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Book Review: First Cameraman by Arun Chaudhary

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First Cameraman: Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time, is a first-person account of the first official staff White House videographer, Arun Chaudhary. One wishes that the book lived up to its previews.

Obama campaign new media director Joe Rospars recruited author Arun Chaudhary, telling him that the Obama campaign wanted to “up the ante” by using different skills from non-political fields. The political experience of any prospect was not as important as their technical expertise and innovation. This may well have just been a nice way of saying that the campaign was a bit desperate and was willing to try something different.

Chaudhary himself notes in an aside that the bulk of the experienced political media people went with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards that year, so looking outside the box made some sense if one was to have any chance of winning. That this did work, in spite of a campaign management that had no clue what to do with this “new media” they drafted, should have been the story of this book

What First Cameraman is not is a book about Obama as Chaudhary saw and interacted with him. There isn’t much about Obama the Candidate, and there is even less about Obama the President. There is little about things Obama said or did at campaign events, outside of a couple of short comments made to Chaudhary by Obama regarding the camera, and Obama’s regular reluctance to sit in front of it for extended periods.

For a man whose job was to film Obama “around the clock for four years”, the subject of the effort barely escapes the cutting room floor. The author offers more interaction vignettes with the Secret Service detail than he does the protected person.

Was Chaudhary even watching Obama while looking through the viewfinder? There are occasionally a few interesting quips attributed to the candidate/president, mostly gathered when the camera was idle, but not enough to satisfy an avid Obama researcher.

First Cameraman is also not about the campaign itself, nor much about Chaudhary’s role with it. While Chaudhary supplied the advertising team with some campaign video footage, he did not participate in the award-winning mass media campaign (see here and here for more on these awards). That wasn’t his assignment. He was expected to reach out with his videos to the Internet users, those now designated by the media and both parties as the “social media”.

It took some trial and error, but Chaudhary and his teammates eventually realized many successes in this realm, an effort which probably benefited their candidate. They even won some faint praise from their competition on occasion. One has to ask where all of that technical innovation and expertise went once the candidate was elected – and where it was for the writing of this book.

The bulk of Chauhary’s campaign commentary revolves around how hard it is — while on the campaign trail- to process, edit, and upload the latest videos in the short time frames allowed, and under the varying technical conditions available. There is also little about the goals of the campaign managers and how he delivered, as they essentially let Chaudhary and the others find their own way to success. The campaign managers seem to have been the final vettors of any such material, as they knew what they didn’t like only when they saw it.

There are also several comments regarding the poor quality of the food at events, but this hasn’t been news since The Boys On The Bus was released.

I have mixed feelings about First Cameraman. It is not an easy read — not because of turgid prose (a la the late William F. Buckley), but because the author was clearly winging it from the beginning. What makes First Cameraman a difficult read is that at various times it is a Web techie HowTo, a remembrance, a diary, a history of previously-admired political ads, a sort of Facebook where friends get name-checked, a behind-one-scene report of a political campaign, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Air Force One, and the draft of the latest edition of You Are There that didn’t get finished – and shifts somewhat disconnectedly among these topics in an instant.

If this book were a video, it would superficially resemble Richard Lester’s work with the Beatles, only without the technical skills, the artistic style, and the off-beat humor.

As Chaudhary points out when talking about one of his rejected pet campaign projects, a piece only works “when it fills a need”. One has to ask what need this book fills. As he resigned his position in the winter of 2011, Chaudhary had to have had time to write this book and submit it to the publisher, but maybe not enough time for a serious edit and any necessary rewrites. It lacks polish and organization, and shifts among several foci as the situation warrants. It thus isn’t easy to see what the intentioned need to be filled with this book was, except maybe to put a few bucks into Chaudhary’s pocket while Obama being in office was still a sure thing.

As the staffer of one of the most castigated and maligned presidents in our history, did Chaudhary document any of this abuse and/or Obama’s responses to it all? He should have. He could have. We just can’t tell from this book whether or not he did.

He himself notes that, as the official videographer, he is not like a journalist. He is a documentarian, and as such “can show what it was like to be there, to go beyond what people ordinarily see”. This would have been a better book if he’d gone there with his word processor as well.

There isn’t much indication of this “You Are There” opportunity coverage in this book, at least not until Chaudhary realizes that he’s shot the same meeting of Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and House Speaker Boehner “over and over again…at the same table…day after day” until he’s run out of fresh angles to use.

Out of fresh angles – what better way to describe the sorry performance of the current Federal government?

It was at this point that Chaudhary decided it was time to move on – right as the action was about to return to the campaign mode that started Chaudhary’s White House career. A great opportunity lost to compare the first campaign with the second. Could it be that there are no fresh angles there either? We’ll never know now.

This isn’t to say that First Cameraman is worthless. It is (in a political sense) a Pilgrim’s Progress, showing a naive young media man growing up intellectually. He may begin by praising Mike Huckabee’s media crew (If they were so good, why didn’t Huckabee win the nomination in 2008, and why didn’t he even run in 2012?) and Sarah Palin’s short-lived TLC show, but eventually comes to realize that Washington DC is “barely big enough for one government and two political parties”; a place where “the competition and close quarters breed deep, deep contempt” between these two antagonists.

If ever there was a brewing slogan for a third political party to break up this logjam, this is it.

I asked above what need this book may fill. First Cameraman will someday prove to be an important background resource for the Obama Administration historians, a way of gauging what activity surrounded Obama prior to and during his early Oval Office occupancy. No previous administration had a videographer on staff, so this book — coming directly from the first White House Staff videographer — will add an aspect that is often lacking when other presidential staff positions are researched, as will all of the raw footage Chaudhary shot. (And, it’s all in the archives!) This book itself may even prove more valuable for this purpose than I can now see.

But what I can now see is that First Cameraman: Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time could have been more valuable if the main subject, Barack Obama, got more coverage – particularly on how he interacted with his “New Media” staff, what they saw and heard, and what he did and said that didn’t make the regular media. Chaudary tells us that he can take us beyond what people normally see, but he doesn’t deliver – at least not in this book.

Maybe Chaudary’s raw official videos do.

Maybe.

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