Episode 27, with guests Don Baer, Director of Communications in the Clinton White House, and “THE PRODUCERS” (Part 2)

Don Baer, Scott Sforza and Steve Rabinowitz are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: September 24, 2011 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

Herr Baer

So much about the past few weeks makes me think about the years in which I worked with Don Baer, the former Director of Strategic Planning and Communications in the Clinton Administration who is now the Vice Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Burson-Marsteller, the big global PR firm.

The same scenes and polioptic nuggets that we orchestrated from Don’s embattled West Wing redoubt from 1994 to 1997, during what was at most points a perilous period of Bill Clinton’s Presidency, were playing out anew in Washington and New York and other locales in the past month, albeit with a decidedly different tone.

Think about it. The President, his back against the wall, returns from summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to give a jobs speech before a Joint Session of Congress. It was lauded as a strong speech overshadowed, as they can so easily be, by unfortunate logistical spadework.

His staff, behind the scenes, feverishly schedule domestic “in-and-outs” — day trips from the White House — for the President to help sell his proposals in key local media markets, first to the Congressional districts of Republican Eric Cantor, then to the district of the Speaker of the House, John Boehner.

Obama visits John Boehner’s district and matches the message with a strong visual

Mixed in with the strategic scheduling, a visit to a venue much closer to home, the Rose Garden, resplendent in its crisp Fall manicure, to more firmly draw the line on taxes and spending cuts between his views and the Republicans in Congress.

* * *

This is the kind of choreography that Don mastered at the White House.

Roll the clock back 17 years.  It’s 1994.

He came to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in that year from U.S. News & World Report, and a varied career before that, but walked into a hornet’s nest. David Gergen, the politically ambidextrous advisor, was still holding onto his West Wing office, the successor to campaign wunderkind George Stephanopoulos as Director of Communications, but it was rough sailing for David (can you imagine beginning your tenure in a similar job these days with an article like this 1993 piece about Gergen and his new role by John Broder?).

Bill Clinton at a school uniforms event

Indeed, Congress would soon fall to Newt Gingrich, and Bill Clinton in 1995 would recalibrate and triangulate, with the help of outsiders like Dick Morris and Mark Penn, with Don as the insider, the crucial link. Don would give us direction to find venues and produce events with small bore, but finely-honed messages.  “Find us a school,” he might say one week, “whose grades have moved up since they started wearing uniforms.” We went to Long Beach, California.  “Find us a community,” he might command the next week, “where they provide trigger locks to gun owners.” We went to Ohio.

We couldn’t decode this methodology in the moment, but what Dick, Mark and Don, and others like Rahm Emanuel, were doing was communicating through promotion of poll-tested policies with the crucial sliver of swing voters — Penn focused on these “soccer moms” — who would through their ballots decide the outcome of Bill Clinton’s comeback in 1996.

* * *

Fast forward again.  We’re back in 2011.

With just a few hours of demarkation between domestic politics and affairs of state, the President embarks on Air Force One up to JFK Airport, choppering in via HMX-1 to the Wall Street Landing Zone New York. It’s time to tend to the foreign policy prerogatives of his job: the meetings — or “bilats” — with foreign leaders visiting for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, followed by his own speech set against the familiar green marble backdrop on the East Side of Manhattan.

But can leading the Free World today — as compared to when Don managed strategic planning in the White House — ever be unencumbered by peripheral distractions?

Just when he needed it least, the President has to read that his relatively new Chief of Staff is under the microscope in a juicy, anonymously-sourced and widely-read article in POLITICO by Glenn Thrush, John Bresnahan and Amie Parnes.  Then, a week later, journalist Ron Suskind debuts his hotly-anticpated new book, Confidence Men, which shows Suskind doing his best to imitate the Bob Woodward reportorial process and shows the White House staff more chatty than their prior reputation suggested.

At the center of controversy? A few paragraphs — one quote, even — from the President’s former communications director (and Don Baer’s distant successor) Anita Dunn. Was she taken out of context? Does it really matter? Will the book be gathering dust by next week? By week’s end, both Suskind and his subjects in the White House deserved — and hopefully allowed themselves — a stiff drink.

