-classical colonnade as an opportunity to manufacture a public relations gaffe that reinforced the candidate’s alleged rock-star persona and messianic pretensions. Others, more sympathetically inclined, like Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo, suggested that the backdrop resembled the Lincoln Memorial and was perhaps an allusion to the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, intended to mark its forty-fifth anniversary as Obama took to the podium Thursday night. Still others, also supporters of the Democratic ticket, worried that the set would prove a disaster.
The wall-to-wall cable coverage during the convention relied on no end of delegate dance interludes and entertained no end of incessant, anticipatory nattering about what might happen next in its quest to fill up dead airtime. Would middle America accept Michelle? Would the Clintons endorse Obama with sufficient fervor? Would the wounds of disaffected Hillary supporters heal or, eyeless in Denver, would they tear down the walls of Pepsico Center? Would there be any fist bumps?
So, yes, of course the photos of the half-constructed stage were deemed fodder worthy of the inordinate speculation they aroused. And, without a pause from the commentariat to consider what the backdrop might actually look like during the speech, the Greek Temple meme blossomed into a full blown cliché. On Wednesday night, Jon Stewart befuddled DNC Chairman Howard Dean, questioning the wisdom of having Obama speak from the Parthenon. For Friday morning’s New York Times, David Brooks took the time in his convention-mocking op-ed to jest that “we were thrilled by his speech in front of the Greek columns, which were conscientiously recycled from the concert, ‘Yanni, Live at the Acropolis.’”
Laying aside for a moment the debate over whether it is vainglorious to go with Greek revival at present day political conventions, a look at the set as it appeared while Obama stood athwart it, taking into account all of the attendant lighting and decor, will prove instructive:
Courtesy New York Daily News
Here’s a shot of the Temple of Segesta in Sicily:
In a comparison of these two pictures, differences abound, but what really shouts out to the observant onlooker is the presence of windows on the stage at Invesco. The same observant onlooker might also recall that while classical architecture was unfenestrate, the American Federal Style—of which the White House is a prominent example—most definitely featured paned glass. Architectural critic Witold Rybcyznski at Slate points out that the backdrop’s Ionic character was modeled on the colonnade at Obama’s hometown Soldier Field; his set designers didn’t even leave their own time zone, much less cross the Atlantic, to find inspiration.
The Obama campaign’s heady allusions to war memorials and the seat of government certainly suggest a streak of presumption, but they also negate the charges of religious—not to mention, pagan—presumptuousness of which the candidate has been accused. News analysts would do well to remember the virtues of patience and follow the artisanal rule that has been around at least as long as the masons who built the Colossus of Rhodes: measure twice, cut once.