This is a photograph of a tree reflecting in the Yarkon River in north Tel Aviv, on a nice walk through the park last weekend. The weather has finally become nice here, with cool evenings and crisp, sunny days.
On August 21, 2017, the entire continental United States was able to witness, partially or, for the lucky few, in totality, a solar eclipse. I desperately wanted to travel to the path of totality, having been completely enchanted by eclipses since a young age. It is the only event on a cosmic scale (except perhaps a supernova, for which of course I am always holding out a tiny (standard) candle of hope) which can be witnessed from your backyard with the naked (protected) eye. Of course only in totality can it be appreciated beyond a curiosity: seeing a bite taken out of the sun through a pitiful pinhole camera pales in comparison to having it turned off by God, or by the inviolable laws of Kepler and Newton, if God isn’t your thing, in the middle of the day.
My job stole from me the opportunity for that experience, as it has stolen many such opportunities over the course of my life. So instead of witnessing the magic of totality, I was in Washington DC, 500 miles north of the path of totality, squinting through my protective glasses and making pinhole cameras with my fist like an eighth-grader with an excitable dad, taking no solace in the fact that my assignment for the day was to photograph and report on the White House experience of the partial eclipse.
The White House wasn’t really interested in the eclipse at all, and there was no real special event planned for the day. I thought as I was being driven over there, aware at all times of the presence of the sun creating heat on the window of the car, of the tragic lack of inspiration to understand and appreciate science there must be among children today. There are no real well-known public figures talking about it, or making it sound sexy, or at least that I know of. Who is actually going to do the experiments we’re going to do as a human race to advance the science to fix the burning planet, I thought, retreating into a familiar cynicism that had been nurtured by one and a half years of the certifiably insane presidency of Donald J. Trump.
I’d covered Trump pressers before, tried to get a question in with a number of his rotating cast of clowns on the podium, or with the man himself, but never really got noticed at the back, presumably as tarred with the fake news brush as the rest of the room. I did not enjoy the spectacle. I could tell some of the journalists in the room did: some had their zingers prepared weeks in advance, as if a carefully worded and intrusive question was all it would take for the man to realise the full extent of his idiocy. Others were there for the pornography of it, like watching a house burn down from the curb out front. But I was there because my boss had told me to be there, ordered me to be there, realised there was no one else at our shitty paper who would agree to be there.
We waited about twenty minutes past the scheduled appearance of the president before the murmuring and speculation began. He was regularly rude and obnoxious and dismissive but rarely late. I checked my Twitter feed, noticed a few photographs appearing of the president on the White House balcony, holding his wife’s hand, looking up into the sky, and I realised both that I’d missed the eclipse, felt the sinking feeling that I had missed something wonderful that could not easily be replicated, and also that he probably shouldn’t be looking up into the sky like that without some sort of protection for his eyes.
Trump did not appear at that press conference and after an hour or so, when we were asked to leave by a junior representative of the White House press team and not provided with a reason, the speculation began to reach fever pitch. The one explanation I don’t remember hearing anyone offer was the eclipse, and even though I had the photograph of the president on the balcony in my mind, niggling away at me as though something about it were not right, I didn’t make the connection between the photograph and the president’s absence from the press conference until later in the evening, when the president was absent from a number of other commitments, and when it become clear, to me at least, that something was not right.
A full twenty-four hours passed and the President of the United States was not seen or heard from. The most common theory at this point was that he had died, that there was a Stalin-like power struggle inside the resultant vaccuum, and that soon a lesser member of the Trump family would emerge and explain. I personally spent the morning poring over photographs from the balcony, examining EXIF data and calculating angles of incidence and after several hours of this my personal conclusion was that there was a decent chance the president had gone blind.
I’d heard the news repeat ad nauseum for the last few weeks how important it was to wear protection when you looked at the eclipse. It felt like one of the last things people took seriously together, as a human species, without exception. More serious than stopping at a red light or not parking in a disabled space or not polluting the air with aerosols. A sensible, agreed-upon and understandable human rule: looking at the sun directly makes you go blind. And all my colleagues had heard it too, of course, which made it all the more surprising when they began to swallow the White House story without question.
Over the week following the eclipse, President Trump made a valiant effort to deny he was blind which appeared to me to be clearly false. He did press conferences in the middle of the day wearing sunglasses at the Resolute Desk, glance directed a few degrees off the barrel of the camera. He had hack doctors and family members appear at press conferences to vouch for his vision. He was not seen in public once.
I began to become infuriated with the conversations I endured with my colleagues over the couse of that week. Most of them were the “he’s never going to win the primary / he’s never going to win the election / he’s never going to accomplish anything” naive fool-me-twice types so I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting. But it surprised me every day, this refusal to try to build one’s own narrative, to ignore the facts as they lie in front of one’s face and to default to believing the man who has never, once, in his entire life, given you cause to think what he’s saying is true.
Weeks turned into months and the White House narrative didn’t change, only became more hardened and stubborn: President Trump is as healthy as ever and his vision was not affected by the eclipse of August 21. For the first couple of weeks they insisted the sunglasses indoors were simply Trump’s medical team being overcautious; I was waiting for the moment when he removed them, hoping to see some damage that was undeniable, some proof staring directly at the nation. And indeed, one day, live on television, the President removed his sunglasses.
“I’m going to take these off now, never needed them anyway, my medical team has done great things even though I am perfectly healthy, I can see everything, can see you all right now, I have the best vision.”
His eyes had that empty, glazed look that is instantly recognisable as blindness. No focus, no movement from side-to-side in the head.
“You see?” said the colleague standing next to me in the newsroom, neck craned up to see the small television we kept on throughout the day. “I told you his eyes were fine.”