Polioptics Part 10: Homage to Image

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8 and Part 9.  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 tenth and final installment of which begins below…

What’s on the front page of your favorite newspaper today?  A scene from a fire in your hometown, firefighters valiantly dousing the blaze?  What collection of video images comprises the top story on the evening news? Maybe the story came from overseas: an amalgam of human suffering edited together — along with a correspondent’s ‘voice-over’ — to show another day of fighting in a war thousands of miles away.

Those events, depending on how they are edited, depending on what’s said to accompany what’s seen, are often as authentic as they come.

Or, given that the 2010 midterm elections are only a few weeks away, did politics lead the news today?

Whatever attracted you to read, listen or tune-in, whether in your hometownin Washington, D.C. or in some distant global capital, how much of it was contrivedplannedorchestrated and choreographed?  How much of the scene you saw was spontaneous and genuine, and how much was scripted? The Story of Polioptics was designed to help you distinguish between what’s authentic and what’s produced.

In the days leading up to whatever you saw about politics, it’s likely that operatives developed an ideaspeechwriters wrote a text or talking points, and an advance team and its collaborators built a crowderected a stagedesigned a backdrop, directed a program and sent forth a principal to say the lines, hold aloft a prop and play his or her part in the theater of political discourse.

In Part 1 of the Story of Polioptics, I offered a caution to all those who too easily accept political stagecraft as genuine drama: “don’t let the show snow you.”

It’s not that I don’t believe there’s an important part in the process for political stagecraft and the historytraditions and practitioners of it.  There is.  But somewhere, perhaps here at Polioptics, people who want to know how the many participants in this circus – the politicianstheir staffsthe audiences and, importantly, the press — cooperate and collude should be shown the playbook of how it all works.  Between the soundbites and the balloon drops there are real people trying to create, project, capture and deliver a message to a wider public.  Called marketing in other arenas, it’s how some ideas flourish and others fail and, in many ways, it’s how our free society operates.

To tell this story in the broadest possible scope, I went on a journey of my own to try to conjure and present many of the images and icons that helped create a certain political aesthetic.  If I could distill what influenced me, it would help me better understand what impressed others.  If you’ve made it through the previous nine posts, you’ve surveyed over 200 years of Polioptics.

Let’s review where we’ve been.

We began with a stamp depicting a tea party that I collected as a boy.  I loved that blue of the New England evening with the specs of yellow light suggesting oil lamps burning in the wardroom of a nearby vessel anchored in Boston Harbor.

We have looked at Pulitzer Prize-winning photos and magazines from another era.  There was a time when a single image, the raising of the flag over Mount Suribachi, could describe an entire theater of war.

We surveyed the front pages of the nation’s preeminent newspaper at the high water mark of its influence in the 2000 campaign.  Whatever shot the photo editor declared front page-worthy had the potential to drive a day’s worth of political coverage and discussion.

As we wended our way from the dawn of this century toward the present, we surfed through blogs and online video, watching as command of the tools of the Internet became the determining factor of how opinion was shaped.

Some will say we’re better informed than ever before.  Others will argue that our sense of direction and understanding is skewed by a blizzard of manipulation.  That’s for you to judge.  As I said at the outset in Part 1, “my goal isn’t to sway you toward appreciation or cynicism, but I doubt you’ll stay on the fence.”

It comes to this: is Polioptics chicken or egg?  Has political imagery changed our culture, or did our culture change, causing politicians to change how they market themselves?

Fewer of us make an effort to read a newspaper.  The ink stains your hands and, at a buck or two a pop, papers are more expensive than what you can get online for free.  We no longer gather ’round the TV set to watch Walter Cronkite. Instead, DirectTV, Dish Network, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Netflix, Hulu and Apple, among others, offer us far too much choice to keep our attention trained on any one story for too long.

So what’s a politician to do?  Adapt, or die.

As you reflect on this, I hope your cynicism doesn’t elevate too much.  My opinion is that, just as marketers must differentiate brandsso too must politicians evolve to operate successfully in the environment in which campaigns are now waged.

We spent a lot of time looking at what happens in front of the lens, but probably not enough on what goes on behind it. I admire photojournalists greatly.  Many are paid by the day to shoot what they see, no matter how much method is involved in creating the scene.  Photojournalists still aim their lenses at the truth.  The best never take the preselected angle they’re spoon-fed.  They try to look beyond the edge of the tableau to tell a larger story.

Campaign duty eventually calls many of them into action.  But when not on the campaign trail, many make a living in harm’s way.  The Journalists Memorial at the Newseum pays tribute to over 2,000 members of news organizations who have died reporting the news, many of them plying their trade through a viewfinder.

In that sense, Polioptics is dedicated to all of them, especially the photographers that I watched ply their trade when I worked full time at the White House during the 1990s: Scott Applewhite, Gary Cameron, Doug Mills, Luke Frazza, Win and Wally McNamee, Diana Walker, Dirck Halstead, Greg Gibson, Paul Hosefros, Ruth Fremson, David Hume Kennerly, Ron Edmonds, Stephen Crowley and so many others. Google any one of their names, and you’ll come up with great stuff.

Images have unique power to pursuade, of course. Without images, we’re blind to atrocities; with them, we are made aware. From Treblinka to Tiananmen Square to Tehran, the truth would be be hidden, doubted, disputed, without imagery.

On June 6, 1944, on their way to liberating a continent, thousands of American and allied soldiers waded ashore on Omaha Beach, many perishing before they made it to the beach, equipped only with faith that the cause in which they were engaged was just.  The world didn’t see pictures of concentration camps — proof that those soldiers had a higher purpose in offering their last full measure of devotion — until those camps were liberated.

On June 20, 2009, a 27-year old Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was killed in Tehran, shot in the chest while she sat in her Peugeot 206, on her way to an election protest.  It was described by Time Magazine as “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.”  The video, shot on a camera phone by a bystander, spread virally, its power gathering strength with each view to galvanize global opposition to a regime.  If you need to be reminded of the power of the video, you can view it here, with full warning of its graphic content.

There is a word we haven’t used yet in this narrative – “propaganda.”  It’s not a well-liked word.  Practitioners like Leni Riefenstahl are held in contempt as manipulators of image. But it works both ways. Without the ability to tell a story visually, lacking those shots of the liberated camps, the fight against Hitler would have been harder. Greenpeace’s work might go unnoticed. Al Gore’s truth would be less inconvenient.

In politics, Ronald Reagan’s rise and legacy owes many thanks to his imagemakers.  They were masters, as was their boss. His message was powerful, as were the ways in which it was presented.  I learned a lot from them.

For Bill Clinton, visual tactics advanced the messages he was trying to send about building community, creating opportunity, and demanding responsibility.

Are the core ideas of Reagan or Clinton worth popularizing?  The efforts of White House aides in the latter years of Clinton’s second term, after I had left, helped to keep those ideas top of mind and defend him, too, against attacks using the same weapons of persuasion to remove him from office.

Let’s think of it as a form of combat — measured by approval ratings or election results — in the marketplace of opinion.

It still goes on today.  A Beer Summit in 2009 with a Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop shows Polioptics at work in President Obama’s White House, just as it is deployed with equal or greater force by those arrayed against him.

And in 2010, in the battle to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy from my home state of Massachusetts, the Bay State continued to give the president fits.  Obama traveled to Boston to buttress the foundering nominee of his party, Martha Coakley, but found that bland was no match for Brown. From Sergeant James Crowley to National Guardsman Scott Brown, you wouldn’t have expected Boston to be the hub of trouble for Democrats.

Even on October 16, 2010, Obama traveled back to the Bay State, to my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, to stump for incumbent Governor Deval Patrick.

It’s all part of the process. You stay in the arena. You take the defeats with the wins. The pendulum swings back and forth.  On Election Day, the pendulum may swing back again.

Old products die and new ones catch fire.  We might wish one side would disarm, but we are realists. The stakes are too high.  For products or politicians to win hearts and minds, on the shelves at Wal-Mart or in the court of public opinion, their brand attributes must be marketed, their surfaces polished, no matter how good their core.

May we all learn to adapt and let the most powerful image win.  Like it or not, Polioptics is here to stay.


If you missed earlier parts of the story, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8 and Part 9.

Thank you for reading. It has a been an honor to share The Story of Polioptics with you.  The complete narrative is now archived on the right hand margin of www.Polioptics.com.

Your freedom to exercise your franchise is what makes Polioptics such a fascinating and every-changing practice. Whichever way your political leanings sway you, please go out and vote on Election Day in your community.

Polioptics Part 9: Port of Spain

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8.  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 ninth installment of which begins below…

In Part 1 of the Story of Polioptics, we found ourselves in a hotel function room of the Hyatt Regency Trinidad. It was, to be sure, an odd place to start a discourse on the topic of the history of presidential stagecraft in the United States.

But a U.S. President had just arrived in the Caribbean for the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April, 2009, and that hotel function room was the first planned stop on a packed weekend schedule.  Remembering back to that first post, it seemed that before much more time elapsed in that overheated, overfilled room of hemispheric leaders, President Barack Obama, in one of his first forays overseas, might find himself in an interesting predicament.

Eight Polioptics posts ago, I promised we’d return to the place Jimmy Buffett called “the Island of the Spices” at the end of our story.  Our story has taken a few tangents through the history of presidential image making, and still has one post to go before we conclude. The goal has always been to entertain, and perhaps teach a thing or two, about how leaders in general, politicians in particular, and presidents to be precise, hone their images through techniques of production and advance work. Woven into this narrative are many of the techniques that are passed down from generation to generation of political operatives. In Trinidad, the old generation of operative met the new realities of presidential news coverage, and the challenges and complexities of controlling the message in the 21st Century came into stark focus.

Let’s remember, for a moment, where the narrative has taken us so far. Along the way during the Story of Polioptics, you’ve followed the arc of one dinosaur advance man: the unique images that shaped a political aesthetic; how those images affect subconscious perceptions in people generally; how Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan used imagery to great effect; how Bill Clinton raised the bar on production; how George W. Bush elevated it even further (and perhaps a bit too far); how the Internet transformed pop and politics and Barack Obama’s rise along with it; and, in the last post, how Obama transitioned his mastery of the campaign into changing how the White House presents itself.

And now we come back to Port of Spain.

I was standing on the periphery of the Friday night Leaders’ Reception at the Summit of the Americas trying, along with the rest of the aides present, to give the 34 heads of state and government their space.  Pete Souza, the White House photographer, stood nearby, his equipment in a protective “ready” position but not intending to make many shots in this less-than-regal environment.  The “reception”—if you could call it that—served as one big holding room of presidents and prime ministers, a logistical device to get the honored guests and their security and staff entourages into a secure space. This would let the thousand or so other invited guests be ushered into a larger ballroom where the Summit’s Opening Ceremonies would take place.

But in this large holding tank of national leaders schooling among their opposites, some had a history of following their own current.  One of them, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was, let’s say, unpredictable.

Preparing for my volunteer stint as the president’s lead advance representative to the Summit—the fifth in a series that stretched back to 1994 in Miami, when I was working in the White House full time as director of production—I studied how more-recent hemispheric gatherings had succeeded, or not.  At the 2005 Summit in Argentina, Chávez and soccer star Diego Maradona held a rally in a soccer stadium to protest the policies of the Bush Administration. Estimates put the crowd at 25,000. Addressing the outdoor assemblage, Chávez was full of invective. Maradona called Bush “human garbage.”  It was, to many, a summit in shambles.

