PRINT March 1987


the News and Its Pictures

THIS FACE MADE PROMISES. An end to the liberal American morass of self-doubt and inadequacy. An end to spinelessness, to America’s inability to stop the communism roosting at its doorstep. To a postcolonial world demanding freedom, self-determination, and violence on its own terms, this face responded with threats and decrees.

This face, most of all, put the American presidency back on top, bringing promises of an end forever to the nightmare of assassination, scandal, and ineffectuality that the office had been plagued by since 1963. This face showed how to take a bullet and spring back smiling, how to stumble and err and still look lovably human, how to sweet-talk the middle class even while breaking its back.

America wanted to believe, embrace, and absorb this face, to wrap itself in the face, sheltered by its puritan stiffness and elevated by its thin-lipped pride. No nonsense, said the face. No commies, no atheists, no homos, no deadbeats, no abortions, no questions, no nay-sayers, no problem.

There have always been those who despised the face, and others for whom it was simply confounding. Newspaper editors complained at the start that the face always smiled, that the picture-takers had to get it with its smile down, to match the news that the face was delivering. Unseemly to show it smiling while it hacked away at social welfare programs. But mostly, the big grin worked, like the face knew it would. Photographers at the White House were thrilled, glad to have a face that knew about lighting, expression, and pose, a face willing to fill a frame or redo a scene. The grin converted the doubters and decriers among the people, the papers, the television news. It warmed their hearts and convinced them of its perfect presidential visage. With its avuncular smile, wrinkling jowls, and laughing eyes, this face squarely faced its public. No high-and-mighty world-leader stuff between us, the face seemed to say. I’m just a guy and I’m running with you brothers, I’m running with you.

That the face’s actions belied everything that its topology seemed to symbolize—empathy, good-heartedness, and populism—was not important. For the population only wanted to look at what it saw in the face, a face that promised pride and the supremacy of the American way of life, no matter what the cost.

The face is sadder now. Worried, shaken, confused, it won’t finesse questions and it keeps away from the lights. Its popularity plummeted when Iranscam exploded, wiping out the illusion of control, and the buffer it maintained between the public’s desire and the public’s reality. But the problem, according to the polls, isn’t that arms went to Iran. Or that money went to the contras. The real problem is the way the face “handled” the facts. It never hid or dodged or acted so evasive before.

The face’s greatest challenge now is to put on an honest face. The next two years depend on how the face can reassert itself as a viable public appearance. The face must rise to the occasion and hit the boards once more, for the greatest, perhaps award-winning performance of its career.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator and an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.