Polioptics Part 6: The 21st Century Presidency

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.  It’s well worth reading the narrative in sequence.


The Story of Polioptics is a 10-part Web narrative based on a multi-media presentation — POLIOPTICS: Political Influence Through Imagery, From George Washington to Barack Obama — that debuted on college campuses in 2009.

The Polioptics Lecture has been updated, expanded and serialized for Polioptics.com, the sixth installment of which begins below…

Two posts ago, the visual journey that had stretched back centuries picked up steam with the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Then, in the last post, the narrative transitioned from sideline observation to on-the-field (or in-the-Rose Garden) action inside Bill Clinton’s White House and the role producing the president that achieved a lifelong dream.

In this post, we move beyond Bill as we course our way through American byways toward Barack and beyond.

It was November 1997.  The first year of Clinton’s second term was drawing to a close and I was completing my sixth of nearly constant travel around the country and the world. But close to home, at the White House, the days of constant excitement were becoming routine, especially when the Official White House Thanksgiving Turkey gets his annual ritual pardon.  It happens every year.  It happens with every president.  The turkey is never slaughtered – or so we’re told – instead being dispatched to a petting zoo in an undisclosed location.

Turkey Shoot

This was the fifth time I’d worked on preparations for the pardoning and, truth be told, an execution would have enlivened the proceedings. Even for the reporters, who had to brave the cold in Washington to witness the ritual, it was Groundhog Day in the fall instead of spring.  Five turkeys after I had started, it was time to leave the White House.

As I was getting ready to surrender my Blue Pass and leave the West Wing for a private sector job via a quick detour to Hollywood, it was clear that covering the White House was changing, too. MSNBC debuted in July ’96, joining CNN on the cable lineup. Fox News followed in October. The cable nets had tiny but elite subscriber bases. Washington was their beat. They were still figuring out their programming lineup, experimenting with hosts and the focus of their coverage. They ended one century covering a story called Lewinsky, and kicked off the next one covering a story called Bush v. Gore.

In the White House, we were just getting used to ditching fax machines for e-mail.  Our pagers were clunky Motorola jobs with messages sent through an Army Signal Corps switchboard.  Blackberries were a few years off on the horizon.  There was still no YouTube, MySpace or Twitter. And Palm Pilots could barely handle a stylus, much less video on a mobile device.

Working at a Washington Internet startup in 1999, as the 2000 campaign was getting underway, I experimented authoring something called “a blog.”  My Wanderings column for SpeakOut.com was an early foray into the genre.  If they had only had WordPress back then, I might never have stopped writing.

But it wasn’t yet time for the old media hierarchy to give way to the new.  With cable ascendant and the Internet in its infancy, the 2000 election was the high water mark for the New York Times and the now-fading business model of ink printed on crushed trees.

However iPads and eReaders evolve from here on, it would be a shame if the majesty of what we know as “the front page” doesn’t survive in some form. The first page of the newspaper, and the effort from reporters, photographers, graphic artists and editors that goes into creating it seven days a week, measures the pulse of the world.

The front pages of the collected New York Times issues that rolled off presses in 2000 tell a day-by-day story of a winnowing field of candidates and their loyal surrogates.  Those front pages flagged an icon perceived then as waning (Bill Clinton), and highlighted one that, to this day, continues waxing (his wife). In their compositions, those front pages reveal the perspective of the editors, too, who laid them out: striving for objectivity and art but, occasionally, betraying opinion.

A quick tour, in chronological order, through some of the NYT front pages from January to December 2000 can tell you almost everything you need to know about how politicians package their respective images and how the press promulgates them.

Bush v. Gore

With that, the year 2000 is over, and a new political epoch begins.

In 1992, Bill Clinton successfully mimicked Ronald Reagan in how he staged his events and crafted is image. In 2000, George W. Bush successfully mimicked the style and tactics of Bill Clinton.  The Reagan recipe was a winning formula, always improved by better tactics, technology and choreography.  And it wouldn’t end there.

Once he arrived in the White House, Bush and his team seemed to study the playbook we had developed in the Clinton White House — as we had studied Reagan’s — and the Bush team bettered it still. Visiting the National Parks. Stopping in on the troops. Calling his team down to Crawford—call them ‘the Magnificent Five’—and that now perfected cinematic technique of moving at full-stride toward the camera.

The 18 acres of the White House grounds are like a movie studio back-lot, and the Bush team made good use of every nook and cranny.  One event they established involved inviting in kids from around Washington and elsewhere to convert the South Lawn into a stadium for T-Ball games. Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett knew what they were doing, with each event staged to exploit Bush’s particular strengths at Polioptics.

The No Child Left Behind legislation defined Bush’s brand of Polioptics in 2001. One trip to promote it was to the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. The date, of course, was September 11, 2001. Chief of Staff Andy Card interrupted a class demonstration with ominous news. The event ran seven more minutes, and then much about being president changed forever.