Now, four years later, we arrived in Port of Spain expecting, in one way or another, Chávez to once again take the proceedings in an unknown direction.

International advance trips usually begin about a week before “the principal” (in this case, President Obama) arrives on Air Force One.  As the thinking goes among planners at the National Security Council and the State Department, it should leave more than enough time to iron out any details or potential snafus. After the advance work is done, and once the president touches down, it should be smooth sailing until the president is “wheels-up” a few hours or, in our case in Trinidad, a few days later.

That’s the hope, anyway.  When dealing with the Venezuelans, it’s not so easy.  On diplomatic visits like this, the lead advance person is often joined at the hip with an ambassador on the ground to attend myriad “walk throughs” of venues and oversee “countdown meetings” of the scores of support people including the staff of our our embassy in Trinidad, temporary added staff from the State Department, and contingents from the U.S. Secret Servicethe White House Communications Agency, various other branches of the U.S. military, and so on.

Ambassador Charles Shapiro

In Trinidad, a career U.S. Ambassador — Charles Shapiro, a former Ambassador to both Trinidad and Venezuela — was temporarily assigned as the U.S. Charge  d’affaires for the Summit.  Charles is a superb diplomat and had seen how Chávez operated during his days at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.  But how Chávez might behave in this, his first potential encounter with the new U.S. President, Barack Obama, was anybody’s guess. Neither Charles nor I had much luck peering up the Venezuelan’s sleeve during the several meetings of leaders’ representatives to review the proceedings for the upcoming summit. Some might have preferred Obama and Chávez keep their distance throughout the Friday-to-Sunday schedule.  If they never met, I figured, the trip could be labeled mission accomplished.  It was a naïve expectation, at best.

It didn’t take long for President Obama to put a wrench into that plan.  While I was sweating out the Leaders’ Reception, Obama played his characteristic role of cool customer.  The reception seemed to go well into overtime when, as usual, it took longer for volunteers from the host country to usher the audience to its seats.  The longer it took to get the Opening Ceremonies underway, the greater the chance that the two biggest fish in the room would pass each other, moved by the inevitable human rivulets that that always convey people through tight spaces.

At last, there was movement.  A few orders barked at elevated volume by the Trinidadian protocol staff signaled that they were ready to line the leaders up in reverse alphabetical order and troop them into the Opening Ceremonies.  (If you’ve ever watched an Olympics Opening Ceremony, you might have an idea of what was going on behind the scenes.)  At the Olympics, young athletes will behave like young athletes. At summits, world leaders will behave like world leaders. Backstage, they like to mingle. Then you get their attention, line them up, and send them out into the fully lit main event.

When I worked at the White House, this was always one of my favorite moments, played out on a number of continents. There I was, in my twenties, playing traffic cop to world leaders — Russian, Middle Eastern, Asia-Pacific, Western European, whatever — who routinely found themselves on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.  Depending on how much instruction you gave, how much choreography you orchestrated, and how you set up the press, the resulting choreography could create a compelling Page 1 shot.

But this was not one of those times when you direct the actors on the stage. We were guests in Port of Spain and this was not my show. The Trinis would have to figure out how to make the cattle call work.

In the reverse alphabetical lineup, Chávez, of Venezuela, was near the front of the line.  So too, I thought, would be the leader of the United States.  This could have been the moment that brought the two leaders together.  Then, I remembered, Spanish was the official language of this summit. That put President Obama, of Los Estados Unidos, near the back of the pack.  The Spanish language was the apparent road block standing in the way of a chance meeting.

The shot seen 'round the world

If only it could have been that easy.  Just then, Obama, from about thirty feet away, bee-lined toward Chávez.  My radar sensed imminent collision.  Few others in the room noticed what was happening. Perhaps they dismissed the notable moment about to occur, given that this reception was billed as “closed press.” Perhaps they accepted that national leaders, even of countries that publicly keep their distance, can often be cordial behind closed doors.

Closing in on Chávez, Obama extended his hand and said, without affect, “How are you?” Chávez turned — somewhat surprised as I saw it — and could only return the handshake.  Their right hands joined.  Obama put his left hand on Chávez’s shoulder.  Both men smiled.

A click of the camera captured a sense of warmth from both sides.

It was Obama’s initiative, but Chávez’s photographer.  No matter.  It still made history.  The technology that Pete Souza carries with him to upload a digital image isn’t the exclusive property of the United States.  The shot was instantly uploaded to every newspapers, blogs and computer screens around the world.

To some, the picture signaled another stop on what was being called Obama’s Apology Tour.  Dick Cheney called it “unhelpful.” Newt Gingrich said it “sends a terrible signal” about how the new administration regards dictators. To others, especially overseas, where the U.S. was trying to change its image after the Bush years, it was a stand-up moment in which America showed a willingness to put aside animosities toward its neighbors.

All because of an unscripted clasp before an anonymous photographer.  The two men could have talked for hours and not made as much news as they did in seconds.

That evening in my hotel room, I replayed in an instant, wired way, the same routine I had done hundreds of times in the Clinton years, only this time it was very different.

In the old days, after a big event, I would have a few beers in the hotel lobby with my fellow advance team members, and go to bed, hoping for one of those nights when your eyelids close and it seems like only a blink before dawn arrives. In the early morning, I would throw on jeans and a tee-shirt and race down to the nearest news stand or newspaper box to see the verdict on my event.  How did the picture look in the local paper?  In smaller media markets, they almost always played it big, dominating page 1 and filling several inside pages in the front section.

USA Today was always around in the old days. Maybe they would have a color shot on the front page.  And the big kahuna — The New York Timeshow would photo editor Lonnie Schlein decide to portray the event?  To get the lowdown, a call back to the East Coast was usually required.  My colleagues at the White House would let me know how the images looked in the Washington Post and, because they always gave good space to photojournalism, how it played in the Washington Times as well.  A last call might have been home to friends in Boston, to see how the Globe covered it.  The Globe, which prided itself on its political coverage, often played Clinton photos big.  It might take a few days, or even a week, to see how, or if, the shot merited placement in TimeNewsweek or U.S. News & World Report. When we did make the weeklies, the full-color glossy pics were instant keepers in the scrap book.

How times have changed. In my hotel room in Port of Spain, one Google search of “Obama Chávez showed thousands of hits.  The picture was everywhere.  It only took a few minutes for the cable nets to begin ranting.  Within hours, the blogs started to weigh in.  In the hours after midnight, the national stories of the major newspapers were posted online.  Then the mainstream pundits took their turns.  Advance work, that time-honored political tradition in which young operatives work for days to orchestrate one “shot” that’s supposed to tell a larger story — of sacrifice, of history, of citizens doing their best or leaders doing their job — had evolved into something I didn’t recognize.  An event planned over many months was just feeding the media engine; creating a narrative for a few hours — or in this case, a few days — of spin and counter-spin.  On that evening, the “art of advance” turned into an assembly line of image.

The next morning, as we walked from his hotel room, I told the president the shot had gone global.  He was nonplussed. “I knew that photo would get around,” he told me.

I suppose that since that August evening in Boston, in 2004, when an Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, he had become progressively more immune to the highs and lows of news coverage in the digital era.  What soars or crashes one day is often forgotten the next. New crises, or opportunities, take over the top-of-the-fold. How else could Obama endure the day-in, day-out marathon of performing the same political theater that now recycles itself every hour?  Obama had been tinged by Mayhill Fowler’s recording of his “bitter” comments at a fundraiser, but he had avoided the calamity that befell George AllenGordon Brown and even Helen Thomas, when their ill-considered comments were caught on tape.


At that moment in Trinidad, it was hard not to feel sympathy for Obama and his team of young aides.  Unlike President Clinton, or his staff, who often reveled in the historic moments of the 1990s, its tougher now to truly enjoy the wondrous journey of serving as president or working in the White House. In his October 17, 2010 story, “The Education of a President” in the New York Times Magazine, Peter Baker reported:

In their darkest moments, White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday, a societal cynicism that holds leadership in low regard…

“We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me.

The aide that Baker quoted did so anonymously, and Obama and his staff may dispute this on the record, but I sensed those same barriers to success as early as April 2009 in Trinidad. It was very different in Clinton’s day, when the smiles and fun were genuine for many on the staff. Maybe the Obama team has convinced itself that this is what passes for political joy, but Port of Spain was not joyful, and it was only a two-day snapshot of the last 635 Groundhog Days of image warfare. The pace is too quick, the glorious moments too fleeting, the microscope too intense.

In Trinidad, it didn’t take long for the cycle to begin anew. Emboldened by the tsunami of coverage of “the handshake” — or because Chávez has a hearty appetite for press — the image duel amplified the next day when Chávez upped the ante.

On the schedule was one of several smaller sessions of regional leaders — the Union of South American Nations — at another nondescript function room in the Hyatt.  President Obama was seated at the head of a U-shaped assemblage of banquet tables.  Chávez was five or six seats away.  The agenda for these meetings is often perfunctory. Everyone gets to talk, and then it’s over, the communiqué agreed to well in advance, with very little substance playing out in the room. Before the soliloquies begin, there’s the obligatory “pool spray,” when a scrum of reporters and cameramen, often escorted in “waves” — one from the U.S. and one or two from the other participating countries — pour into the meeting room, shutters whirring, flashes firing, video toggle switches always engaged.

In these sprays, a question gets belted out from the wire or newspaper reporters.  The president answers, or tries to.  Then White House aides in attendance yell “thank you” in unison and start the often physical act of flushing the pool from the room.  The same cycle repeats for the next “wave” until, a few fast minutes later, it’s over, the doors close, and the meeting gets underway.  It’s almost always a mess.  Only a few seasoned press advance professionals can really pull it off cleanly.  My friend Anne Edwards is a genius directing this journalistic ballet.

Those pool sprays are what often passes for “coverage” of a meeting between world leaders until, a little later on, “senior administration officials,” speaking “on background,” offer a “readout” of what went on behind closed doors.  Readouts, of course, lend themselves to interpretation depending on who is doing the reading out.

Chávez, in Trinidad, didn’t follow the rulebook of diplomatic-media protocol.  When the first wave entered the room, with cameras rolling, Chávez did something I had never seen before in a multilateral meeting. He got up from his chair! He started moving toward President Obama, not unlike the move Obama had made in the reception the night before when the press had been barred. But there was something in his hand. What was it?  Should the Secret Service be concerned?  There wasn’t time to react.

Chávez was showing that he was a master of one of the most important rules in site advance: props sell!  In his hand was…a book. The title was in Spanish and I couldn’t make it out, but he knew exactly what he was doing when he thrust into Obama’s hands a copy of Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.  It was meant as a gift.  A gift-prop.  Chávez and Obama both clutched the book in a moment of supreme presidential awkwardnessChávez said a few sentences in Spanish.  Photographers shot.  Reporters scribbled.  The moment was made.  Chávez sat back down.

The airwaves filled again. Watch the video of the exchange here. The blogs were refreshed. The book gifted from Chávez to Obama vaulted on Amazon’s ranking from 54,295 to 6 on that move.

The next day, Sunday, I wondered if anything could get worse. On the schedule, the last event of the summit was what was billed as a private retreat for the leaders at the official residence of Patrick Manning, the Trinidadian Prime Minister.  There were to be no aides. No security. Just simultaneous interpretation headphones that each leader could wear if needed, fed by a few select translators operating in a secure booth at the side of the room.

