Newsom's stumble on basketball court in China shows how photo ops can go wrong

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s trip to China was many things: A test of his skill in climate diplomacy. An opportunity to burnish his political image on the world stage. A demonstration of the risks of the indulgent photo op.

That danger played out during a visit to a school in Beijing on Friday where Newsom knocked a child down after stumbling while shooting hoops. They both fell to the ground and quickly sat up. Newsom patted the boy on the back several times before giving him a hug and asking if he was OK.

It was a cringey moment for the Democratic governor but didn’t cause injuries. Newsom, in dress shoes, a white shirt and slacks, proceeded to play with the 9- and 10-year-old children for several more minutes, spinning the basketball on his fingertip and swishing a few times.

Then the governor’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, stepped onto the court and took a few shots herself. The Newsoms handed out California-themed pins to the kids and moved on to visit a painting class and a school garden.

The school visit was meant to highlight Siebel Newsom’s interest in farm-to-school programs. In California, she works to get more fresh food into school meals through partnerships with local farms. The visit to the Beijing school was one stop on a jam-packed agenda in which Newsom visited five cities in seven days and met with President Xi Jinping.

Read more: After Israel visit, Newsom heads to China for climate talks. But can he avoid global conflicts?

Many of his events were formulaic meetings with government officials to discuss economic development and clean energy — important work toward his goal of advancing partnerships to thwart climate change, but not particularly photogenic. Other events were clearly designed as visual spectacles meant to enhance Newsom’s image as a leader.

In one case, Newsom’s office sent out a picture of him standing on the Great Wall wearing aviator-style sunglasses and a pensive expression as he looks toward the sun. The glamour shot quickly set the internet aflame with memes of Newsom in the same pensive pose with various fake backdrops. Among them: the Oval Office and a homeless encampment.

Newsom’s penchant for splashy photos emerged early in his political career when, as mayor of San Francisco in 2004, he and his then-wife Kimberly Guilfoyle posed for Harper's Bazaar magazine. Newsom's arms were wrapped around Guilfoyle as they lay on an opulent rug in the home of the wealthy Getty family. The image has endured over the years as a visual punchline for Newsom’s critics.

A very different photo from Newsom’s days as mayor re-emerged this week while he was in China. The mayor of Shanghai began a meeting with Newsom by presenting him with a framed photo of his visit to Shanghai in the early 2000s. Newsom was in a schoolyard, shooting hoops with local students.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.