As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton projects an image that’s workmanlike, matronly, and somewhat plodding, in stark contrast with Donald Trump, whose talent for electrifying audiences confirms his reputation as a great showman.
But for skilled stagecraft and memorable imagery, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, which wrapped up on Thursday evening, easily outclassed the Republican extravaganza in Cleveland. That’s the expert view of Josh King, a veteran of staging political pageants who served as director of production for presidential events under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1998.
King still counts many friends among Hillary’s staff and supporters. Still, his analysis of the DNC’s big visuals, and how the Democrats milked them to maximum effect—while Trump rushed through what should have been lingered-over prime photo-ops—is a primer in what makes for great political iconography.
“My first reaction in comparing the two conventions,” says King, “is that political spectacles are best left in the hands of Hollywood producers.”
The DNC’s executive producer was Ricky Kirshner, whom King met in 1993 when Kirshner oversaw the inaugural gala for Bill Clinton at the U.S. Airways Arena in Landover, Maryland. Kirshner, who is the son of famed 1970s and 1980s concert promoter Don Kirshner, has produced every Super Bowl halftime show since 2007, and he has received nine Emmy awards. “With Ricky in charge, the event is on a par with Oscar, Emmy, or Grammy shows,” says King. He notes that Kirshner slotted big stars such as Katy Perry around 9:45 p.m. on Thursday, with firm instructions to finish their acts precisely on-time to take full advantage of prime time network coverage starting at 10 p.m. “The Democrats were always ready to go for the biggest, broadest audience,” says King. “The Republicans weren’t nearly as well organized in making the most of prime time.”
The Trump convention, says King, was competently orchestrated by TV news producers but lacked the full-on showbiz electricity of Hillary Clinton’s coronation. “The Trump convention was more a news events approach,” says King. “The problem was compounded because the Trump team was late to engage on stagecraft, from establishing the roster of speakers to the production of videos.”
Here are three elements of the DNC that especially impressed King.
THE “STRONGER TOGETHER” BACKDROP. Except for the special backdrops for the Hillary Clinton and President Obama speeches, the on-stage luminaries, including Vice President Joe Biden, were framed by a three-panel digital field in brushed-metallic tones that suggested an interwoven wicker basket. “That imagery drove home the theme of the convention, which was ‘stronger together.’ The message was that Hillary had the strength to weave people together, to make America’s fabric harder to break apart. It reinforced the overall metaphor of togetherness,” says King.
When Hillary took the stage for her acceptance speech attired head-to-heels in white. the backdrop changed to a navy blue, accented by hints of red, which suggested the star field and border of the American flag. “It was less in-your-face than the bank of digital American flags behind Trump,” says King. “The navy blue field created a beautiful contrast to her white suit. It couldn’t have been more striking. The audience watches her speak for an hour, and takes in the entire scene. It was the red, white, and blue of the flag, and Hillary was the white. The idea was to show Hillary as the star in the middle of the star field.” In other words, imagery lent the sheen of stardom to a figure short on natural magnetism.
THE POST-ADDRESS CHOREOGRAPHY. After Trump finished his address at the RNC, says King, he spent little time basking in applause and spent shared the stage with running-mate Mike Pence for just a brief moment. The duo didn’t even raise their arms in triumph in the traditional gesture of unity. By comparison, the sequence following Hillary’s speech was orchestrated to linger over big moments. “Hillary basked in the applause for over a minute and then Tim Kaine came on, and they held their hands aloft,” says King. “It was a classic two-shot. Again, they spent about a minute onstage alone together. They turned to face the back of the house to wave up at photographers, so you got photos of the pair with the entire colorful arena behind them.”
Then Kaine stepped aside, and Bill Clinton entered stage-left. Hillary and Bill held a long embrace that created a memorable image. Then a torrent of digital sparks enveloped the couple in a kind of magical cylinder.
WEDDING PHOTO VERSUS BUSBY BERKELEY-STYLE SPECTACLE. “When the families came out on-stage, Trump tried to get everyone to line up for something like a wedding-style photo,” says King. “He was roaming the stage, doing all the work. This one was planned, yet it all looked natural.” King also notes that the Republican podium hid the lower halves of the people onstage, while the Democratic podium sank sesame-like into the floor, leaving a full, uncluttered view for the TV audience. While the Clinton and Kaine families greeted one another, the cavernous arena exploded with red and blue balloons––many beach-ball sized––that filled the skies and crowded the stage.
King noted that the front pages from all major newspapers in the swing state of Ohio ran similar photos taken in those final moments in the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia. They captured Clinton and Kaine, their hands joined aloft, amid the riot of red-and-blue balloons. “It was taken when the families were onstage, and it looked totally spontaneous, framed by all that spectacle. It’s the kind of image you want on the front pages in a state that’s critical to victory.” For King, nothing, including the memorable words, is more capable of winning votes than the perfect image.