But nothing about this summit was turning out to be private. I could sense another photographic ambush. Somehow, I thought, the Venezuelans would figure out how to get another day in the spotlight at what was supposed to be a summit of equals.

Right before the doors of the retreat were sealed, I slipped into the room and ducked behind a curtain, into a small enclosed space where catering staff and few other stowaway aides had ensconced themselves. I waited, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Before long, I noticed my Venezuelan counterpart moving beyond our little alcove, making his way toward Obama with an English version of Galeano’s book. A gift was a gift, but I was done with impromptu photo ops on my watch.  With a swift tug, I snatched the book from the aide, saying I’d deliver it myself.  The book, eventually, made its way to the White House.

Should observers have been so exorcised by the string of encounters between Presidents Obama and Chávez?  Should I have been so sensitized by rounds 1 & 2 of their diplomatic dance for the lenses that I tried to pre-empt round 3? The debate would go on. It was left to the President to opine on the competing images at a press conference at the Summit’s conclusion.

Q: During the campaign you were criticized by some within your own party for perhaps not being able to be tough on foreign policy matters. Now you’ve had this friendly interaction with Mr. Chavez. Are you concerned at all about how this might be perceived back in the U.S. as perhaps being soft? Already one senator is calling this friendly interaction irresponsible. And as a quick follow-up, if I may, when you got the book from Mr. Chavez, what did you really think? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book; I’m a reader. And you’re right, we had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it — because it doesn’t make sense.You take a country like Venezuela — I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy. His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory. There have been instances in which we’ve seen Venezuela interfere with some of the — some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern.

On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. So if the question, Dan, is, how does this play politically, I don’t know. One of the benefits of my campaign and how I’ve been trying to operate as President is I don’t worry about the politics — I try to figure out what’s right in terms of American interests, and on this one I think I’m right.

You have to hand it to Obama for putting it in perspective.

As a boy, I read about the meeting between JFK and Khrushchev in Vienna. As a student in college, I watched on TV the summits between Reagan and Gorbachev.  As a young White House aide, I was lucky enough to witness in person Bill Clinton convening the handshake of Arafat and Rabin.  And as a dinosaur advance man, I played a bit part in the meeting of Obama and Chávez. Different stakes, to be sure, but each encounter brought big risk as leaders sought a return on investment for their outstretched hands.

Our relations with Russia aren’t perfect, but the Cold War is a relic.  True peace continues to elude the Middle East, but we are now in the midst of a new round of talks.  Will the U.S. and Venezuela ever come closer to seeing things eye-to-eye?  Maybe not during the respective terms of Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez.  But some day, just as we give Ronald Reagan due credit for opening a dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev when many felt it was not his nature, future historians and commentators will look back and remember, with some respect and admiration, when Barack Obama went to Port of Spain and offered his hand to the leader of a neighboring country.


If you missed earlier parts of the the Story of Polioptics, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8.

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 the final post:

Part 10: Homage to Image

Polioptics 8: The First 100 days…and the Next 1000

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.  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 eigth installment of which begins below…

As I polish this part of Polioptics for posting, it’s the middle of October 2010, about 631 days, give or take, since Barack Obama’s Inauguration. That leaves 369 to go before the 1,000-day mark. If there was a honeymoon for President Obama in the First 100 days, it was short-lived. Despite many accomplishments, Obama and his Administration have had to work hard for every good news cycle they could muster. If we’re well past the honeymoon phase, other observers might well offer other marriage-related metaphor to describe where we are now.

Seen through a different prism, we are only 707 days since that majestic evening in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, concluding a journey to election for a candidate named Barack Obama that traveled down a winding rural road and concluded, eventually, before a massive crowd in Chicago. In the last post, we observed how Obama’s campaign mastered the modern tools of image making, ending its quest achieving the goal every campaign sets for itself: the transfer of the principal’s title from “candidate” to “president-elect.”

Days after Obama took his curtain call in Chicago, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a segment which included interviews — many of which were conducted in the minutes and hours following that speech— with David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, and other key advisers. What they said on the broadcast was ‘on the record.’  Whatever else they may have said — to correspondent Steve Kroft, to other campaign workers, or the president-elect himself — we will probably never know.

Whatever dialogue transpired, it was probably a lot less ambiguous than what Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) said to his campaign consultant, Marvin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) in Michael Ritchie’s classic 1972 film, “The Candidate.”

It’s that same chaotic scene that might still play out after elections across the country a few weeks from today. The setting is the corridors of a California hotel, but it may as well be any other ballroom or campaign office where these discussions unfold minutes after the votes are counted and victory, or defeat, is acknowledged.  In the movie, McKay has just been elected to the U.S. Senate in a ficticious parallel to the 1970 race between John V. Tunney and George Murphy.  In the film, right after the final results come in, McKay peels Lucas away from the maelstrom for a brief, fleeting aside and asks his advisor, before the tumult quickly returns, “What do we do now?”

The image makers of the soon-to-be Obama White House had a much better sense of how to take visual advantage of the building they were about to occupy than Bill McKay’s team had for that just-won Senate seat.

Obama’s recruitment of U.S. Representative (and former West Wing staffer) Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff is well-documented.  Less known is why Pete Souza also decided to make a return trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Pete was one of Ronald Reagan’s official White House photographers and I have long admired his work from the 1980’s.  I figured Pete had hung up his White House credentials for good when Reagan rode into the sunset.  Then I learned Pete had followed Obama during his years in the Senate, capturing his journey in a coffee table book, The Rise of Barack Obama.  The book captures the kind of intimate moments — often outside of Washington — that all but disappear when a junior senator becomes President of the United States.

Or do they? It was shrewd staffing to have Pete come back to the White House to reprise his old gig.  Pete is, to those who follow him, a legendary photographer, knowledgeable from Day One about how the White House works. He is armed, in Obama’s day as compared with Reagan’s, with all of the modern distribution technologies that can share the unique, often intimate viewpoint of the president’s official photographer with billions of people around the world.

In the Obama White House, as never before, the official photographer would become a vital instrument of message projection.  Today, Pete’s pictures are posted by the thousands on the White House’s photosreams on Flickr and at WhiteHouse.gov, receiving millions of hits. Since the work of Pete and his team is U.S. Government property, it’s available for any blog, like this one, to publish 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Here’s a behind-the-scenes picture taken at the Southhampton Recreation Association in Richmond, Virginia, on September 29, 2010, that was uploaded in the days before this post was ready to publish:

Senior Advisor David Axelrod, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau, and Trip Director Marvin Nicholson (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Images that may not be of interest to all viewers, but are of intense interest to some, can find their audience, making their way from the photostream to publications and people who want to see them. In a 2009 trip I volunteered to manage for President Obama in Trinidad, for example, we set up a brief meeting between the president and global cricket legend Brian Lara.  I’m no cricket maven, but the Web is full of praise for Lara’s match-winning performance of 153 not out against Australia in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1999, rated as the second best batting performance in the history of Test cricket. I can attest from several meetings with him that Mr. Lara is a gentleman and a fine fellow. For the cricket world, it was like a meeting with Hank Aaron or Ted Williams.

Naturally, when Obama and Lara got together, a quick lesson in proper form for the batsman became part of the conversation. We didn’t want to distract from the global news of the president’s attendance at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, but we knew that cricket fans everywhere, from the West Indies to the United Kingdom to Pakistan, would get a charge out of seeing the new U.S. leader with the hero of one of the world’s most popular sports.  In the brief meeting, which was held on a patio at the Hilton Trinidad overlooking Port of Spain, no outside press were allowed to observe. None were needed. Souza snapped a quick frame and brought the digital image back to Washington with him aboard Air Force One.  It didn’t have to be a rush job, either, but within 24 hours, the picture was out, picked up in newspapers — both around the globe and within Trinidad and on many of the world’s cricket websites.

It didn’t used to be this easy. When I worked at the White House for President Clinton, “photo releases” were much more cumbersome affairs, and were rarely used. Occasionally, if the president was on vacation — such as a Thanksgiving break at Camp David — we would try to issue a photo which showed the First Family in a private setting.  The White House photo office would develop the film and prints would be handed out in the White House press briefing room for scanning and publication on the photo wire.  Only on the slowest news cycle would these shots see the light of day, or newsprint.  Photo wires, such as AP, Reuters and AFP, would balk at accepting the pictures, given that their photographers weren’t on hand to make the picture.  They still complain about it, most recently following President Obama’s August, 2010 vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.

For anyone who appreciates images of real people doing real things, as opposed to pictures of cattle calls, the wires’ argument loses some of its punch.  It’s also periodically disregarded by many newspapers, broadcast news shows and, most broadly, in the online world, which reproduce the work of White House photographers without prejudice.

The news photographers grouse against being ‘pooled,’ that is, allowing one photographer into an intimate moment for the purpose of keeping it, well, intimate.  It happens from time to time, for example, when a president visits wounded veterans in their hospital surroundings.  Under pool rules, the lone journalist allowed into the meeting is required to share their material with their colleagues, and competitors.  The alternative to this arrangement is that an intimate moment becomes anything but, with photographers laden with equipment tripping over each other to grab what is essentially the same angle, an uncomfortable circumstance for all involved.  I’ve been involved in enough of these scraps to welcome how White House photo distribution has evolved in the Internet age.

We get a much better view of how the president actually spends his day than we ever had before, as long as we don’t think of each image as an event, but merely a snapshot in time.  Pete’s Souza’s slideshow of “The First 100 Days”of the Obama White House, viewable on Flickr, is emblematic of the evolution.  Its 291 frames show private moments at the Inaugural ballsarriving at the Oval Office for his first full day of workreceiving a second Oath of Office from Chief Justice Robertsadmiring Kennedy’s portrait.

These are the types of shots that usually don’t surface until history books are published — if they do at all.  Before Obama’s presidency, almost all presidential photos were filed away in the archives or presidential libraries, unlikely to be seen again unless and until a researcher makes a specific request to uncover them. As a result, so much history remains under lock and key. But Obama’s supporters and detractors are both better off for the ability to get this better glimpse of what goes on within the walls at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  With his photos, Pete is releasing the first draft of history almost as it happens.

Along with Pete’s work, the White House Press Office is moving the Presidency from radio to video.

The history of presidents and radio broadcasts is long and colorful.  FDR gave us a large archive of Fireside Chats.  Jimmy Carter tried it during the energy crisis. Reagan gave us a weekly radio address.  (Before beginning one of them, on August 11, 1984, Reagan famously joked about bombing Russia, a classic piece of audio still widely remembered.  The radio address – and Russia – both survived that blooper.)  Presidents 4142 and 43 continued the tradition, with tighter control over the kill switch for the mic.  Under President #44, it’s “Your Weekly Address,” shot in picturesque White House locales, read from the teleprompter and recorded in high def, embeddable in any blog to spread the message.

Beyond the daily hum of official events covered by the White House press corps, the Official White House Photographer and the White House Communications Office are, together, churning out an unprecedented amout of content — visual and otherwise — on a weekly basis.  To keep up with it all, the major newspapers — such as the Washington Post , New York Times and Chicago Tribune , have created their own White House Web sites featuring reporting, blogging and multi-media assets. It’s all they can do to survive.  They’re following Politico and its minute-by-minute ticker of Obama’s termPolitico blurs the line, too, between print and broadcast, providing, on-demand, the rarely-seen archival video of the White House pool, complete with advertising. In this way, Politico, too, is monetizing pooled content that was previously stored in a vault and rarely viewed by the public in full.

