“On the Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’”

November 9, 2011

from CHAPTER 15 of Branding Obamessiah

P robably no one in the mainstream media proclaimed their undying love for Obama with more panache than Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann Wenner. Obama was the cover boy on three editions of Wenner’s biweekly publication. His first appearance, on the cover of the March 20, 2008, issue, skirted the margins of the ridiculous. As painted by Tim O’Brien, Obama stands with hands on hips, his chest uplifted and chin firmly squared. His eyes gaze intensely, resolutely off-camera. Against the bluest of skies, what appears to be an electrical storm dances off his head and torso, clad in a Hartmarx suit of red, white, and blue. His entire airbrushed visage embodies the declaration that he is indeed “BARACK OBAMA: A NEW HOPE,” a corporate-clad Superman for the political ages. All that’s missing is the cape. 28

Wenner’s celebrative political analysis began thirty-four pages into this landmark issue. Wenner wrote with a kind of veneration, “There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline. It’s not just that he is eloquent—with that ability to speak both to you and to speak for you—it’s that he has a quality of thinking and intellectual and emotional honesty that is extraordinary.” He was “challenged” to read Obama’s autobiography by “a man who was at the highest level of George W. Bush’s political organization through two presidential campaigns” and who described Obama as “a walking hope machine.” Wenner was impressed by Obama’s ready admission of “some druggy teenage years—no apologies!” He celebrated Obama for “renouncing the politics of fear, speaking frankly on the most pressing issues facing the country and sticking to his principles.” Obama recognized, he said, that “running for president is an opportunity to inspire an entire nation.” Wenner extolled Obama’s refusal to look patriotic: “Obama rejected the subtle imagery of false patriotism by not wearing a flag pin in his lapel.” Ironically, Wenner filled that gap with the not-so-subtle flag imagery on the magazine’s cover. Finally, Wenner likened Obama to Abraham Lincoln: “[Obama] challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon ‘the better angels of our nature.’” Add to the missing cape a stovepipe hat. 29

T he Rolling Stone cover also promised to bring readers “ Inside his people-powered revolution ” (italics original). The featured article, “The Machinery of Hope,” described “the grass-roots field operation of Barack Obama.” The message was that Obama’s campaign had “shattered the top-down, command-and-control, broadcast-TV model” that had “dominated American politics since the early 1960s” and replaced it with a “bottom-up . . . neighbor-to-neighbor movement” that integrated the online social networking that Howard Dean first employed in 2004. The article described “the mechanics of Obama’s meteoric ascendancy” as something of a vertical drop. Chief strategist David Axelrod linked the strategy to the “community organizing” bullet-point on Obama’s résumé. According to Axelrod, “When we started this race, Barack told us that he wanted the campaign to be a vehicle for involving people and giving them a stake in the kind of organizing he believed in.” Axelrod assured readers: “[Obama is] still the same guy who came to Chicago as a community organizer twenty-three years ago. The idea that we can organize together and improve our country—I mean, he really believes that.” Rolling Stone saw the Obama phenomenon as the creation of “grass-roots supporters.” This paean to the technological magic of the Obama campaign’s integration of Internet advertising with “real on-the-ground field operations” never mentioned corporate money or the role the mainstream media were playing in supporting the campaign using sacred images and words. The article was accompanied by a head shot of Obama framed against an American flag. 30 It was not the kind of patriotic imagery typical for Rolling Stone . A search of “Rolling Stone cover” and “American flag” on Google Images returns only a few characters—Bruce Springsteen, Britney Spears, Shaun White—either using the flag as their backdrop or wearing it as a halter top or a pair of skin-tight leggings. 31 Apparently the only straight US flag image on a Rolling Stone cover was a brooch on their “9.11.01” issue.

Obama’s next Rolling Stone cover shot followed his Democratic nomination for president. The July 2008 covers show an oversized head shot with, again, the patriotic colors of the “rock-star candidate.” 32 Obama is clad in a blue tie and white shirt—and showing exceptionally white teeth—with the red Rolling Stone logo suspended behind his head. He is also sporting the flag lapel pin that Wenner had dismissed as “the subtle imagery of false patriotism” three months earlier. 33 At odds with the previous cover is Obama’s gaze. Rather than staring into the future, now Obama’s eyes appear to be closed. With a huge, friendly grin plastered across his face, Obama seems to give a humble sense of “Aw Shucks. How could this be happening to me?” The New York Observer wrote about the cover, “Mere words cannot express the awesomeness that is Barack Obama. At least that’s what the new cover of Rolling Stone tells—or doesn’t tell —us.” The Observer added that the “wordless cover” motif was previously used for “‘words are not enough’ stories like the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison.” 34

O bama’s third Rolling Stone cover was published a week before the November election. 35 Change is in the air. The nostalgic stapled format is reduced to standard magazine size, and the first issue in the new format features another head shot of a grinning Obama. But now he looks directly into the camera. His red tie matches the red Rolling Stone logo. The preelection issue contains a half-hour interview titled “Obama’s Moment,” with the usual softball-sized questions lobbed at the candidate. In response to a final question as to whether he likes the fact that he is “being underestimated,” Obama replies: “Yeah. No point in having them see you coming.” 36 The American people certainly saw Obama coming, but the question is: What exactly did they see? A rock star? Wenner seemed to point out as much when he said, “We are featuring [Barack Obama] on the cover for the third time in seven months—a record equaled only by John Lennon.” 37

Sandwiched between the second and third Obama covers in Rolling Stone were cartoon portrayals of George W. Bush and John McCain. “How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party” featured a six-gun-totin’ cowboy sitting astride a dead elephant. A week before Obama’s third cover, McCain was shown maniacally flying a fighter plane with the caption: “Make-Believe Maverick: A Closer Look at McCain’s Life and Career Reveals a Record of Recklessness and Dishonesty.” 38 Nothing like balanced reporting for America’s impressionable youth.

Wenner also owns and publishes Us Weekly , which in 2008 had twelve million, mostly female, readers. 39 The celebrity gossip magazine was duly criticized for its cover showing a smiling Sarah Palin holding her youngest son, Trig. The caustic headline screamed, “Babies, Lies and Scandal: John McCain’s Vice President.” 40 Senior Editor Bradley Jacobs defended the cover, claiming that the “Lies” referred to unspecified “liberal bloggers” who had speculated that seventeen-year-old daughter Bristol “had given birth, that there was a cover up there.” 41 Nothing on the cover indicated that “liberal bloggers” were the alleged liars. Anyone without that background information who looked at the cover would likely conclude that Sarah Palin had lied. The backlash against Us Weekly apparently was considerable. Sources claimed that five thousand to ten thousand readers canceled their subscriptions. 42 Us Weekly sent emails promising “five free issues” to each of those subscribers in an effort to stop the bleeding. 43

Barack and Michelle Obama had been featured snuggling on the cover of Us Weekly —with their wedding picture inset below—three months earlier. The headline read: “Michelle Obama: Why Barack Loves Her.” The tease continued: “She shops at Target, loved Sex and the City , and never misses the girls’ recitals. The untold romance between a down-to-earth mom and the man who calls her ‘my rock.’” 44 Still more balanced reporting from Wenner, this time for America’s moms. Referring to the Obama story in Us Weekly , Lola Ogunnaike of CNN’s American Morning said, “The nation has been riveted by the historic race to the White House. . . . Tabloid television shows and magazines have discovered that politics is sexy and that readers want juicy morsels about the Obamas as well as Brad and Angelina.” She concluded, “The Us Weekly [ sic ] cover could not have come at a better time for Michelle Obama, who has proved to be as polarizing as her husband is electrifying.” 45

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