In a week saturated by coverage of the passing of a great man, it was a moment that was jaw dropping in its sheer absurdity: three world leaders lined up in an affectionate row to take a grinning selfie at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela.
So far, so 2013. You’ve got the recipe there for the most exceptionally viral image of the year, world leaders – check, innocuous moment of politicians acting like people – check, the dreaded selfie – check check check. And yet, the internet, baying pack that it is, almost immediately came up with something tacitly more hilarious than even that ridiculous self indulgence.
To the right of that image, Michelle Obama sits, hands clasped, lips pursed, resolutely disapproving of the gaggle of politicians beside her. The whole tableau fits perfectly into every great American sitcom ever, the bumbling husband and the long-suffering wife.
However, that single picture wasn’t enough. Shortly, what the comedian Rob Delaney called ‘the funniest 3-panel comic in history’ was making the rounds on twitter. It showed a series of images in which at first, Obama and the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt laugh between themselves, while Michelle glares over Obama’s shoulder at Schmidt. The second shows the Obamas as awkward and tense as Schmidt leans away, and the final has Michelle placing herself between the two politicians as Barack leans forward earnestly, and Helle checks her phone.
It does not require one of those body language experts that are so often relied upon by celebrity magazines to unpick the narrative here. The public loves a scandal, no matter how fictitious it ultimately turns out to be, and oh, isn't it fun to speculate about the tongue-lashing Obama might have ultimately received and his potential inevitable banishment to the Presidential sofa, rather than dwell on sombre and solemn things?
Mandela's memorial service was an unprecedented gathering of global celebrities and politicians, for once, in a situation that has absolutely nothing to do with work. Take a moment, think about it. It's December, you're put into an awkward social situation with your colleagues and - despite the solemn reason for being there - nobody can help themselves from enjoying a round of gossip and back-slapping. It is, in some small way, an office Christmas party blown up to a ridiculous scale. It was left to Desmond Tutu to call for 'discipline' and quiet - berating the crowd for their jovial hubbub.
Browsing through the many photo galleries online, you can start creating all sorts of stories: in the corner you've got Ed Miliband, staring resentfully as upstart Nick Clegg embraces Bill Clinton. On the rafters, Bono and Charlize Theron are sharing private jokes between themselves. Sarkozy and Hollande have had a cruel trick played on them by the seating plan and are refusing to make eye contact, with the former having allegedly (the gossips whisper) snubbed Hollande's invitation to car-(or private jet-)pool to the service together. Oh, and you've got David Cameron, the office bore, who just won't stop talking about work and attempting to curry favour with anyone who'll listen.
This might seem like an insensitive parallel to draw, it was, after all, a memorial service. But that's what certain commentators seem to forget: it was a day for celebration and humanity, not for artful posturing and politicking. The idea of yesterday as a Christmas party might be one to cling to then, because where else are we more awkwardly exposed as people than in these grey social situations, where decorum isn't quite decided upon and we are forced to recognise the usually navy-suited colleague as an individual?
Nelson Mandela was an eminently human politician. It would do well for our politicians to exploit situations like yesterday to follow in his footsteps in that regard, and if it takes the UN to organise an actual Christmas Party, with a free bar and 80s classics on a fading soundsystem to achieve that, well, then so be it.
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