The TV networks are playing catch-up, too. In approaching the production values of the glamorized fiction of NBC’s “The West Wing” and the real thing, NBC News took a cue from its drama department, assigning 32 cameras and 25 producers to make a two-hour special: “Inside the Obama White House.” You can order the DVD from NBC Universal. Cost: $10.98, down from its original price of $19.99.  CBS, not to be outdone, made Obama a staple of “60 Minutes,” with Steve Kroft’s interviews reaching 25.1 million viewers.  And ABC got in the act too, with its own day of White House programming to offer it’s slant on the unfolding health care debate.

The memorable pictures always get an audience across the broadcast mediums. At the G-8 in Italy, ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper blogged about this saucy shot that set the tabloids aflutter. Tapper’s post debunked the snickering as an example of how the lens can lie.  It it didn’t stop ABC’s Good Morning America, however, from having a little more fun with it.

Now, well into Obama’s First 1000 days, the feverish interest in all things Obama, like his initial poll numbers, have come down from their earlier highs. We’re in the final weeks before the midterm elections, watching the drama unfold in key Senate, House and gubernatorial races. But it’s nothing like the froth that accompies a presidential election. Luckily, for those who live for politics, Pete Souza and Politico are pumping out content, and the White House is up for grabs every 1,500 days.


If you missed earlier parts of the the Story of Polioptics, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.

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 9: Port of Spain
Part 10: Homage to Image

Polioptics Part 7: The Internet, Pop Culture and the Rise of Obama

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6.  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 seventh installment of which begins below…

The last post brought us up through the 2004 election, George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry.  By 2008 standards, it was antiquated.  By 2012 standards, it will probably be considered prehistoric.

Every election cycle will bring with it dramatic new advances in message-sending technology, but 2004 may go down as the last one fought primarily on the traditional media battleground.  After all, Facebook back then was still slowly coursing its way through college campuses rather than the home of more than 500 million members and the subject of a blistering new film from West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.

The 2004 election was so…old media.  The concerted attack on Senator Kerry was, after all, the Swift Boats paid media campaign. True, the Swift Boat ad buy was small, comparatively, to the expenditure of the nominated Republican and Democratic candidates. But it undermined the Kerry campaign through endless repetition, for free, on broadcast airwaves and through the cable pipe into voters’ homes via political programming. In 2008, the Swift Boat effort would have gone viral much faster, as the less effective “Celeb” ad did from the McCain campaign that tried to compare Barack Obama to Paris Hilton.

And what will happen in 2012.  Will the “October Surprise” turn into the “November Surprise,” or even the “Election Day Surprise”? The killer message can now speed through the Web and land on a smart-phone at the speed of light.

The old pollster in me can’t resist proffering a few questions:

[poll id=”2″]

[poll id=”3″]

Think about what’s happened to news delivery since the 2004 election. You’re not the only one thinking about it. For traditional media companies, it’s a life or death issue.  If these questions were asked of a large group of politically engaged voters in 2003, the percentage of those answering “yes” would likely have been very small.  Today, among the general population, the number of those answering ‘yes’ is on a steady climb.

In 1996, when we were “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century” for President Clinton and Vice President Gore, the Internet was a non-factor in political combat.  Campaigns erected Web sites populated with static stuff: bios, phone numbers, issue papers.  Records show the Clinton re-elect raised only $10,000 on the Web.

The Clinton/Gore 1996 Home Page

Now move forward four years.  In 2000, John McCain won New Hampshire. When he accepted the victory, he did so from a podium that bore his site’s URL.  That event was seen on live television across the country.  Promoting a Web address through free media was a totally new idea at the time.  Yet there it was: a shrewd McCain staffer thought to paste the URL on a placard in a position that no lens could miss.  A viewer at home, inspired to join McCain’s cause, might make a brief note of the address and go online later to make a donation.  One event in New Hampshire yielded free exposure to 49 other states and encouraged immediate action.  The result: a $2.2 million online haul in a week.

Add on four more years, and Howard Dean showed the country how the Internet could organize volunteers on a national scale.

Howard Dean’s 2004 Home Page

Now moving forward one more time, to 2008, Barack Obama raised half a billion dollars online through his Website.

For Obama, and Mitt Romney, the Internet also became a movie theater.  Traveling in Iowa in 2007, I ran across Michael Kolowich following Governor Romney at the Iowa State Fair.  Dressed like Survivor’s Jeff Probst, with grey hair and toting an advanced mini high-definition camera from Sony, he seemed anything like the lumbering cameramen who wielded cameras the size of small tree trunks in Bill Clinton’s day.  Michael told me was a friend of Mitt’s and gathering footage for something called MittTV.  Back at my hotel room, I logged on to see what he had produced.  Combining his fresh footage, music and voice-over while sitting in an airport waiting lounge, Kolowich cut together a news-quality mini-documentary presented in 16×9 aspect ratio and streaming in its own online player.

Back in 1992 working for Governor Clinton, much was made about how that campaign was trying to bypass traditional media, but the spin was always more than the reality.  In 2008, Kolowich was finally making real headway, producing entertaining shorts and posting them to the Web.  You had to be interested enough in Mitt Romney to go online and look for MittTV, but for those who made the effort, the videos offered a more expansive portrait of the candidate and his family than the networks or cable news would ever air.  It was only a matter of time, I thought, before such content was readily pushed directly to the handheld screens of the voting public.

Elsewhere on the trail, traditional reporting was also losing ground.  The most experienced reporters still worked for the major newspapers, but those newspapers were no longer the first place that readers went for information.  Even their Websites were being bypassed. You might end up at the same place, but getting there now included a trip though the sites of media news sites and aggregators that linked to all of the relevant reporting on a single subject from across the mainstream media landscape.  Case in point: when Senator Edward M. Kennedy died in August, 2009, the Washington Post offered a rich source of coverage, but it was easier to see the range of reporting by first visiting fivethirtyeight.com, Politico and, of course, Drudge, whose site offers the closest facsimile of the experience walking past a newspaper box of old.

It’s the ultimate media cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s one that I’ve avoided addressing so far in the Story of Polioptics, but its enduring presence in our lexicon speaks to its truthfulness.  Online resources trace it, perhaps erroneously, to a Chinese proverb, but it may have come to prominence in an old advertising trade journal.  The December 8, 1921 issue of Printer’s Ink included an article by Fred R. Barnard entitled “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words” in which the author discussed promotions that adorned streetcars.  Even Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours,” or “A good sketch is better than a long speech.”

Whatever its origin, the digital content chiefs of the modern presidential campaign have picked up on the idea, providing more content — in the form of videos, photo galleries and Flickr feeds — than newspapers had resources to gather or room to cover.  On the surface, the Obama Websites and mobile apps from 2008 provided an attractive portal to learn more information about, contribute to, and volunteer for the candidate.  Digging a little deeper beneath the surface, though, is a still-vibrant Obama Flickr photostream that, as of this writing, contains nearly 56,000 images, stretching from the present to the earliest days of the campaign in 2007.  Each one of them, in its own way, offers a front row look or a backstage view of Obama’s campaign shot by his staff, volunteers or sympathizers.  This volume of content was never available from newspapers or cable networks, and likely never will be, but it’s now out there for anyone to see.

This Bill Clinton-era concept of bypassing the traditional media only increased as the 2008 Obama Campaign gave way to the 2009 Obama White House and as BarackObama.com transitioned to WhiteHouse.gov.  In the effort to pass comprehensive health care reform legislation, the White House Website included new features with streaming video from White House aides or citizens designed, as the site said, to combat “a lot of misinformation being spread by defenders of the status quo.”

The experiments begun by Michael Kolowich and others in the 2008 campaign have now become a part of official government Websites.

Compare that to the White House site in Clinton’s day.  It’s like looking at Alexander Graham Bell’s contraption and putting it up against the Droid.

The use of video in politics was building toward this for a while.  It was clear where things were headed in December 2006 when Senator Obama deadpanned this introduction to a nationally-televised football game.

Perfect delivery.  Perfectly pitched.  Perfect production quality (including a dolly shot).  Nice musical score.  No journalistic filter.  The trend continued as Hillary and Obama launched their campaigns from their living rooms, spread virally to contributors. It was unprecedented, but soon became the standard.  Even Fred Thompson lent his considerable actor’s cadence to the mix.  Hillary went so far as to recruit Vince Curatola from The Sopranos to tease her campaign song.

On assignment from Men’s Vogue in the summer of 2007, I headed to Iowa to see how campaigning was being waged for, and through, the lens.  I saw Hillary’s campaign cover all the basics: fill a high school school gym; put a cross-section of voters in the bleachers; wade into the audience for questions; include in the backdrop a few well-chosen, easily digestible words and; of course, don’t forget the American flag, hung vertically to recall a Joint Session of Congress.  But unlike the Romney or Edwards campaigns, she didn’t have a trailing videographer to capture video for a quick-turn edit and post to her Website.

Images of the Iowa campaign

By contrast, over the course of my heartland visit, Obama skirted the bigger cities, opting instead for rustic enclaves. In the rural town of Atlantic, Iowa, his team passed up an air-conditioned hall for, literally, a stockyard.  Wooden rafters.  Dusty floor.  Rickety chairs.  Hand painted signs on butcher paper. Soft lighting.  Theater, really, in the round.  Let the other guys fill the cinder block gymnasiums or add machined backdrops and advanced production elements.  The Obama campaign was going for an image of authentic grassroots interest, and what better place to promulgate that than an event site with a dirt floor?

An Obama campaign event in Atlantic, Iowa

Obama’s stop in Atlantic might have been looked at by other campaigns as a throwaway event.  It was in the afternoon, on a Saturday at the end of a long week, and destined for little real-time news coverage.  Sure, a few news photos would make it to the national wire, but it was unlikely any of them would grace a front page or be seen as “the shot of the day.”  But for filmmaker Amy Rice, who was trailing along filming her documentary for HBO, the rural scene fit perfectly with the movie’s title, “By The People.” Moreover, stops like this allowed the campaign to post even more content on the Obama Flickr photostream, adding to the frame-by-frame story of a candidate connecting at the grass- and net-roots.

From those determinedly rural beginnings, a more-polished, mass-marketed, standardized Obama event emerged.  While opponents tinkered with the look and feel of their events, focusing more on word choice for their backdrops than on the totality of event design and choreography, Obama’s “Change We Can Believe in” set, with its Gotham typeface against a blue field, was rigidly consistent — hypnotic, by design.

And here is where traditional campaigning segues to incredibly disciplined marketing.  Obama wasn’t just “staying on message” through what he said; he was staying on message in how he looked.  His campaign understood how to breed warmth and acceptance: Create a tested presentation; perfect it over time; stay with it relentlessly knowing that style and repetition breed familiarity.

One more tool Obama relied on, and does still, is the TelePrompTer. In 1959, the producer of I Love Lucy, Jess Oppenheimer, filed Patent #2883902, a device to help performers memorize scripts.  In Clinton’s White House, prompters were the exception, used only for only big events.  Mindful of the President’s propensity to veer off script, there were many who thought he should use them more.  But the counterarguments were that:

1)   They’re expensive;

2)   They’re complex;

3)   The glass paddles on which the script is projected look bad on video and in stills (and this is true), and;

4)   They’re perceived as a crutch.

