This year’s presidential election could well be decided not by the content of the candidates’ speeches, their skill in the debates, or pretty much anything they tell America’s voters. In many recent contests, the pivotal event is a visual-gone-wrong, a performance on the public stage — either planned or unplanned — that reinforces what voters already suspected about the candidate’s weakness. The opposing ad teams have turned those moments into the most powerful political 30-second spots in history, hardening the target’s image as a wimp, an elitist, or a waffler.
The facts of what really happened don’t matter. The impression is impossible to shake, because a few seconds of video shows voters more about who the candidate really is than all the image-building speeches and interviews before or after.
In Off Script, author Josh King dissects a dozen case studies of how inept stagecraft and spontaneous, self-inflicted campaign antics sank presidential bids, and created the one telling image that America remembers best about past campaigns. King benefits from lots of first-hand experience. From 1993 to 1997, he was Director of Productions for Presidential Events under President Clinton. King orchestrated everything from White House birthday parties to Clinton’s pilgrimage commemorating the invasion of Normandy.
King’s accounts are drawn not from press accounts, but extensive interviews with the political advisors and events managers who talked openly about their often-fatal mistakes. Best of all, King weaves around these post-mortems with anecdotes from his own experience as a crucial image-maker little known to voters: The “advance” men and women who create the spectacle for presidential events, designing the stage and backdrops, choosing the music, placing the photographers, and mapping every step the candidate takes across a convention hall skybridge or beach in France.
By unveiling the mechanics of what makes for great and terrible political iconography, King has written one of the best political books this writer has ever encountered. His skill at interspersing themes from the famous disasters and elaborating on them with his own adventures and insights into the evolution of advance work are worthy of John McPhee.
King spends the first 125 pages recounting perhaps the most famous of all visual gaffes, Michael Dukakis’ tank-riding travesty on Sept. 13, 1988. The Dukakis team was worried that the 54-year old candidate looked weak on defense compared with his opponent, Vice President George W. Bush. Dukakis’ position was that America should strengthen its conventional weapons arsenal, as opposed to Bush’s plan to spend heavily on bolstering the space-based shield against nuclear attacks. So his team arranged a visit to the General Dynamics (GD) facility in Michigan that served as a proving ground for the M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank.
King chronicles the internal debate on whether Dukakis should take a ride in the M1A1 to parade his pro-defense stance before reporters and photographers. General Dynamics insisted that Dukakis wear a helmet for safety reasons. Sensing he might look ridiculous, his advance team decided that the candidate would first go bareheaded for the an initial, leisurely pass alongside the press bleachers, then don the helmet while the tank drove at full-speed on a testing field far from the photographers. As King reports, defense hawk Senator Sam Nunn advised Dukakis to take the ride to toughen his profile on defense; then-governor Bill Clinton advised that it would be more in character for Dukakis to visit a school or hospital.
The tank indeed took the high-speed spin far from the lenses. Then the plan went disastrously off-script. The M1A1 roared straight at the viewing stand. The press got a full view of Dukakis, clad in coveralls, his torso protruding from the tank’s turret, a sporting a military helmet emblazoned “Mike Dukakis” in big black letters.
As King notes, this wasn’t George Patton atop a Sherman sporting jodhpurs and pearl-handle pistols. Though the press reports were somewhat mocking that day, the embarrassing image faded quickly. But famed adman Sid Rogich saw gold. He used an 11-second snippet from the tank ride, repeated and reversed, as the video for a 30-second commercial, accompanied by a soundtrack of squeaky grinding gears, that highlighted the defense initiatives Dukakis had opposed. The ad ran five weeks after the tank ride, on orders from media strategist Roger Ailes and campaign chairman James Baker. It was the final, lethal blow to an already flagging campaign.
In an email to King, Dukakis downplayed the tank ride’s damage: “I didn’t lose the election because of it,” he explained. “I lost the election because I made a decision not to respond to the Bush attack campaign, and in retrospect that was a pretty dumb decision.”