But wait, there’s more! The President gives his impassioned speech in the Rose Garden on a Monday. But in the prior weekend news cycle is floated new phrase, to be branded during the speech, the so-called “Buffet Rule.” Fodder for the Sunday shows! And as if the Buffet Rule and the Rose Garden Address weren’t enough, the current White House Communications Director, Dan Pfeiffer, opines with some salty seasoning help bring out the flavor of the President’s speech:

“The popular narrative is that we sought compromise in a quixotic quest for independent votes. We sought out compromise because a failure to get funding of the government last spring and then an extension of the debt ceiling in August would have been very bad for the economy and for the country. We were in a position of legislative compromise by necessity. That phase is behind us.”

But was Dan misquoted — or misinterpreted — as well? Is compromise, or at least its positioning, dead? Whatever happened to triangulation, that synthetic strategy of the Don Baer era that worked so slickly once before?  It’s a much tougher environment today, I know, where everything is contextualized, so can we please just press the erase button, Rose Mary Woods?

But we’re just getting started. Moving later into the week, the President comes up to New York and, instead of being the triangulator, he finds himself the triangulatee — at the pointy end of the vector taking incoming from Texas Governor Rick Perry and Israeli Prime Minister Benhjamin Netanyahu.

Here’s Perry, speaking in Manhattan on Tuesday before a group of Conservative Jewish leaders, using four adjectives measured for their shrapnel-spreading incendiary effect:

“Simply put, we would not be here today, at the precipice of such a dangerous move, if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”

The behind-the-podium word choice almost makes the comments at M.I.T. by former State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley, who joined us on Polioptics a few weeks ago, seem tame by comparison.

And here’s Netanyahu, using a far less blunt instrument of rhetoric, speaking directly to President Obama at the “pool spray” during their bilat, and using words to affix on his lapel an indelible metaphorical medal to go along with his U.S. Flag pin:

“I know that these leaders are under enormous pressure and I know that they are also in this house which has, from personal experience I can tell you, automatic majorities against Israel, but I think that standing your ground, taking this position of principle, which is also, I think, the right position to achieve peace – I think this is a badge of honor and I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor, and also to express my hope that others will follow your example, Mr. President.  So I want to thank you.”


Even a few weeks in one term of a U.S. President offers a trove through which to sift, but there are few people better able to deconstruct the codewords and cadences of the Presidency than my old friend Don Baer.  In this extended conversation on Polioptics, we take the three linguistic bouys of the last week – Perry’s speech, Obama’s bilat with Netanyahu, and Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly – and navigate around them, coursing through current politics and surfing back in time to when Don and I worked in the White House.

President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly

The parallels to past presidencies are many. The pitfalls are ever-present. It’s how you deal with it that matters. One thing I always admired about Don Baer: as tough as things got, however close his predators were looming, he survived with a sense of humor — sometimes dark, sometimes light — that kept a grin on our faces and put steel in our spines. Not a bad way to get through four years.

* * *

Double overtime…

If you missed last week’s show with Scott Sforza and Steve Rabinowitz, which we called THE PRODUCERS, Part 1, get ready for the sequel. Adam Belmar and I started our sit-d0wn with our respective predecessors at the White House and we got so engrossed in the conversation that we lost track of time. A full 90 minutes later, with almost enough material for two full shows, we barely noticed that the clock had moved. And could have gone on for hours.

So in this episode of Polioptics, after our conversation with Don Baer, sit back and relax as you’ll hear Steve Rabinowtiz pick up our dialogue by recounting a hilarious story of how he welcomed the Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys to the East Room by blanketing its grand parquet floor with Astro Turf. You know, to make Troy Aikman and his boys feel more at home. Stop Rabbi, please

To go back and hear how our chat with Sforza and Rabinowitz began, click here.

You’ll find especially interesting Scott’s breakdown of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.  Given the backdrop of the current controversy at the U.N., you’ll also find fascinating Steve’s recollection of the unforgettable moment on the White House South Lawn, 18 years ago this month, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat joined hands and brought prospects of a lasting peace in the Middle East to its closest point in decades.

September 13, 1993: a day when anything seemed possible.

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