Additionally, like any technology, they’re also prone to the inevitable screw ups that come from speeches with multiple revisions and prompter operators who aren’t fully in sync with the speaker.

One of the most famous prompter snafus came on September 22, 1993. President Clinton was addressing a Joint Session Congress on his proposed health care legislation but the wrong speech was loaded into the machine.  Several aides noticed the problem backstage as Clinton turned quizzically to Vice President Al Gore who was seated behind him.  With Congress, and the world watching on live television, the show had to go on.  He delivered the first part his speech largely from memory until the problem could be fixed.

The Obama Campaign (and now his White House) had a considered view about production and performance of live events: hitting the right phrase, in the right cadence, whether speaking to a Joint Session of Congress or a crowd in a corn field, is worth risking the downsides of using a TelePrompTer.  Does Obama take criticism in certain circles for doing this?  Of course.  There are Websites and blogs devoted exclusively to the subject, but until former Vice President Walter Mondale chimed in, very little of the criticism had crossed into the mainstream.  Instead, what does make a difference is the considerable production advantage from the TelePrompTers and their Army-trained operators supplied by the White House Communications Agency. When the event starts, the cameras are always rolling and the world is always watching, and the president rarely trips over his message. During 2008, the Clinton and McCain campaigns didn’t embrace the tools of television production. In comparison, Obama, like an anchorman, delivered perfectly polished paragraphs each time out.

With increasing frequency, candidates at many levels from both parties are taking to the stage with the aid of a TelePrompTer.  Sarah Palin must know her delivery is better with a prompter, as cluttered it may sometimes look with the glass paddles erected between her and the cameras.  And following his win in the 2010 Arizona Republican primary, John McCain, who was rarely seen with a TelePrompTer two years ago, had it front and center for his victory speech, his eyes often glued to scrolling prompter.

It may offend some people’s sensibilities, but even great candidates need great production in a video age when appearance counts and every sentence might become the soundbite for the evening news.  Indeed, in the Internet age, every appearance may bypass the evening news and be posted online in its entirety, from introduction to conclusion.  The state-of-the-art of political production is passed down among advance people from generation-to-generation.  Political practitioners of a certain age got their first taste of the do’s and don’ts of the campaign trail from Jerry Bruno’s long-out-of-print memoir of his globetrotting years with John F. Kennedy called The Advance Man.  In 1998, I collected some of the best lessons passed down to me organized them into a booklet, “Notes on Creating Visuals & Presidential-Style Communications,” elements of which have been incorporated into the advance manuals of subsequent campaigns, including that of Senator Obama.

The Obama election night rally in Grant Park on November 4, 2008 incorporated many of the timeless lessons of political production, and elevated them to a new level.

When the president-elect’s acceptance speech ended, the music that played immediately after he finished speaking wasn’t an instantly-recognizable song from Bruce Springsteen, U2 or Motown, to which some advance people gravitate believing, mistakenly, that it will elevate an event.  Rather, the music at Grant Park was the instrumental soundtrack theme from a moderately successful 2000 Denzel Washington movie, Remember the Titans, which is based on the true story of African American football coach Herman Boone and how he brought together the racially divided football team at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria Virginia.  Obama had visited T.C. Williams earlier in the campaign and gave a shout-out to Coach Boone.  And in Denver, when Obama accepted the Democratic Nomination at Invesco Field, another track from the album was played.

All the elements of packaged political persuasion came together in Chicago at Grant Park, in many respects a perfect event.

Section 11 of my booklet on creating Presidential-style communications focuses on music.  It reads, in part, “Leave the audience with a mature, adult sound in their ears.”  That sums up the entire Obama 2008 effort: a mature, adult production in all respects – Internet, the stage set, strategic use of prompter, even music at Grant Park – all pivotal ingredients of Obama’s victory.

As the Obama team savored victory, for some a new question arose: how would the elements of visual production, so successful in a presidential campaign, translate to the everyday work of government in the White House? We’ll take up that question in the next post.


If you missed earlier parts of the the Story of Polioptics, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6.

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 8: The First 100 Days…And the Next Thousand
Part 9: Port of Spain
Part 10: Homage to Image

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

Polioptics Part 5: Director of Production

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.  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 fifth installment of which begins below…

Part 4 of the Story of Polioptics opened in 1976 and swung open the door to the media presidency.  Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, each in their own way, ran outsider campaigns in ’76 and ’80 and won their contests riding a wave of the mere exposure effect.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush temporarily stalled that trend, becoming the first sitting vice president to win election since 1836, when Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson.  A few pivotal visual moments aided the vice president’s cause. One was this watershed sequence in the presidential debate against Governor Michael Dukakis when, in response to a provocative question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw, the governor offered a clinical response to what many husbands would consider fightin’ words.

Then there was the Bush campaign’s mocking ad of what advance people hold high as the most spectacularly failed photo op in presidential campaign history.  And to put the nail in the Dukakis’s coffin, there was Willie Horton.

Once in office, however, Bush failed, with few exceptions, to match his predecessor’s mastery of the visual.  I was captivated by this Diana Walker shot for Time of President Bush at Magic Hour with the troops in Kuwait — and I learned a lot about imagery from Diana during my White House years — but, beyond that, the enduring images of Bush that visualists recall today are supermarket scanners and looking at your watch.

William Jefferson Clinton then took the free media-dominated visual campaign to a new level.

Back in 1991, when his title was simply Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, I answered an invitation from an old friend from the Dukakis campaign to attend the Clinton advance school in Little Rock. I looked at the calendar and saw that I had eight months before I was scheduled to begin business school. Why not head back on the road, see a few new parts of the country, and help out the long shot Democratic candidate?  I ended up never going to business school.  I ended up in the White House.

With a few initial advance trips for Clinton under my belt, I went home to Boston in early 1992 and took stock of the rote events featuring candidates of both parties that were being staged in front of blue curtains.  A question kept gnawing at me: What Would Deaver Do?  In a campaign whose most captivating visual was Ross Perot holding up a chart, how can you position a presidential candidate as more action-oriented?

The California primary was the biggest prize for Democratic candidates.  That summer, the America’s Cup was being staged off the coast of San Diego.  What better backdrop for a man of action than the foamy surf of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by tacticians and winch grinders?  With this JFK shot in mind, I faxed a note to a friend on the governor’s advance staff suggesting that Governor Clinton should go sailing with one of the America’s Cup teams.  Bad idea.  We have since learned that the high seas bring high risks. My note, thankfully, was ignored.

As the months passed, taking cues from those old pictures of Reagan in Time Magazine, my eye for the visual became more refined. I stayed out on the road full time for Governor Clinton, moving from coast to coast helping to produce events for the campaign on an increasingly grand scale.  Channeling that iconography that had such a powerful impact on me as a boy, and carrying with me Reagan’s best moments that I had watched from my dorm room in college, my events mixed together the political ingredients of front page photos. There were colorful characterscaption-inspiring props, the sense of motion that excites editors, music that adds rhythm to an event, and lighting which accentuates the key elements.  These ingredients were then baked into compelling campaign moments.

The job of a site advance man is like that of an architect designing an urban landscape. Every event should be designed down to last square the inch using a pencil, ruler and graph paper. Consider this sketch as a case in point: I was in Baltimore operating with vague instructions from Little Rock to find an event site for a late afternoon hit somewhere within 15 minutes driving distance of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.  By happenstance, I drove my rental car into the parking lot of a nearly deserted baseball field called the Randazzo Softball Complex just a few miles from the BWI runway.  Beyond a couple of guys playing pickup softball, the place was a blank canvas.

“Can you put together two teams?” I asked the ballplayers. I said we might be able to reach out to a screen printing shop to create some appropriate softball uniforms to finish the scene.  We printed tickets, designed pennants and recruited a crowd. If you build it, they will come. What began as batting practice became an evening spectacle played out in front of 3,000 fans.  The notes scratched out on ruled paper became this: a Maryland softball game instead of a rally, written up in the Washington Post oozing with metaphor.

Clinton didn’t need to make a speech.  All we needed was a classic photo op – throwing out the first pitch — to capture just the right message in the stories in the next day’s newspaper.

To the annoyance of Clinton’s traveling staff, the scene proved too fun to leave at that.  The governor also took a turn at the plate and they worried that it would draw analogies to Casey At The Bat: Mighty Clinton striking out.  Instead, he beat out an infield single, and scored a run for the anointed “home team” — the Stingers.

Elsewhere along the 1992 campaign trail, steel towns proved ripe for visuals.  Weirton, West Virginia oozed history — a town where both John and Robert Kennedy visited during their respective campaigns.  Bill Clinton and his new running mate, Al Gore, would visit the town on one of their stops on their first bus tour after leaving the Democratic Convention in New York City.  Wierton Steel, which has since gone bankrupt and been sold to foreign investors, was then a model for employee stock ownership and was happy to host the new ticket.  But to make the picture work it helped to have their hard hats labeled.

Another bus tour took us to Central Florida, the Sunshine State’s staunchly Republican horse country.  We found the Ocala Shrine Rodeo Arena unused and convinced the decision makers in Little Rock that we could fill it with a rabid throng to welcome the Democratic Ticket.  They didn’t believe us, but were happy to find folks hanging from the rafters when the busses arrived.

To lend more drama to the moment, we planned to have the candidates’ tour bus roll right off the highway into the middle of the packed bowl, forming an instant backdrop for the event.  It was one thing to pack a community center in Democrat-dominated West Virginia; quite another to top that in heavily Republican Florida.  Waking up at our Holiday Inn the next morning, coverage in the influential St. Petersburg Times made all the effort worthwhile. Of particular note was the declarative column by local pundit Howard Troxler:

“But it was Ocala that stuck with me the most. That crowd hooted and hollered and jumped like nothing else I’ve seen, and as I sat there, the thought that I had been pushing aside for days finally fought its way out into the open: He’s going to win, isn’t he?  He’s going to win Florida, and he is going to be president.”

Howard Troxler Column
St. Petersburg Times
October 7, 1992

When a politically unpredictable columnist declares, as a result of the images you created, that your Democratic candidate is going to win deep in Republican territory, it validates the days of sweat and worry that went into making it happen.

Less than a month later, the Clinton-Gore advance team road warriors gathered in Little Rock on Election Night.  Campaign Scheduler Susan Thomases assembled us in an empty office building and described — in terms unbelievable at the time — how we would soon find ourselves overseas representing the President of the United States on historic state visits.  As we stood there, weary from weeks of nonstop campaigning, we couldn’t wait to get our passports stamped.

In one way or another, many of us made our way to Washington to begin pursuing Susan’s promise.  Persistence — and equal doses of luck and good timing — soon sent me to the White House as one of the President’s three schedulers.  When a White House event lacked a visually-minded producer, I lent a hand in bringing Mike Deaver’s production values to Clinton’s White House.  We were choreographing front-page moments set against one of the world’s most recognizable backdrops.  In the spring of 1993, when the tragedy that inspired Blackhawk Down sped the return home of the Marines stationed in Mogadishu, we worked to suitably welcome them back to the South Lawn.  It was a stage unlike any other.

My big break came in September that year when the President traveled to meet Pope John Paul II for the first time at World Youth Day in Denver. I wasn’t there, but word quickly came back of a significant advance snafu that has since become legend.  A member of our staff, trying to reduce the human clutter of people wandering between “the principals” — the president and the 73-year-old pontiff — and the planned backdrop of Air Force One, yanked one of them aside, a white-robed minister, said to be the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

Advance people can become too focused on perfection.  Sometimes, you just have to trust the photographers to hold their fire, let the shot clear itself out and the event to find it’s groove.