Four years later, it was Bush who suffered a decisively defining moment that, in retrospect, unfairly tarred his campaign. In early February 1992, with his reelection contest looming, Bush visited a grocers’ convention in Orlando. His handlers pushed him away from a potential photo with a life-sized statue of Daisy the Cow, and in the direction of a booth displaying a new supermarket scanner from NCR (NCR). The NCR rep explained to the President that the scanner boasted new technology enabling it to both weigh produce, and read torn electronic tags. The President remarked, “Isn’t that something!”
King reports that only one print reporter was allowed to follow the President at the event, a Houston Chronicle correspondent who randomly drew that day’s “pool assignment.” He served as the eyes and ears for the other reporters by filing an account they could all mine for their own stories. The reporter stated that Bush made his remark with “a look of wonder.”
Far from the incident in the White House filing center, New York Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal pounced on the anecdote, penning a 862-word, front-page story titled, Bush Encounters the Supermarket Amazed. What emerged was the image of an elitist completely unfamiliar with what America’s working men and women encounter every day at the K-Mart or Winn-Dixie. It’s not clear how amazed Bush really was, or if the new technology would amaze regular supermarket shoppers. But the image of an out of touch, quasi-aristocrat stuck—and contributed to his poor showing against Bill Clinton that November.
When Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, the Kansas senator was clearly an amazingly vital, fit figure for a 73-year old. But he was still a septuagenarian running against an opponent, Bill Clinton, 23 years his junior. At a speech in Chico, California, Dole walked to the front of the stage to shake a supporters hand, leaning against a white, ornamental balustrade placed there for the event. It wasn’t attached, and Dole tumbled four feet into the audience. One photographer caught the candidate’s head in his hands, another snapped 20 seconds of photos as a grimacing but lightly-injured Dole rose to his feet.
The accident had nothing to do with Dole’s age or physical condition. But it reminded voters that he was indeed an elderly leader, who for that moment, looked enfeebled. Dole joked, “I’ve fallen for Chico!” But the damage was done.
In the summer of 1999, Al Gore, who’d announced his candidacy for president a month before, sought to burnish his reputation as an environmental crusader by taking a canoe trip on the bucolic Connecticut River near the New Hampshire-Vermont border. The Vice President planned to use the occasion to tout a big cleanup grant. The plan called for Gore to paddle for a couple of miles alongside Governor Jeanne Shaheen. The tableau, however, faced a threat: Due to a summer drought, the Connecticut River on certain days didn’t get enough water to float a canoe. The states-supported Connecticut River Joint Commissions came to the rescue, flooding the river with 4 billion gallons of water to raise the level by several feet.
A chance conversation between a reporter and a Vermont official on the riverbank revealed the Commissions’ efforts to ensure the event’s success. The publicity that followed proved a major embarrassment for Gore. What should have been a great photo op turned into fodder for late night comedians, who mocked the Veep as a gold-plated environmentalist. The incident was mainly forgotten, but King reports that it greatly contributed to Gore’s extreme distrust of the press, a view that dogged his relationship with reporters covering him day-to-day during the presidential campaign.
During the Republican convention in early September of 2004, John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, took a four-day vacation at his oceanfront manse in Nantucket. Without alerting the media assigned to cover him as the Democratic nominee, and against the advice of his staff, Kerry one day strode across the beach, brandishing a windsurfer, then went for a sail, attired in patterned board shorts, a white sun shirt, and wraparound shades. A video crew captured the escapade. The Bush media team used the footage in an ad underscoring Kerry’s shifting positions. The spot showed Kerry going forward and reverse over and over to the Blue Danube waltz, concluding, “John Kerry, Whichever Way the Wind Blows.”
