Opinion: Democrat Obama paddles after Chairman Mao, many others with his latest swimming photo


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President Obama went swimming in waters that could have been from the Gulf of Mexico last weekend. There’s some online dispute as to whether swimming at Point Alligator near Panama City in an inlet off the gulf is really swimming in the gulf.

Also some might remember how the newly-sworn-in Obama sought to exclude his daughters from the media spotlight, at least when he didn’t want them in the media spotlight as political props.


But the point the president’s advisers wanted to make by the swim and his entire daylong Florida vacation was that:

a) Obama’s a dad with a cute daughter (and he really does smile sometimes) and

b) the waters down there are safe and oil-free, at least safe for any other late-summer vacationer with an official photographer, a 747-sized entourage and a substantial-but-no-one-can-say-how-substantial-or-they’d-have-to-kill-you Secret Service contingent.

But the embattled Democrat is nowhere near the first political leader to use a dip in the water to make a point, political, personal or egotistical

Back when international rumors swirled that Communist China’s Chairman Mao was sick or already gone to the Great Wall in the Sky, his entourage used a photo of him or at least his head allegedly swimming among the proletariat in the Yangtze River as evidence that the supreme leader remained alive and active -- and, would-be rivals beware, so was his circle’s power.

Every summer the world is treated to shirtless pics of Chairman Vlad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin out braving brisk rivers, attempting the breast stroke or maybe scaring away little crawly things beneath the surface.

Ronald Reagan had some creds to be seen in swim trunks as he was, for a time, a genuine lifeguard.

That was before he was assigned the hardship duty of teaching actresses like Susan Hayward how to swim for the benefit of some studio publicity photos.

We’ve seen photos of Sarah Palin in jogging and fishing togs. Not yet the swimsuit.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t minded being photographed beachside and strolling the sands pendant des vacances avec his beautiful model wife, Carla Bruni.

Speaking of beaches, during a turbulent time in the marriage of....

...President Bill and Hillary Clinton, they just happened, despite Secret Service, to be photographed in a seemingly impromptu romantic dance moment in each other’s arms by the water. (Scroll down for this photo and a selection of others.)

Less romantic but still on a beach, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had himself photographed dramatically striding through waves with determination, vision and his staff during World War II to fulfill his vow of returning to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control.

But such symbolic photos do not always work as intended in politics.

At the 2000 Democratic National Convention, presidential nominee Al Gore did not go swimming. But he did contribute to global warming and gossip buzz with his enduring kiss of wife Tipper. It didn’t last; they’re now separated.

During John Kerry’s ill-fated 2004 run for the White House, the Democratic nominee allowed himself to be photographed braving wild waters while windsurfing. But that one kind of backfired into a display of wealthy elitism.

Another backfire happened back in 1988 when fellow Massachusetts liberal, Gov. Michael Dukakis, was running against Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush for the White House.

To strengthen his national security bona fides Dukakis took a ride in a tank, pointing the way to victory.

Alas for him, public reaction to the resulting photo, however, focused on the over-sized, goofy helmet. Many laughed instead.

And to this day nearly a quarter-century later that ‘Dukakis moment’ is routinely cited as a cautionary tale by campaign event planners within both parties.

Ask yourself, for instance, how often do you see Obama wearing a hardhat, despite the gazillion construction projects presumably funded by all that stimulus money?

At one recent brief event in Columbus, Ohio, designed to highlight that spending, Obama’s advance team set up his podium weirdly in the middle of a street, rather than place him on the adjacent construction site where, according to safety regulations, he’d have to don you-know-what like everyone else.

During the 2008 presidential campaign Obama had been photographed wearing a bulbous bicycle helmet on a Sunday ride through Chicago streets, prompting admiration among safety zealots and chuckles from others.

Then, last summer during his family’s August vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, the president’s daughters wore helmets for a photo-op bicycle excursion.

But Obama shunned the protective head gear in open defiance of state law, if you can imagine a Harvard-trained lawyer doing such a thing in such a state.

And, you know what? Not a single park ranger complained about the helmet violation.

So, given modern social norms, President Obama may be unable to smoke in public. But when it comes to dodging funny hats, being commander-in-chief does carry some perqs.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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And as a special summer bonus a photo, sans swimsuit, of an unelected someone who keeps everyone safe day and night.

Photos (top to bottom): Associated Press; Pete Souza / White House; Associated Press (Putin, Reagan, Gore, Dukakis, Clinton, Kerry, helmeted Obama); U.S. Army (MacArthur); EPA (Sarkozy); MGM (Daniel Craig as James Bond).