That gave me, at age 27, an opportunity to serve as the White House director of production.  Every day, my job would be to help manage the event portfolio with responsibilities similar Mike Deaver in the decade before.  One of the early memorable moments was the signing of legislation establishing Americorps.  The plan started out as rather ordinary: erect a tent on the South Lawn; invite a crowd; usher in the press; make a speech; sign the bill with a handful of pens emblazoned with the Presidential Seal and call it a day.

But tents are hard to work in. They muffle sound, kill light and restrict maneuver.  It’s damned tough to make a good picture in a tent.


“So,” I thought, “let’s tweak it a bit.” A diagram was drawn.  Some persuasion was needed.  Eventually, when the president emerged from the Oval Office expecting a routine bill signing, we ushered him down South Drive, hidden from view.  He took his place behind a grove of trees among a gaggle of red-jacket Americorps volunteers who would escort him up the South Lawn to the event site.  Positioned 50 years away with a clear line of sight was a selected pool of photographers strategically positioned to capture “the walk up.”  The band was cued.  The walk began.  The shutters whirred.

Here’s what made this image Page One material in the New York Times and why it is still remembered: it was a cinematic moment.  George H.W. Bush rarely did events that featured physical movement.  They were static, often staged in front of that ubiquitous blue drape.  Instead, we looked at what Hollywood was doing — the framing of and iconic scene in Armageddon was borrowed from a similar moment in Tombstone, which was a takeoff of the beloved image of The Magnificent Seven.  Lenses love motion, whether on foot or horseback – the genuine smiles on the kids faces; the clapping hands extended; the legs captured in mid-stride — and we were feeding the lenses.

My most-cherished project – the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in 1994 – was also my biggest screw-up.

A story board from Normandy

We went to Europe twice on White House “pre-advance” trips to story-board how the images might play out in the press. We studied archival footage of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 visit to commemorate the 40th Anniversary, site of the emblematic “Boys of Point du Hoc” speech that made Peggy Noonan famous.  I remembered, and greatly admired, news magazine photos of Ron and Nancy in a seemingly private moment visiting the graves of fallen soldiers. At Nettuno Cemetery in Italy, for example, we worked with the wire photographers to give them special access to pre-planned stops on the president’s route through the soldier’s final resting place.  They used that access to stage remote-fired cameras to capture the visit from new angles.

But while much of the visit to Normandy would echo Reagan’s from a decade earlier, we decided to do something Reagan never did: visit Omaha Beach itself.

Clinton couldn’t do it alone—that would not adequately tell the story of the veterans’ sacrifice.  So we researched the archives of D-Day Medal of Honor recipients like Bob Slaughter who planned to make the return trip to France, and we selected three veterans still sprightly enough to accompany Clinton for a long walk down a winding path to Omaha where they would say a prayer for fallen comrades.  We storyboarded that walk, too.

The Secret Service, understandably, expressed reservations about the idea; after all, the walk would end at the water’s edge beneath the high ground that five decades before offered an advantageous position to repel the invading allies.  The contours of the coastline hadn’t changed in 50 years, and the same high ground was a headache to neutralize with counter-sniper teams.  But we worked it out – spotting the planned prayer in an area that could be safely protected.

Then, a last minute curve ball.  A senior member of the White House staff cut a deal with Newsweek for Pulitzer-winning photographer Eddie Adams – memory can’t erase these shots of his from the Vietnam War – to have a private, exclusive photo opportunity to cover Clinton on the beach.

The Secret Service doesn’t like curve balls, especially on a wide open beach. The agent assigned to work with me insisted we take steps to insure that the president not venture further onto the beach out of the secure area.  To mark a boundary that the president could easily see, I found a field of large rocks that separated the fine Omaha Beach sand from the tall grass that led up to the National Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.  Over the course of five sweaty minutes, I ferried a small pile of those rocks about 30 feet onto the beach.

When the president approached with his accompanying veterans, I pulled him aside and told him about the curve-ball we were thrown and cautioned him to stay on our side of the improvised rock pile to assure his safety.  He said okay and rejoined the decorated vets.

The prayer happened as planned. It was a soulful, genuine momentPhotos that quickly moved on the wire, and in the world press, reflected that. I thought — with some satisfaction — that we put our own imprint on commemorating D-Day, breaking out of the famous Reagan mold and offering a memorable moment that would fill veterans unable to make the trip with much deserved pride.

Unfortunately, we weren’t done. The veterans were ushered back to my position near the grass out of camera range. Adams moved in.  But he had lost a step since Vietnam.  Minutes passed as he changed lenses and adjusted his position. Clinton, lacking much else to do on the beach, killed time waiting for Adams.  Eventually, he wandered over to our stone pile and, ad libbing our script, squatted in front of them.  He fashioned the 20 or so rocks placed as a boundary marker into the shape of a cross, just like the 9,000 American crosses at the cemetery high above us.

This simple act — the emotional coda to several days worth or heart-wrenching remembrance – was the equivalent of giving a year’s worth of material to Rush Limbaugh. Loaded with ammo, the talk show host roared into action and thrust his criticism onto the airwaves.  I haven’t listened to Rush in a while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he still talks about it.  To this I can attest: when Barack Obama recently visited the Louisiana coastline to see for himself the tar balls from the BP oil spill that washed up on the beach, I received a number of snarky emails that compared the new president’s photo op with my 1994 folly (it’s interesting, by the way, the convenient cropping that went on with the Obama scene).

It’s fair to argue about the genuineness of what was, frankly, a scrupulously planned set of events.  But in the modern presidency, with a press corps that demands access, is there any choice but to plan?  The alternative—and I can attest to this, too, from many unplanned presidential moments in my experience—is media mayhem.   Our objective in going to Normandy—part of any president’s job—was to honor the sacrifice of our veterans and show them a country’s gratitude.  The compositions are largely interchangeable.  The task is the same, no matter if the advance people are representing President ReaganClintonBush or Obama.  We are telling a story.  Sometimes it is sad; sometimes it is uplifting.  In the 1990′s, the lenses of the traveling press corps were our only immediate conduits to people back home. In fairness to Clinton, he hadn’t a clue the rocks would be there. He reacted as many might as a photographer fumbled for his lens and delayed a shoot, reflecting on many days spent amid thousands of crosses.  He made one of his own.

My error—knowing how any action taking place in front of a lens can be misconstrued—was veering from the planned script.

In June 2009, Barack Obama continued the long tradition of U.S. Presidents paying homage to veterans at Normandy. As we read the stories of veterans who return or are no longer there, it’s always a moving moment.  As fewer remain of the Greatest Generation each day, the process of honoring them in person is coming to an end. I only wish, with Clinton’s visit, I hadn’t allowed a photo too far.


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

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 6: The 21st Century Presidency
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

Polioptics Part 4: Road to the White House

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.  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 fourth installment of which begins below…

In Part 3, the “Mere Exposure Effect” showed us how images create a positive reaction among viewers exposed to something new; the good vibes increasing the more familiar it becomes.  It’s what happens when something becomes part of our daily fabric, no longer alien, like a comfortable chair.

Beginning in early 2007 and throughout 2008, the team marketing Barack Obama transformed a person known to only few and made him fit the American voter like a comfortable chair, at least among 53% of the electorate and the 66,882,230 people who cast a ballot for him and running mate Joe Biden.

The 2008 margin of victory was much greater than 1976, but the effort to market the outsider through command of the then new tools of electronic campaigning was in many ways the same.  A campaign based far from Washington, D.C. managed by a small circle of advisers.  A candidate new on the national scene known to few outside his geography, but with fresh packaging and broad awareness.  The mere exposure effect in action.  His name was Jimmy Carter and he too, as well as his successor, Ronald Reagan, fit America like a comfortable chair.

Our story picks up in 1976.  It’s just after the Bicentennial.  Gerry Ford is trying to hold onto the office he inherited from Richard Nixon.  Television – and the evolution of the national network evening news programs— is changing political marketing.  “Paid media” and “free media” are entering the political lexicon.

Paid media is is the product that political consultants create with their film cameras and editing machines, along with print and radio ads and, later, direct mail.  They broadcast the message to likely voters in costly 30-second TV productions during prime viewing hours. The spot below for Jimmy Carter is quaint by today’s standards.

Free media, on the other hand, is how candidates get their message out without spending money to buy airtime. It occurs as a part of the the campaigning process when politicians hold open-press events in various media markets.  Balloons, smiling babies, and handmade signs are part of the colorful mix.

Money is spent, of course: on dispatching advance teams around the country for several days to orchestrate the movements and choreograph the visuals to match the day’s message.  This is followed by flying the candidate, his staff and the traveling press corps in a chartered jet in hot pursuit.  At the height of campaign season, the cycle repeats two to four times a day, or more, during round-the-clock, get-out-the-vote nonstop fly-arounds.  As logistically complex as it is, compared to writing checks to TV stations to air your spots, it’s exposure on the cheap.  It comes as well with the added benefit of third-party local press validation of campaign themes.

After the event, news crews from local stations transmit by microwave or physically carry the footage they shoot back to the station.  In the case of national networks, they courier the tapes or or uplink the footage via satellite back to the bureau.  Either way, the raw feed gets churned through the editing machine.  The good stuff gets logged and extracted, cobbled together in what’s known as a ‘package.’  The correspondent tracks a voice-over to the edited cuts.  The piece is readied for air, cued by the anchor.  In the process it becomes, in effect, a commercial for the candidate produced free of charge.

In 1976, more than three decades ago, candidates were already established free media content creators.  The networks served as the conduits of their message.  Check out the video of Harry Reasoner introducing a package by Sam Donaldson reporting from Plains, Georgia on the ABC evening newscast on July 5, 1976. Reasoner tees up the story at the 07:55 mark of his broadcast in the archive clip below.  For a trip back in time, watch the whole show, and its commercials, for the full effect.  This old package about a day on the campaign trail seems as far removed from The Rachel Maddow Show as Avatar is from Saving Private Ryan, but it says a lot about where we are now.


When videotape replaced film as the standard format for electronic news gathering, or “ENG,” it accelerated the process but didn’t change the paradigm.  Gathering news for television still meant dispatching a crew of at least three people to a campaign event: the trench coated correspondent; the cameraman shouldering a bulky camera; and an audio technician, tethered to the camera guy by an umbilical cord, with a video recorder slung over his shoulder and a boom microphone, known as a “squirrel,” held aloft to capture the ambient sound.

The new technology and tape format dramatically simplified the editing process, cutting the time drag of developing and drying celluloid and allowing for multiple angles in a report and synchronized sound from different sources.  Free media was in endless supply, as long as candidates — like Jimmy Carter in his “Peanut One” campaign plane — stayed on the move.  Every new media market they visited represented a supply of new free media packages destined for air.  The packages could air on the noon, six and 11 pm newscasts, introduced by excited anchors thrilled to have their town the focus of the national campaign.

Carter enjoyed several narrative arcs to burnish his message.  First, a dose of celebrity was added to the 1976 campaign.  Carter’s image recalled Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy to Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid. Another attractive arc of the narrative was Carter as the nuclear engineer, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. And for the audience drawn to his folksy backstory, Carter was the peanut farmer turned governor, a cool outsider ready to shake up Washington.