John McCain’s poor stagecraft during his acceptance speech on Sept. 4, 2008, launched his campaign with a thud. The week before, the Democrats had shown a fantastic mastery of spectacle as Barack Obama took the baton between gigantic columns that echoed the majesty of the White House. By contrast, the backdrop to McCain’s speech was a sprawling lawn of a private school in North Hollywood, California. Later, the school complained that the image was used without its approval. It was simply an unforced error by the McCain events planners: the green expanse had nothing to do with the vision of strength and prosperity the candidate was trying to extoll.
The Obama media team received an early gift from Mitt Romney. In January 2012, surrounded by aging Republicans in town square in Florida, Romney led the folks in a chorus of “America the Beautiful.” But the microphone didn’t pick up the crowd crowd’s accompaniment. All that emerged was Romney’s off-key bellowing. The Democrats incorporated what was supposed to be a paen to patriotism into a devastating 30-second ad. While Romney belts, “above the fruited plain,” the ad contrasts his patriotism with a clips of a mothballed warehouse and headlines about outsourcing jobs, underscoring the charge that he’d destroyed jobs as a venture capitalist. By the way, Howard Dean was also the victim of a mike when he unleashed his famous, campaign-killing “scream” in early 2004. Dean was actually raising his voice to speak over a raucous crowd, but the only voice the mike magnified was Dean’s.
King spices these accounts with tales of his own successes and failures as an advance man. Occasionally, his own love for spectacle actually diminished his boss. When Clinton visited the G-7 summit in Lyon in 1996, King arranged for the POTUS to hold his closing press conference in a magnificent park, where he mounted the podium overlooking a serene pond. Before the President arrived, King noticed crowds of gnats invading the podium in the still summer air. To repel the pests, he sprayed the podium with what an aerosol that he thought would clear the air for Clinton.
As Clinton fielded questions, a swarm of gnats buzzed around his head in a “visible cloud.” The spray apparently attracted gnats rather than repelling them. Clinton was sweating profusely, and the toxic liquid got in his eyes. Clinton’s eyes were almost swollen shut by the time he answered the last of the tough queries on global tensions. Via a colleague, King got an angry message from chief of staff Leon Panetta, watching from Washington, that amounted to, “Don’t even bother to come home.”
For Clinton’s visit to Normandy on June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, King arranged for the POTUS to better the majesty of Ronald Reagan’s display of pomp 10 years earlier. King’s tableau had Clinton walking on the beach with three D-Day veterans and the Army chaplain in quiet conversation. It all went beautifully until the President’s companions departed, leaving Clinton alone on the beach. At that point, the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams appeared unexpectedly, and started snapping. Clinton knelt on the beach to arrange stones in the shape of a cross, battleships arrayed far in the background, with Adams capturing the moment.
The spectacle backfired. Late night comics and Republican critics lambasted Clinton for supposedly exploiting the event for his own aggrandizement.
King praises Obama for exploiting an old-fashioned medium as never before, photography. He notes that the official White House photographer used to take private shots of the President and his family for release many years later, in other words, for the historical record. But Obama team posted the photos immediately on Flickr. One great coup was the exclusive photo of Obama, Secretary Clinton and other close advisors in the “Sit Room” awaiting news of the attack on Osama bin Laden. A document in front of Clinton was classified, but appeared in the original picture. The photographer blurred the document so that the White House could post the historic photo.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at right, President Barack Obama, second from left, Vice President Joe Biden, left, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, right, and members of the national security team watch an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington.Photograph by Pete Souza — The White House/AP
Here’s a good summary of King’s conclusions, demonstrating the excellence of his prose:
“That’s why tank rides, supermarket scanners, stage falls, canoe trips and screaming, as fleeting as these episodes are, can be so damaging. Narratives emerge. Dukakis was unfit to be commander in chief. Dole was too old. Gore was a hypocrite. Dean was unhinged. None of those labels may have been fair, but they stuck over time.”
In this cycle, it’s been all about outrageous attacks that would normally prove deadly gaffes. Maybe a visual blunder will form crystalize what voters really think, or should think, of a candidate, but aren’t quite sure. That would be spectacle as it should be, in the interests of truth.