For Obama, it’s ‘KA-BULL!,’ for Bush, it was ‘TOP GUN’

Today's tabloids, May 2, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

New York Post: What's appropriate behavior for a president visiting troops and making a public speech declaring victory, or imminent victory, or incremental successes, in a foreign conflict?

Back in 2003, historian John Lukacs wrote in The New York Times, “There is something puerile in the Reagan (and now Bush) salute. It is the joyful gesture of someone who likes to play solider. It also represents an exaggeration of the president’s military role.”

In fact, the "toy soldier" presidential routine is a relatively new one. In his article, Lukacs dates it to the Reagan administration; his predecessors would have known that you may not return a salute unless you are in uniform or retain a military title, even if a retired one.

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Reagan's military aide John Kline advised him not to return salutes, but Kline was overridden by Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert Barrow, who held that it was the president's right to return any gesture any way he liked in any circumstances.

"Every president since Reagan has followed that practice, even those with no military experience," Reuters' David Alexander noted in a column in December of 2008, after Barack Obama visited a gym on a Hawaii military base and reflexively returned a Marine's salute. "President Bill Clinton’s saluting skills were roundly criticized after he took office, but the consensus was he eventually got better."

Today, the "toy soldier" routine takes the form of a literal fly-by-night visit to troops in Afghanistan by the president, timed to the anniversary of the operation that resulted in the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in which he told some 3,000 troops: “Here in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

Obama's taken some heat from Republicans for bragging about the fact that the bin Laden operation took place on his watch. At the time of the operation, Obama cautioned against "spiking the football."

And so we have today's cover of the New York Post. "KA-BULL!" is the big, knockout-white type over a black background. Obama is pictured in a photo illustration as a football player, his uniform studded with presidential insignia, spiking a football. His head is oversized in proportion to the body, to give us that old-school Thomas Nast caricature effect. "Now Obama spikes bin Laden football ... in Afghanistan" reads the huge, underlined dek.

I didn't have any trouble understanding the reference to Afghan capital Kabul in the hed, exactly. But what I couldn't quite make out is why the second syllable is rendered as "bull." What, precisely, was bullshit about this exercise? Was his characterization of the state of the mission in Afghanistan optimistic? (I hardly think the Post would say so.) Or is it that when he cautioned a year ago against "spiking the football" he was bullshitting, and that his caution has been waylaid by his reelection ambitions? I think that's probably what they're going for.

Problem is, I don't think the "don't spike the football" speech from a year ago is remembered by many regular civilian Post readers. The whole thing is going to go over their heads.

I'll say this for the record, even though I think it doesn't matter: George W. Bush landed his plane on the carrier Abraham Lincoln two weeks after Lukacs' piece appeared in the Times, precisely nine years to the day before Obama's proclamation that he can see some light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

After Bush's landed (thus, his people hoped, dispelling the idea he was a bad pilot who ran out on his National Guard service after being given a "champagne unit" posting to avoid serving in Vietnam) a banner was unfurled that read "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," the now infamous proclamation of success in Iraq. At the time, the Post reveled in the patriotic puerility, publishing a photo of the triumphant Bush speechifying on the deck of the carrier under the headline "TOP GUN."

But readers are even more unlikely to remember that than they are to remember the spiking-the-football thing. So the Post will get away with it.

Daily News: Resisting the national political angle altogether, the News focuses its coverage of the president's visit on a very small part of his speech: "The president saluted the city for inspiring the U.S. through the costly fight against terrorism—and he extolled the resolve of New Yorkers as he urged a better America," the News writes. The president himself was rather less specific:

As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America. An America where our children live free from fear, and have the skills to claim their dreams. A united America of grit and resilience, where sunlight glistens off soaring new towers in downtown Manhattan and we build our future as one people, as one nation.

Anyway, it's only a little box on the lower left-hand corner of the page, which takes up no more space than the picture of Sister Mary Christine, who won a signed Derek Jeter jersey for playing Baseball Bingo. I wonder if she has a vow of poverty and has to give it over to her order? (I can't seem to figure out what order of nuns she belongs to.)

The main story on today's news is also local, and it's a good one. The News gets an exclusive interview with police officer Eder Loor, the cop who was stabbed in the head by a mentally ill man he was chasing down in Harlem. His survival was an extremely lucky break, and he returns home from the hospital today. It's the kind of local working-man hero story the News consistently delivers its readers and that the Post occasionally tries out; I doubt the News had much competition in getting him though.

"HAPPY TO BE ALIVE" reads the giant black text under a red heading that reads "STAB COP SPEAKS TO NEWS." "Miracle officer tells inspiring tale of survival." They mention—again—that it's exclusive before sending readers to the two-page spread.

Observations: This is one of those days when I know I'm going to be making an unpopular decision, because it will seem to go against the feeling that the Post's insane hypocrisy should cause them to lose. I can't agree more with the sentiment. But they won't lose, will they?

Yesterday's events were too big to be given a slight local angle. At that rate every single thing that happens in Iraq or Afghanistan or concerning terrorism or al Qaeda could be spun, very thinly, into a New York story. Sometimes the local obsession of the News goes too far. I'm convinced that the Loor story is a seller, but I am not convinced that the paper needed such a giant takeover of the front page to sell it, or that a big sale on the admittedly compelling story can beat the image of Obama in full football kit. Many readers won't get the joke, sure; and they will not remember why it's so absurd for the Post to be doing it.

Frankly, the Post page is something people will want to grab and engage with, even if they're shaking their heads as they do.

Winner: New York Post.