After his election, President Carter enjoyed the kind of honeymoon that many presidents expect from their first year in office.  Images of him carrying his bags onto Marine One were a welcome contrast to the image of Richard Nixon’s Imperial Presidency.

Carter made his visual breakthrough with Camp David and the peace talks he held there between Egypt and Israel.

First, the world saw through released photographs the negotiators sequestered in the Catoctin Mountains. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin spending time together opened a new chapter in Middle East history. Following the talks, back in Washington, there was the announcement — a rare public event staged on the North Lawn of the White House — followed by a signing ceremony in the East Room as history was finally inked.

Carter was determined to bring a different image to the White House, one of vigor and activity compared with Richard Nixon, famously photographed bowling alone in the basement of the White House or wearing wingtips on a Florida beach while visiting his pal Bebe Rebozo.  But Carter took casual too far. Near Camp David, he fainted in a road race. The picture went everywhere. The message was weakness, as Time Magazine noted:

“Seconds later, an ashen-faced Carter felt his legs go rubbery and just as he began to fall a Secret Service agent grabbed him. Some aides feared he had suffered a heart attack; the White House and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were immediately alerted, and there was talk of evacuating the President to a hospital. But White House Physician Dr. William Lukash diagnosed heat exhaustion. The President was taken back to his bedroom at Camp David, stripped, covered with cold towels, and injected with nearly a quart of salt water through a vein in his left arm.”

With the story in Time coming out on October 1, 1979, it was unwelcome imagery a year from Election Day.

It got far worse.

On November 4, 1979, 52 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran.  It brought us face to face – via Ted Koppel – with our inability to free our own citizens held in a hostile capital.  We tried, and failed, at Desert One.  Six months before Carter would face voters, Desert One helped seal his fate.

It was a time before cable, before blogs, before the news cycle became immediate. The covers of weekly news magazines – which now struggle for survival – defined our dinner table conversation.  In many ways, they set the agenda.  At my home, the magazine would arrive with the mail on Tuesday morning and I would spend the afternoon after school decoding the images, starting with the cover.

What did Americans see on Time’s cover in those pivotal months?

All along, if you were trying to construct a narrative through cover art, you could have sensed where Time’s editors thought the election was headed, mythology in the making.

This part of Polioptics started by bringing us back to 1976.  It’s now 1981.  Ronald Reagan is in office.  The camera loves him.  He loves it right back. In the movies.  As aspokesman.  Even about to be shot, he’s smiling.  Then smiling from his hospital on the mend.  At the ranch, images of President Reagan were every bit as effective as in the White House, especially on horseback.

Reagan on El Alamein, the president mounted on the white horse

It’s why, in summer ‘95, Dick Morris and Mark Penn looked at their polls and suggested that Bill Clinton spend his vacation not in Martha’s Vineyard, where he might have wished, but roughing it, relatively, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I packed my bags and headed to Yellowstone to help set up Reagan-like pictures of the president that summer: hiking in Yellowstone, visiting with rangers of the National Park Service and rafting down the Snake River. The Western theme and its rugged symbolism continued into the reelection year of 1996, resulting in shots like this in the plains near Billings, Montana.

Clinton on the white horse, on the plains near Billings, Montana, 1996

As Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama demonstrated, the road to the White House is long, now stretching over two years from campaign announcement to election day. But the theme of the outsider running against Washington is potent, and a proven winner, if given enough time to percolate.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory over George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot embodied the elements of the outsider campaign, fueled by free media and a candidate who inherited many of Reagan’s communications skills.  The Clinton years come to life in the next post, along with the effect of powerful new forces on the political scene: talk radio and cable news, which preceded the Internet as factors upending the comparatively easy calculus of paid and free media.


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

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 5: Director of Production
Part 6: The 21st Century Presidency
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

Polioptics Part 3: The ‘Mere Exposure Effect’

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1 and Part 2.  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 third installment of which begins below…

In Polioptics Part 2, we looked at Founding Fotos — the images forming a visual aesthetic for a kid headed, years later, for the job at the White House tasked with visual storytelling.  In this post, we key in on what, in particular, makes those images—and others like them—compelling.

Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning black and white image was only one of many that created the prism though which I saw America. On the multi-colored end of the spectrum, the Betsy Ross flag, and the mythology surrounding it, always stirred emotions. So, too, did the Golden Spike. Massive locomotives parked nose-to-nose, one coming from the East, one coming from the West, symbolized Manifest Destiny.

And though they were illustrations, not photos, Virginia Lee Burton captured the American can-do spirit in Mike Mulligan. The out-moded steam shovel, in the arena of the skeptical small town, out for one last gasp of glory.  The grey grittiness of Dorothea Lange and the steely essence of industrialized America through the lens of Margaret Bourke-White, celebrated the human and engineering effort that built the country.  And the exuberance of an America, victorious at war, was captured perfectly through the immigrant’s eye of Alfred Eisenstadt.  The list goes on.

What are the images that are iconic to you?  What conjures your youth?  What embodies the place you all home?  Almost everyone has their own collection, either mounted in albums or stored in their head.  Nostalgia: delicate but potent.

Don Draper certainly knows about images and potency.  Culled from the life experience of series creator Matthew Wiener, Draper, in the first season finale of MAD MEN, brings his audience to tears as he narrates flashing images of his family that form the carousel of life.

[youtube clip_id=”suRDUFpsHus”]

As Don said:

“…there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in house at a fur company with this old pro copywriter, Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product, ‘nostalgia’. It’s delicate, but potent. Sweetheart. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

Talk about nostalgia.  In the 198o’s, the images in Time Magazine were my carousel, arriving in my family’s mailbox every Tuesday afternoon, greeting me when I arrived home from school.  I’ve kept almost every issue, now stored away in file boxes.  I can’t part with them.  They defined the world in which I grew up.  The ads and photos, together, laid out page-by-page, moving through the magazine from politics at the front to culture at the back, are a time capsule.

Reading the magazine in those years, my eyes gravitated to the scenes that Ronald Reagan’s imagemaker, Mike Deaver, created on the stump to showcase his boss. When I got to the White House, I reached out to Deaver, who became a sort of mentor of mine. Partisan differences didn’t matter: I was interested in his visual style—how he used angles, access and lighting to control the frame—and he was open in imparting his visual sensibility.  When asked how Reagan was able to connect with people, especially when news coverage of him might have been critical, Deaver told reporters to mute the volume. The audience wasn’t listening, he said; they were watching.

When given the option, Deaver and his advance teams would put Reagan on a pedestal, literally.  They knew that photographers shooting a subject from a low angle would capture a large dose of blue sky to frame the president’s head.  It could have been a high stage, or the stair landing of a framed-out house.  If the lens is aimed upward, the upward angle increases the subject’s stature.

Deaver knew his psychology. We have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. We use these senses to perceive, cataloguing the information we glean in our brains.

Which of those senses is dominant?  Studies show that we get about 80% of all information through vision: light moving through the cornea, pupil and lens, bending as it falls on the retina and moves toward the brain.

In politics, what we see has a profound effect on how we’re influenced.  Our lives are frenetic; there’s less and less time to read.  How often do you fully digest a news story, word-for-word, as opposed to glancing at the picture to form an impression of the narrative?  It’s a lot easier, or at least faster, to get a sense of a news article from the photo, or “art,” as photo editors say, that accompanies it.

Today, awareness of the “optics” of a political moment is more common than in years past.  On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, co-host Mika Brzesinski makes frequent mention of the impact of visuals while the show airs footage that runs over her banter with Joe Scarborough.  It’s more in the open now — or at least there are more outlets to talk about it.  Manufacture of image used to be a fairly well-kept secret, and news organizations generally steered clear of pulling back the veil.  In the White House in the 1990s, at ‘event meetings’ every day in the Roosevelt Room, or one of many conference rooms within the Old Executive Office Building, senior aides would always draw attention back to the central concern and ask aloud the question: What are the optics on this?” The answer would often decide whether or not the president should take a trip or participate in an event.

With all due respect to speechwriters, images can often dwarf what’s written, said and heard.

At the beginning of the last century, newspapers were text-only.  Then photos started to appear to help tell the story.  And eventually, especially with the arrival of Al Neuharth’s USA Today in 1982, color took over.  USA Today’s once ubiquitous newspaper box transformed American sidewalks.  It was not by accident that USA Today’s newspaper boxes were designed to suggest a television sitting on a busy street.  Though, like pay phones, newspaper boxes are now disappearing, these kiosks had a purpose to their construction, serving as a window for passers-by to absorb the day’s events in a glance.

White House aides know this, as do Fortune 100 marketers.  It’s why, despite protests of “over-exposure,” they welcome their principal on five news shows in a day. Psychologists calls this “the mere exposure effect”–people develop preferences based on nothing more than familiarity. (Research on this phenomenon—later described as the “glow of warmth”—goes back almost 150 years to Germany’s Gustav Fechner.) To measure the effect, researchers use a tachistoscope, showing how subliminal exposures create positive vibes.  Show something over and over, and it begins to settle into the consciousness in an agreeable way.  Just ask Don Draper.

Palin, Miller, O'Donnell, Brown

People can say what they will about Sarah Palin, Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell or Scott Brown, but a ‘mere exposure’ to any of them is not disagreeable.  For these new arrivals on the national stage, their image is a compelling calling card that helps sell their message.  And if their message is substantive, its an even more compelling package.  Put this new generation of candidates on a split screen against opponents that central casting would label “career politician” and the contrast can have an effect on average voters.  Palin has created her brand and Brown is in the Senate.  It remains to be seen whether O’Donnell and Miller can close their deal with the voters.

How quickly can an image turn opinion? Research findings published in 2007 found that momentary images of the Israeli flag persuaded audiences to adopt more moderate political stances from the extremes at which they started.  None of this should make us hold our breath that flag-filled rallies will usher in peace in the Middle East, but it’s not like the Israelis are alone in imbuing their parades with color.

While there are always new audiences to influence—it’s why ‘President-fatigue’ is often cured by increased travel abroad more in second terms—the exposure effect has a downside.  New hit songs enjoy wide airplay on the nation’s radio stations, but only rarely to they become classics before another tune grabs attention.  It’s one reason that advertisements, even the great ones, run their course and get pulled from rotation, their effect worn.

But when a classic does make a momentary return, we’re reminded why we loved it in the first place:

[youtube clip_id=”xffOCZYX6F8″]

The carousel of visual history we embarked on in Part 1 picks up in the next post where we left off in Part 2.  The year is 1976.  As the nation prepares to celebrate its Bicentennial, a battle brews between the perceived career politician, Gerald Ford, and the outsider, Jimmy Carter, enjoying the advantage of the mere exposure effect.  In that campaign, Carter, of all people, becomes the man who ushers in the new age of the visual presidency.


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

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 4: Road to the White House
Part 5: Director of Production
Part 6: The 21st Century Presidency
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

Polioptics Part 2: Founding Fotos

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, please begin at the beginning: Polioptics Part 1: Polioptics 101.  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 Washington to Obama — that debuted on college campuses in 2009.

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

What draws a young man spend a good chunk of his formative years thinking about and planning for a chance to work at the White House?  Some kids harbor a fascination with baseball.  It could be the dexterity involved in fielding, the hand-eye coordination of hitting or the statistical complexity of coaching.  At the White House, it could be the diplomacy involved in national security, the social engineering of domestic policy or the storytelling imbued in speechwriting an event production.

