The Situation Room Photo

I've looked at it several times. It's the Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden assault. Gripping. A good example of the power of a photo to convey emotion.


David Brooks and Gail Collins analyze:

David Brooks: The other photo I’ve been fascinated by is the one of the president’s security team gathered in the White House Situation Room. The first thing the photo illustrates is that whenever we disagree with an office holder, we should all nonetheless pay them a large dose of respect. Presidents and others make these horrific decisions that could lead to death and suffering for people thousands of miles away, and then they sit passively far removed from the action, hoping that things turn out right.

On a human level I’m struck by the varied emotions etched on people’s faces. I can read nothing on Bob Gates’s face or even Joe Biden’s, whereas Obama, Denis McDonough and John Brennan look tense. Hilary Clinton’s face is the most riveting, a mixture of anxiety, dread and concern. I suspect most people will relate to her expression.

Gail Collins: Did they have to pick the one where Hillary had her hand over her mouth? The secretary of state doesn’t need to prove her toughness, but it would be nice if the definitive photo didn’t show the only woman in the room looking stricken.

David Brooks: The second thing the photo shows is how small the room is. In the movies, executive decisions are made in big, Roman Empire type rooms. But the White House is an early 19th century kind of place. It does all it can to humble the people who work there with its smallness, at least in the work areas.

The posture of the president is fascinating. Instead of occupying the power chair in the center of the table, he is perched on a low chair off the side, hunched over looking tense. If you just looked at this picture, you might think that Joe Biden was president or Bill Daley, who is standing behind looking imposing and grave. You’d think Obama was a midlevel aide. 

Gail Collins: The president really did put all his chips on the line. These are the kind of moments we elected him for — we knew from the financial crisis that when all hell breaks loose, he doesn’t lose his cool.

But he’s also lucky. People partly make their own fortunes, but I wonder if he’d have had the confidence to take such a huge gamble if he didn’t believe innately that he’s the kind of guy fortune favors.

Meanwhile, our report says Biden was fingering his rosary beads. Luck is good, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is better.

David Brooks: In the case of Obama’s perch in the Situation Room, I think what happened is this: some sort of communication or technical relay had to be done, so the president got out of his chair and relinquished it to Brig. Gen. Brad Webb, who is the assistant commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command. The president just slid over to the low chair off to the side, which one of the standers must have relinquished.

Still, I wonder how many White Houses would have been confident enough to release a photo with the president looking so diminutive. I think it speaks well of Obama and the administration that they released this as the iconic image of the decision-making process behind the event.

11 comments on “The Situation Room Photo
  • From some of the reports out there, Obama was lucky he was allowed in the room.

    And “Gail Collins: The president really did put all his chips on the line.”

    Was it really that hard to decide whether to take down bin Laden?

  • No-one is posing for the camera here – they are just focused on the job at hand. I think it is a great photo because it’s really a life or death moment for the SEALS and these people are acutely aware that they put the team in harm’s way in a very high-risk high-stakes situation. 25 lives on the line and Gail Collins thinks they should have chosen the photo based on not making Hillary look “stricken”??? Give me a break. Besides, she doesn’t look stricken, just tense like everyone else.

  • I sympathize with those who are worried that Clinton, as the only woman in the room, looks “stricken”. But to me she just looks pensive. A lot of people make this gesture when they’re thinking. I do it myself.

  • Tom: Military operations can go wrong for many reasons, many out of the control of the commanding officers or soldiers. Just imagine if there had been an accident and two of the helicopters collided. Or imagine that, somehow, Pakistani children were killed in the fire fight. Or even worse, imagine that the Pakistani gov’t decided the helicopters were hostile and shot them down. Then Obama would take all the blame, like Carter did in 1979. There was definitely a lot of risk.

  • I read on the guardian that apparently there’s been trouble because the woman at the back works in counter-terrorism.

    Apparently it may affect her career. If this is the case, that seems a rather bad mistake for the WH to have made. Also, she’s noticable because she’s the only other woman in the room.

  • So a bit politcal risk makes Obama brave. Considering the risk of anyone finding out he passed up the opportunity to take out bin Laden, he make the only choice available to him. Not even a bit courageous.

  • I think Hillary comes off looking, in a lot of ways, the best. She looks the most human, and the most approachable. If we’d seen this HC in 2008, maybe she’d be sitting on the other side of the room. To me she seems like the one person you know is worried more about someone other than herself. For everyone else you can imagine them thinking about 2012 or their wikipedia entry (not that I’m saying they are, but you can imagine it).

  • “The only women in the room” ??
    Isn’t that a woman with her head by the doorway? And who is she?

  • President Obama may not be in the “power chair” or expanding his posture to take up space, but look at the photo again. He does not have to. That room is small and crowded, but the President has space. Actually, the composition of that photo is brilliant, and I believe it will become an iconic image. We don’t get those so often any more in this age of live streaming video, but as this one shows, they do still happen.

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