Political Geography on CNN

The map behind Bush’s head.

A new map of the world

CNN, but not the major networks, broadcast George W. Bush’s war speech Monday night, the lower quarter of the network’s frame typically crammed with letters. These included the red logo in the left-hand corner; the tendentious slug-line “Showdown: Iraq” under the presidential seal on the podium; the dateline “The Cincinnati Museum Center” under the showdown; the helpful amplifier “Cincinnati, Ohio” under that; and finally, stage-bottom, the perpetual news crawl, for those viewers whose interest drifted from war to anti-anemia drugs, snipers, or baseball.

And then there was the map: a modest gray bas-relief that constituted a backdrop. This map, supplied of course by the White House and not CNN, was a masterstroke. It marked the proceedings as international—the only visible America flag was a smudge on Bush’s lapel—and it distracted neither from the instructive graphics nor from the commander in chief’s aquafresh tie. It also showed our friends and foes alike that the old, cursed Mercator projection map of the world—the grade-school one, the 1569 one, the biased Eurocentric one on which South America is ludicrously smaller than Europe—is officially obsolete.

No more florid us-and-them. No more the cartography of looking-out-for-No.-1. The map in Ohio last night rivaled the U.N. General Assembly as a stage set to bolster a multilateral message. Bush’s White House design team probably didn’t even consider Mercator; why take the chance of sending a message of American dominance? Instead, the uniformly gray USA hung in the upper left-hand corner, looking ragged, with Florida an especially loose thread. Europe and Asia sprawled off to the upper right. Africa, into whose crook the president’s shoulder fitted nicely, looked solid and magnificent. The Middle East hovered at the president’s left temple.

The map successfully conveys a message of international community, but, to those who grew up on Mercator, it still looks too high. The navigator’s mischief—placing the equator two-thirds of the way down the map rather than halfway down—has been corrected. The world has been yanked up, jerked into rectitude. Still—forsaking fairness for a minute, and politics, and even empiricism—does anybody but me miss the guilty pleasure of Mercator? Remember how it used to offer color and clarity, cartoonish egocentricism and even a direct sightline to one’s hometown? Now it’s just nationalist memorabilia. Yikes. It’s really time to roll that stuff up and pack it away when even a Republican president bent on war won’t get near it.