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Portrayal of President Barack Obama as Joker stirs roiling debate

It's the anti-"Hope" poster. • Just as the red-and-blue-shaded Barack Obama became an iconic, grass roots image that helped Obama take the White House in November, a new depiction of the president has emerged from the underground, this time with apparently less benign intent. • It is a picture of Obama mashed up in the same white makeup, raccoon eyes, red lips and jagged, knife-scarred cheeks that Heath Ledger made famous as the Joker in The Dark Knight. The word "socialism" is printed underneath. • Blogs report that the picture first surfaced as a poster on a Los Angeles underpass early this month. The image was photographed and uploaded and soon went viral, carrying the label "Socialist Joker" or "Health Ledger." Conservative blogs are distancing themselves, but revel in the portrayal of Obama as a villain trying to steal health care for the government.

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The image blurs together two icons whose popularity peaked in 2008: Obama, the nation's first black president, and Heath Ledger, whose chilling portrayal of a cinematic villain — and his own premature death — forged a legacy.

It has gained national media steam, appearing on Web sites for ABC and CBS news, as well as the Drudge Report. The St. Petersburg Times wrote about it last week, after a Facebook page claiming to promote the Pinellas County Republican Party posted the picture. County Republicans said the page wasn't theirs.

It's hard to say where the image originated. Some think a Republican operative created it. A National Review Online blogger traced it back to a Flickr photo posted in January by a Chicago college student who had mocked up a Time cover featuring Obama.

Who turned it into a poster is anyone's guess.

If the image was made to spark strong reactions, mission accomplished.

Some say the picture isn't as evil as a government plan to annex health care. Others say Obama is fair game since George W. Bush was portrayed sprouting devil horns, elephant ears and Alfred E. Neuman's "What me worry?" gaze. Others call the Joker picture clearly racist because of Obama's whitewashed face, darkened eyes and elongated lips.

Daryl Cagle, a cartoonist for msnbc.com and past president of the National Cartoonists Society, called the idea "stale." He went to politicalcartoons.com to prove his point.

Inserting the word "joker" in the search engine produced several political figures whom cartoonists transformed into jokers in 2008.

President George W. Bush. Sen. John McCain. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

"This is just a blunt idea," Cagle said. "Bad guy, socialism, it's not very sophisticated."

In the Batman movie, the Joker plays a serial killer and anarchist. But some right-leaning commentators say the "socialism" tag fits. They defend the image by pointing out that Vanity Fair put Bush in the same mask in 2008.

"It is starting," wrote Thomas Lifson of American Thinker. "Open mockery of Barack Obama, as disillusionment sets in with the man, his policies and the phony image of a race-healing, brilliant, scholarly, middle-of-the-roader."

Others say the office of the presidency shouldn't be dragged into the mud at all.

"Personally, I despised the way MoveOn.org types vilified President Bush while in office and would like to see all presidents treated with more respect," wrote Mickey McLean of Worldmag.com, which studies issues from Christian perspectives.

He likened the Joker to one of the most "Satanic" characters of all time.

The loudest protests come from those who see Obama in white face as a hurtful reminder of America's dark history.

Toby Miller, chairman of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, said he saw the posters driving around his home near Venice Beach. He said the image seems meant to shut down conversations, not foster them like a lot of provocative political art.

"The previous president was portrayed in devil-like ways and that too was nasty and ungracious and so on, but that doesn't have the same freight as the racialism of a black man," he said.

The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott wrote that the artist is trying to connect Obama with the unpredictable and seeming danger of urban violence.

"The only thing missing is a noose," LA Weekly writer Steven Mikulan said. That led another blogger to point out that the LA Weekly once depicted Bush as a vampire on its cover.

As the discussion roiled, some commentators used the Joker's own words to bring levity to the situation.

Why so serious?

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.

Portrayal of President Barack Obama as Joker stirs roiling debate 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 5:30am]
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