We know the story of what happened next—Air Force One scurries aloft in a possible Doomsday scenario, setting down at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska before returning late that evening to its home hangar at Andrews AFB.  Meanwhile, back in the underground command center at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney gathers with his team. To show the world that American continuity of government and the line of succession was set, if needed, the White House released this photo with him at the helm.

President Bush with retired firefighter Bob Beckwith at the site of the World Trade Center

On September 14, Bush had his finest visual atop a pile of rubble at the site of the World Trade Center.  Bullhorn in hand, standing aside retired firefighter Bob Beckwith, the image and footage helped – in case any help had been necessary – put the entire nation and, indeed, most of the world, behind him.

Just as Clinton’s visit to Omaha Beach is surrounded in some legend about what exactly led up to it, there will always be curiosity about how much planning or spontaneity went into the Bob Beckwith moment at the site of the World Trade Center.

After that perfectly staged start, things got progressively grander in scale.  A year after 9/11, instead of commemorating the day with an Oval Office address, Air Force One instead brought Bush to New Jersey to give a TelePrompTer-ed speech before a live audience set against the backdrop of a theatrically lit Lady Liberty.

Presidents gas up Air Force One all the time for destinations whose primary purpose is a backdrop.  (The alternative, one could say, is Jimmy Carter’s Rose Garden strategy — and how did that work out for him?)  As a producer, it’s hard to quarrel with going to great lengths for a picture, but the frequency of those efforts, beginning in 2002, began to expose the behind the scenes process more than ever before.

Bush’s backdrops continued to increase in scale.  Announcing the formation of the new Homeland Security Department — and its first designated secretary, Tom Ridge — brought Bush to the foot of Mount Rushmore and a photographic framing unlike any other.

After Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s team sent him south to New Orleans to address the nation from Jackson Square.  He was lit beautifully, as were the historic buildings of Jackson Square.  The only incongruous element was the fact that the city itself had no power.

And then came the Big Kahuna of Presidential events.

Aides began that sunny morning presumably full of confidence, emboldened by news coming from Baghdad.  A tailhook landing in a perfectly fitting flight suit on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln was bold by comparison to any prior administration (though I’ll admit to having explored whether President Clinton could travel to the G-8 Summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia in a U.S. Navy submarine in homage to the days when FDR would sail aboard a warship to meet with the Allies during World War II).

Two words would haunt the Bush message team from that day forward. Watch the first few minutes of this video to rewind the sights and sounds of that afternoon in the waters off San Diego.

Bush has said he regretted how the event played out. The truth is that, with the exception of two words, his team staged a perfect event. It had all the elements that a producer plans: perfect choreography and a perfect time of day, both for the amber Western sky and the start of the evening news shows back East. Even the “skittles” – the flight deck crew of the Lincoln in their color-coded jerseys – filled the blurry background as a rainbow of sailors.

But words can kill in Polioptics. They can be powerful in a photo, as long as they don’t overpower it.  We used words with increasing effect to create exactly the photo captions we wanted, even when the newspaper caption writers didn’t cooperate.  But they bear big risk.  Today, in advance lore, “Mission Accomplished” is as maligned as Dukakis in a tank.

Had the banner suspended on the bridge of the Abraham Lincoln boasted progress, not finality – “Working Toward Peace,” for example – the storm over the event could have passed, barely remembered.  Without those words, the storm may have never occurred at all. Instead, it was the day the Iraq message began to unravel.

It didn’t cost Bush an election. John Kerry made sure of that. Footage from Kerry’s windsurfing off Nantucket became fodder for a brutal TV ad exposing his Achilles Heel.

As the 2000 campaign turned on Floridathe 2004 battle turned on Ohio. In the small town of Boardman, south of Youngstown, Kerry went goose hunting in search of swing voters. As reflected in the press coverage of the day, it didn’t go over too well.

John Kerry in Ohio, 2004

Making his own visit nearby that day, Bush was in a mocking mood saying, of Kerry, “he can run, he can even run in camo, but he can’t hide.”  Vice President Dick Cheney also weighed in.

Bush won Ohio by 136,483 votes out of 5.5 million cast, winning its 20 electoral votes and propelling him to re-election.

If I were still working a pollster, it might be hard to determine with specificity how, if, or by how much the mocking windsurfing ad, or the goose hunting photo, or the archival footage from the Swift Boat campaign affected the attitudes of swing voters as they prepared to go to the polls.

And, to be sure, it’s not the visuals alone that create a narrative, but how they’re exploited by a shrewd opponent.  But we do know this: if 68,242 Ohio voters switched votes, President Kerry might still be in office.  How many voters, precisely, were persuaded by Polioptics?  We’ll never know.


If you missed earlier parts of the the Story of Polioptics, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.

And then continue reading The Story of Polioptics. Additional parts of the narrative will appear every few days. When it’s complete, it will be archived it its own section of www.Polioptics.com.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts:

Part 7: The Internet, Pop Culture and the Rise of Obama
Part 8: The First 100 Days…And the Next Thousand
Part 9: Port of Spain
Part 10: Homage to Image

Leave a Reply