One of the more minor controversies of the Clinton administration occurred when the President emerged from his limo at the funeral of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in 1996. The problem seemed to be that President Clinton, talking to the gentleman who had ridden with him, was laughing. Immediately, critics pounced on the moment to declare that “Clinton” had flaunted a callous level of thoughtlessness by daring to engage in levity at a time of mourning. Ironically, Clinton was also harshly criticized for “fake crying” at the event.
The President’s companion gave a much different view of the incident, but Clinton detractors were undeterred. What looked like shockingly inappropriate conduct to them must be shockingly inappropriate conduct. And if the President looked somber for a moment, and wiped his eyes, he must be pretending to cry. And so we come to our subject: sometimes perception and reality coincide, and sometimes they don’t. Or should we say that interpretations depend on the eye of the beholder.
Our first current case in point is the report about President Barack Obama’s behavior at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in Soweto. Large pictures were issued of the President, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt leaning together as Schmidt, flanked by the two men, snapped a “selfie.” First Lady Michelle Obama can be seen sitting at somewhat of a distance with a completely detached facial expression. Various news sources described Mrs. Obama’s expression as “unimpressed” over the selfie snapping, and declared that the incident had triggered “an outpouring of criticism.”
Barack blowing it? Decide for yourself.
Was the First Lady really expressing disapproval? Was the act an inconsiderate display of self-centered disregard for protocol on the part of the three? It’s in the eye of the beholder isn’t it?
Likewise the handshake between President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro at the same funeral has fallen into the hands of eager interpreters. Some see hope for a new level of understanding between the U.S. and Cuba while others see the President buddying up with a dictator. Both sides are looking at the same picture, but they’re each seeing something sharply different. I’ll let you in on a little secret, both sides are probably wrong here. Sometimes a handshake is simply a handshake.
So when Julie Andrews, asked whether she watched Carrie Underwood’s live TV performance of The Sound of Music, answers that she didn’t see it, but plans to “get around to it,” is she subtly dissing the show? We each have a frame of reference, a mental lens through which we view the world. The lens consists of our beliefs about things, and it governs how we interpret events. If we like President Obama, the selfie is probably no big deal; if we oppose him, he’s disrespectful and unworthy of office.
Perhaps we should apply a bit of skepticism to ourselves now and then, or as the old saying goes, look before you leap; there may not be any water in that swimming pool. Governing our interpretive impulses may keep us from deciding that the young man and woman we see talking over there, laughing and smiling, must be flirting when in fact they’re a brother and sister waiting for their mother to pick them up. Beholders, be careful of your eyes.