Readers are no doubt aware that, on the Sunday after the 50th anniversary reenactment of the march on Selma, Alabama, the New York Times published a front-page photograph of the marchers. There’s President Obama, front and center in shirtsleeves, alongside his wife and two daughters; and there’s Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whose skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick on that memorable day in 1965.
What Times readers did not see, however, was former President George W. Bush, also in shirtsleeves, marching beside Laura Bush. They’re in the same front row as President Obama, but several feet to the president’s left. They do not appear in the Times photograph.
As might be expected, there was immediate suspicion—at least among conservatives—that the Times had deliberately excluded the Bushes from the picture. (One of the left-wing talking points for the day was the presence or absence of Republicans in the march.) But the Times was quick to defend itself. According to its ombudsman, Margaret Sullivan, “there was no politics in the handling or presentation of the photo.” President Obama, as our first black president, would be the natural focus of any commemorative picture, she explained; and in any case, the Bushes were too far from the center of the lineup.
Well, far be it from The Scrapbook to second-guess the professional judgment of the New York Times, especially on critical questions of graphic design. And of course, we gladly take the Times at its word that it would never depict or exclude an image of George W. Bush in its pages for political purposes. No doubt, it was with genuine regret that the editors examined photographs of the march and concluded sorrowfully that the wide-angle shot including George W. Bush was “a bad picture,” in the words of photo editor Michele McNally.
On the subject of that front-page photograph, however, The Scrapbook’s attention was directed elsewhere. One recurring theme of the anniversary march was the degree to which America has changed in the past half-century—and changed for the better, as the presence of an African-American president dramatized.
But there is another way of looking at things. In March 1965, the presence of the clergy in Selma was more than conspicuous: The crusade was led, after all, by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a young Unitarian minister, the Rev. James Reeb, died of his injuries a few days after being beaten by racists. By contrast, last weekend, the most conspicuous member of the clergy to be seen in the march was the Rev. Al Sharpton, the racial provocateur, tax cheat, and MSNBC talk-show host, just behind President Obama’s left shoulder.
Whether this is a commentary on the present state of the clergy in America, or the troubling prominence of someone like Al Sharpton in the councils of the Democratic party and the White House, The Scrapbook cannot say. Perhaps the editors of the New York Times can shed some light on what it all means.