- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Talk about a White House pool report.

A photo of President-elect Barack Obama strolling shirtless Monday in Hawaii is the shot seen ‘round the world. And it has spawned nearly a thousand news stories, not to mention giddy headlines from a gushing press:

Buff ‘Bam, Beach Barack, Presidential Pixxxx, Oh-bama, The War Chest, Pec-tacular Obama, America’s Hottest President, Fit for Office.

There have been other sartorial moments of note. Former President Ronald Reagan, who was both a swimsuit model and a lifeguard in his younger days, was a veritable icon of presidential pulchritude. Mr. Reagan cut a dashing figure in office whether astride a horse or in spotless tuxedo.

Such public adulation and press hubbub are not new.

“It goes back to George Washington, and for the most part, it’s pretty harmless. To pay this close attention to a president-elect is something close to civic engagement,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“Being attractive and charismatic doesn’t hurt a president. But one hopes we don’t elect our leaders because of hotness,” Mr. Thompson said. “If CNN opens the news with a Barack Obama exercise video, then perhaps we’re in trouble.”

Yet some smell a rat - albeit a well-cut rat.

“Remember those staged photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton dancing on the beach once upon a time? You have to wonder. The Obama ‘pec’ photos were taken on a public beach. Some accounts said the photographer had approval to take those shots. All of a sudden, the bad buzz about links between Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Barack Obama was gone for a while, replaced by good buzz about presidential pecs,” noted Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.

“There’s some bathing-suit bias, too. When beauty queen photos of [Alaska Republican Gov.] Sarah Palin surfaced during the presidential campaign, the press coverage was negative. And you can be sure if positive images of President Bush in a bathing suit had appeared sometime in 2000, the press would have cast suspicions on them as a staged photo-op,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Obama’s public pin-up shot is not his first. A photo of him emerging from the surf - a little chunkier but still agreeable - made global headlines shortly before he announced his White House run in 2007. Such accidentally-on-purpose moments could be the hallmark of a very deft public official.

“Today politicians have to know what narrative the world wants to hear,” said Sameer Reddy of the San Francisco Sentinel, an arts magazine.

“The skill sets required to attract campaign donations and sustain media attention and voter interest converge with the kinds of qualities that allow for the creation of an A-list actor,” he said. “In the coming days, I suspect we´re going to need every possible excuse to smile.”

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