We’ve all seen the remarkable photo of the situation room in which top administration officials are watching the unfolding of the assault on Osama bin Laden. Hillary Clinton was one of only two women visible in the shot. Most of the facial expressions range from neutral to tense (I’d rate Barack Obama’s as “deep concern”), but Clinton is the only person to have her hand over her mouth, in the universally understood gesture of worry. Now, she is saying that in the instant the photograph was taken she thinks she was probably suppressing an allergy attack, not responding to the bin Laden attack. “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early Spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever,” she said about the photo at a press conference.
Photographs can be so unfair. They capture a split second, so the possibility for over-interpretation is inherent, even as an image becomes iconic. Clearly Clinton started feeling that her hand over her mouth – even if it was only there for a moment! – did not convey the cool leadership qualities she wants to express. After all, she’s the person who did the presidential campaign ad about being the experienced person you want woken up at 3:00 a.m. in a crisis. However, it’s a little pathetic that she would try to claim she was coughing. We all know what a cough looks like, and that’s not what she’s doing. But there’s nothing weak, weepy, or “girly” about her gesture. I wish Clinton had been confident enough not to make excuses for her human, appropriate moment.