Twenty-three-year-old 2nd Lt. Emiciades Alcon was nervous as he stood in line at an Army mobile kitchen in the middle of the Saudi desert on Thanksgiving Day 1990. The man standing in line next to him waiting for a slice of turkey was none other than the commander in chief who had ordered the troops into the desert, President George H.W. Bush. When the young officer haltingly thanked him for "showing up here in the desert and showing your support," the president's response was surprising: "That's what Woody Allen said: 90 percent of life is showing up."
Bush might not have been elegant in the way he responded. But he understood the lesson learned before him by so many other presidents—it matters when a president of the United States shows up somewhere; it sends an important message. Too many leaders only relish the parts of the job that involve mastering the details of governance and setting a policy direction. But presidents forget the symbolic "showing up" part of the office at their peril.
Today, President Obama is the latest to absorb this lesson. The president is facing withering criticism on both sides of the Atlantic for his decision—inexplicable to many and inadequately explained by the White House—to stay at home Sunday when so many other world leaders flew to Paris to demonstrate global solidarity with the French in the wake of last week's terrorist attack that left this key U.S. ally shaken. More than 40 world leaders were there, from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East. They locked arms and marched resolutely down the Place de la Concorde. Israel and the Palestinian Authority were there. Russia sent a top official from Moscow.
But neither Obama, who was in Washington, nor Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Delaware, was there. Nor was Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in India. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris, but was not seen at the outdoor rally, leaving the top U.S. representative there U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley, who is known primarily for her success bundling campaign contributions for candidate Barack Obama. It was a decision roundly criticized both at home and abroad, and it undercut the strong statements of solidarity offered last week by the president.
For Obama, it is only the latest sign that he still has not mastered the symbolic powers of his office.
He certainly is not the first president so afflicted. Even five decades later, there are Brits quick to complain about President Johnson's decision in January 1965 not to attend Winston Churchill's funeral and not to send Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Chief Justice Earl Warren was the ranking American official at the funeral of the prime minister who was an honorary American and the top U.S. ally in World War II. Suffering from a cold, Johnson explained his decision, saying, "I don't have the bouncy feeling that I usually have." When the criticism mounted, LBJ bristled. He admitted, "I may have made a mistake by asking the chief justice to go and not asking the vice president." In a sarcastic jab at reporters, he promised to "bear in mind" at future funerals "your very strong feelings in the matter."
It took Johnson months to mend relations with London. But he learned from his mistake. The troubling aspect of Obama's misstep Sunday is that his White House doesn't seem to have learned any lesson from previous misreadings of what aides disdainfully call the "optics" of governing.
Last July, Obama was attacked by Republicans and some Democrats for traveling to Austin, Texas, for a fundraiser and to promote his economic message, but refusing to visit the border with Mexico while there to get a firsthand look at the humanitarian crisis triggered by a flood of children across the border. "I'm not interested in photo-ops. I'm interested in solving a problem," he said at the time. Somewhat defiantly, he added, "Nothing has taken place down there that I'm not intimately aware of. This is not theater."
Just a month later, the president stumbled once again on the stage of presidential theater. After making an emotional statement about the grisly beheading of American journalist James Foley, Obama jauntily rode off for a round of vacation golf. Opponents leaped to attack, and many supporters were horrified. Even the president later admitted he had blown it. "I should have anticipated the optics," he told NBC's Chuck Todd, adding, "Part of this job is the theater of it"¦. It's not something that comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I'm mindful of that."
But not mindful enough to avoid falling twice more into the trap. Just last week, White House schedulers sent the president to Phoenix for a speech. They knew—or should have known—that the motorcade would drive right past the Phoenix Veterans Administration hospital made infamous by poor treatment of veterans. But the White House seemed surprised when asked why he did not visit and ill-prepared to explain why he didn't have time for the vets. Of course, any presidential visit is disruptive, and a visit to the hospital could have resulted in vets missing appointments and not receiving care—which would have led to critics hitting Obama for causing problems only for the sake of PR.
Then came the Sunday decision to stay home while other leaders were in Paris. Some critics have focused on the possibility that Obama, instead, was watching NFL playoff football. But the important point is not whether he was watching football or meeting with aides or spending time on briefing books. The important point is that even in his seventh year in office, a president who so mastered the symbolic and theatrical in his 2008 campaign still is far from grasping the theater of the White House.
It may be that the blame belongs to a staff not nimble enough to adjust to changed situations and seize new opportunities. But regardless of who gets the blame, it may be time for either him or his staff to embrace Woody Allen's philosophy: For a president, just showing up does matter.