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Donald Trump’s Convention Stagecraft: Plenty of Errors, No Major Disasters

Whether you love or hate Donald Trump, it’s hard to deny that the mogul built a fabled career in TV, and captured his party’s nomination for president, by displaying an extraordinary talent for showmanship.

But how well did Trump perform at the Republican Convention, measured strictly in terms of his skill in managing the spectacle and choreography of his own appearances, chiefly his Thursday night acceptance speech?

To get a professional’s view, I asked a specialist who staged landmark events for Bill Clinton. Josh King served as Director of Production for Presidential Events at the White House from 1993 to 1997, and he is the author of Off Script, a book released in April that chronicles in fascinating detail famous gaffes in imagery that sank presidential campaigns, from a helmeted Dukakis perched in an army tank to a patrician Kerry windsurfing on Nantucket.

King cited four areas where Trump made some basic errors, undercutting the potential for great and memorable moments––though these were missed opportunities, not disastrous gaffes.

FROZEN BY THE TELEPROMPTER. King explained that speakers can read from three tele-prompters, two “panels” to the left and right of the podium, about eight feet in front of the speaker, and a giant screen in the bleachers, straight in front of the stage. The RNC “feed,” or the “pool” video shared by the networks, streams from a camera in the same location. “When Newt Gingrich spoke, he modulated his voice, and looked right and left, reading a lot from the panels,” says King. “Ivanka Trump also did a great job, practically making love to the prompters.” By contrast, he says, Trump mainly looked dead-on at the big screen straight in front of him. “He’s not a skilled reader,” says King.

SCOWLS NOT SMILES. King also noted that Trump barely smiled at all during his speech, and used shouting more than inflections and modulations in tone. “He says he wants to show ‘how much people like me,'” says King. “But all we saw was the same blue-steel scowl during the entire speech.”

WHERE DID THOSE FLAGS COME FROM? When Trump appeared from the wings to deliver his acceptance speech, the upper band of the towering video screen behind the podium displayed the Trump name in giant letters. “It was like the marquee at a casino,” says King. “It reinforced the idea that he’s a man who likes to see his name on marquees.” During the speech, the backdrop behind Trump displayed a line of American flags draped atop long poles. The flags weren’t real, but a digital creation. “It was effective,” says King. “But the display bore a remarkable similarity to the line of flags behind Obama when he delivered his victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago in 2008. It shows that the Trump team—from Melania’s speech to the setup of Trump’s address—have been keen students of the Obama campaign’s 2008 stagecraft.”

CHOREOGRAPHY BY THE DONALD. “Trump shows some discomfort in milking what should be the most memorable moments for maximum effect,” says King. On stage, he basically brushed by the two most important women in his life, Melania and Ivanka, missing opportunities for creating defining tableaus. “In both cases, he gave them brief kisses in profile. It all lasted a couple of seconds. They didn’t have the usual extended embrace and face the audience together, and bask in the moment,” says King. “You need to milk those moments for at least 20 seconds.”

Then, after completing his speech, Trump seemed to personally, and haphazardly, stage the arrival and placement of his running mate and the two families. “He walked back and forth across the stage beckoning people to enter,” says King. Trump didn’t spend time parading the stage with Mike Pence to celebrate their partnership, as Obama did for several minutes with Joe Biden in Denver in 2008. And for a lot of their time on stage, Trump, Pence, and others stood behind the podium, so the TV audience saw them only from the waist up. By contrast, the Democrats in Charlotte in 2012 used a podium that retreated through a trap door so that folks at home could get a full, unobstructed view of Obama, Biden, and their families.

Overall, says King, Trump performed a lot better than Romney in 2012, who walked on stage following Clint Eastwood’s notorious performance addressing an empty chair, and John McCain in 2008, who inexplicably spoke in front of the backdrop of a sprawling green lawn. Still, he concludes, Trump’s sense of spectacle didn’t match the professionally orchestrated pageantry of Obama at either of his conventions.

Given the moments missed, you might joke that the candidate in Cleveland was a pretty fair showman, but he was no Donald Trump.