For me, it was a fascination with history and the opportunity to stage-manage scenes that would find their way into textbooks, from the South Lawn to the Normandy Coast.

But as with any kid who arrives at a multi-pronged fork in the road, one tangent which might lead to medicine, another veering toward manufacturing or a third toward public service, it had to start somewhere.  It may as well have been with images.  Let’s take a trip back to Boston.


If you’re a U.S. resident of a certain age, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or something else, you grew up with certain images circling through your head that, collectively, comprised the American story.  Whether you brushed past these pictures in your grade school textbook or, entranced by them, made your way to the nearest national monument, is a matter of personal preference.  It also probably had something to do with your parenting: how willing and patient mom and dad were to load you and your noisy siblings into the Caprice Classic for a family road trip.

Reenacting the Boston Massacre, circa 1974

I’ve been a sucker for American history since way back.  Long before Ben Affleck used The Town to make Boston a backdrop for bank robbing, Charlestown, Massachusetts was the site of “The Whites of Their Eyes” at now-dismantled the Bunker Hill Pavillion, an epic multi-media show and diorama that brought the American Revolution, depicted mostly in oil-on-canvas, to life.

Bunker Hill Monument is a stop on Boston’s famous Freedom Trail, willed into existence in 1951 by Bill Schofield, an editor and columnist for the old Boston Herald Traveler.  Another stop on the Freedom Trail is the Old State House, which was the center of Boston’s civic life in the 18th Century.  Over 35 years ago, that kid grabbing his gut on the streets of my hometown, circa 1974, is me, recreating the seminal moment of the Boston Massacre which happened outside the front door of the Old State House on March 5, 1770.

My dad and brother are playing the part of British troops and rebellious colonists, clogging the thoroughfare with some theatrics.  For someone who as a young fellow dressed at Halloween as Patrick Henry and who now continues to read new biographies issues by the likes of Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, and Walter Isaacson, Boston around the time of the Bicentennial was the place to be, hanging out in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers.

But Boston in ‘76 had a dark irony not so visible, or understandable, to a 10-year old whose most valuable possession was his replica Civil War musket bought at a souvenir store somewhere near Gettysburg.  Beneath the veneer of its storied heritage, the cradle of liberty was home to a searing racial divide over forced busing.

Living the happy life as a public school student in the Boston suburbs, it would take me a while to understand what that meant.  Every year we would have a few kids in our class who traveled out to our ‘burb from the inner city, but that was our normal.  We didn’t ask too many questions about the present; our eyes were still drawn deep into the history books creating an image of America that publishers felt safe to impart.  I would get a heavy dose of the irony that was Boston, eventually, but it would take a few years.  Let’s run up to that moment captured in images that many of us absorbed as kids.  For me, they formed the visual aesthetic that I would later bring to the White House:


  • What kid raised in the ’60′s and ’70′s, especially in Boston, wasn’t indoctrinated into Kennedy worship?  But for Kennedy, images of a happy family in Hyannisport, or making a life for themselves inside the White House, belied a more complex reality.
  • Many study Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech for it’s unparalleled message and rhetorical construct.  But would it have been remembered with such reverence without the crowd that assembled to hear it?  That’s what struck me.  The mass of humanity—estimated at 200,000—that gathered on August 28, 1963, was a crowd for the ages (until Obama’s mastery of the Internet made enormous crowds common in the U.S.).
  • If anything captures RFK’s all-too-brief campaign, it’s the ride through crowded streets in an open car, a visual now rendered largely extinct by the realities of security.
  • The access to intimate presidential moments given to privileged photographers shows political power at play.  Here’s what’s commonly known as “the Johnson Treatment.”  There’s simply no place to hide if you’re a senator standing between the president and passage of important legislation.
  • And, like Armstrong landing on the Moon, for all that the image on the Sea of Tranquility represents, when a president steps foot in someplace new and exotic, it makes lasting news.  Nixon in China qualified as such, and was even made into an opera by the American composer John Adams fifteen years later.
  • Finally, of course, leaving a place for good also makes an lasting mark on an impressionable kid.

Nixon flying off into retirement in August 1974 brings us close to the celebration of American Independence in 1976, returning to where we began this post on Founding Fotos, in Boston. At the time, I was floored by an image that doesn’t fit the mold, except in its historic significance and impact on me.  It was a few months shy of the Bicentennial. My anticipation ran high.  To honor the year, as my hometown Red Sox did with their uniforms, my mother sewed commemorative patches on every pair of my shorts as I prepared to head to summer camp.

I was 10 years old.  In the morning, I would fetch the paper from the driveway and bring it to my dad.  On one of those spring mornings—April 6, 1976–the image on page 1 of the Boston Herald American, the most important shot in the paper, told a story not of national pride, but of national anger, taken steps from where the Boston Massacre killed Crispus Attucks and fomented a revolution.  Every historical image that I had absorbed about America, up to that moment, had to be weighed against this contemporary example of photojournalism staring me in the face.

I looked at the paper.  My mind floated back to that moment with my dad and brother outside the Old State House reenacting the Boston Massacre.  It floated back further to the history books.

Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre

The assault on colonials was immortalized by this Paul Revere engraving.  The assault on a black lawyer named Ted Landsmark, was immortalized by Herald Photographer Stanley Forman.

As the story goes, minutes before Joseph Rakes tried to spear Landsmark with an American flag, Forman stopped to buy an apple for his girlfriend.  Then, like Rosenthal at Mount Suribachi or Capa at Omaha Beach, history happened right in front of him, a shocking image that won the Pulitzer Prize.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Paul Revere’s engraving took weeks to produce and years to circulate through the colonies.  Today, an image shot by an AP photographer or a bystander with a cellphone takes seconds to make its way from the camera’s lens to the screens of millions of smart phones.  Was it possible to be a little naive about America leading up to the Bicentennial?  I was 10 years old, and there weren’t any iPhones to give me instant access to the British press and disabuse me of an idealized image of history.

And, truth be told, it has always been hard for this patriot to pass up the compelling allure of America’s history.  During the closing weeks of the 1996 reelection campaign, we were setting up the site for a rally for President Clinton in the Township of Freehold, New Jersey.  It wasn’t lost on our advance team that the pivotal Battle of Monmouth was fought nearby on a boiling summer day in 1778, with many of the heralded names of the Revolution present: Washington, Lafayette, Benedict Arnold, Anthony Wayne, Charles Lee, Alexander Hamilton, Baron van Steuben and even Molly Pitcher.

In the hours before the rally, on what’s known as Game Day in advance circles, we noticed some Continental Army reenactors drilling nearby.  “Why not make them part of the scene,” we asked.  It was too late in the game to run the traps through headquarters, but we loved the symbolism of involving the brigade and called an audible.  The soldiers formed a perfect cordon and through the line the president marched, his gait quickened by the rhythm of an authentic fife and drum cadence.  When the event was over, I couldn’t resist grabbing a musket and tri-corner hat and staging a photo op of my own.

With reenactors in the Township of Freehold, New Jersey, October 1996

As the decades have passed, American culture, from marketing to politics, has become ever more dependent on influencing people through imagery.  In the posts that follow, we will track that trend as it plays out on the national stage, a process that gets increasingly complex with each new arrival to the Oval Office.


If you missed Part 1 of the story, read it here: Polioptics Part 1: Polioptics 101.

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 3: The ‘Mere Exposure’ Effect
Part 4: Road to the White House
Part 5: Director of Production
Part 6: The 21st Century Presidency
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

Polioptics Part 1: Polioptics 101

The Story of Polioptics is a 10-part Web narrative based on a multi-media presentation — POLIOPTICS: Political Influence Through Imagery, From Washington to Obama — that debuted on college campuses in 2009.
The Polioptics Lecture has been updated, expanded and serialized for Polioptics.com, the first installment of which begins below…

Cue the lights.  The week before and after Labor Day always brings out the visualist in politicans and their staffs.

Waiting thoughout the summer for vacations to end and for Washington to get back to work, the trained eye can see the product of scores of strategy meetings and conference calls playing out on the small screen. Along with the busy producers of White House imagery, the pundits also return from holiday.

President Obama, with a backdrop of new drapes, holds his second Oval Office Address to the Nation, commanding 18 minutes of airtime across most broadcast and cable networks, and out come the critics. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post was quick to opine:

“One of the unintended results of the redecoration of the Oval Office was the downsizing of Barack Obama…The president sat behind a massive and capaciously empty desk, looking somehow smaller than he ever has…”

President Barack Obama walks with, from left, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, through the Cross Hall of the White House, Sept. 1, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

A week later, President Obama receives a cadre of Middle East leaders at the White House for the start of another round of peace talks, punctuated by a classic shoulder-to-shoulder “walk out” from the Blue Room of the Executive Mansion. They stride toward the East Room captured, in this frame, by a remote-fired camera belonging to White House photographer Chuck Kennedy mounted on a lighting truss. Beneath their feet, framing their dark suits, is the gold-bordered red carpet that covers Cross Hall. Awaiting them is the White House press corps and a subset of their Middle East colleagues, backed up by a phalanx of still and video lenses ready to distribute the image — albeit from a less exalted angle — to the rest of the world. The “B-roll” leads the cable nets and the evening news. The still image dwarfs the front pages of most major newspapers.

And the reviewers weigh in again. Here’s a snippet of what the Boston Herald editorial writers had to say:

“So despite all the pretty words and all the wonderful photo-ops of world leaders sitting down to reason together, hopes do not run high that peace is at hand or even within reach of that final agreement Obama wants to see within a year.

“How typical of this president that he somehow thinks he can will Middle East peace into being by putting folks together in a room. Perhaps for an encore he can try parting the Red Sea.”

Welcome to Polioptics, shining a par can on the theatricality of the political process.

With the Internet inflamed by the prospect of another political event in Florida staged for its visual impact, regular readers and viewers of the news often judge what they see at face value. What goes on behind the scenes as these images are devised and manufatured — and willingly distributed by the media — can be equally or at times more interesting. Polioptics is a backstage pass that reveals the history, traditions, strategies and techniques that are an important part of the mix of political stagecraft.

This is the first entry in a 10-part narrative that will unfold over the next 30 days, hopefully one post every three days, more or less. The Story of Polioptics is bsed on a series of lectures that I have given since 2009. It is meant as a panorama of a slice of political strategy that has fascinated me since I was a boy; that I practiced as a member of the White House staff in the 1990′s; and which, to this day, still captures my imagination as the Internet plays increasing havoc with how people in the public eye communicate their message.

When this 10-part Web version of the polioptics lecture is complete, we’ll decide whether or not to launch a regular site, based from this series, to keep shining a light with anyone who shares our interest in how images influence discourse.

About this term, polioptics. Marketers never let you leave without stamping a brand on the concept they’re selling. So, based on the marketing discipine, we’ve coined a brand name and logo for influence-through-image: marry “politics” with “optics” and you have “Polioptics.” After all, if a definition of politics is “the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy,” we’ll argue that the job of influencing requires both art and science, and that images often count just as much as words. The same maxims that rule political marketing govern brand marketing, and can spell the difference between success and failure.

I have modest goals with Polioptics: First, I want to show how what you see in politics—and its cousin, brand marketing—influences you. Through these posts, we’ll show how politicians exploit images to impact perceptions, especially in the Internet age. Sometimes, we watch television—or glance at a newspaper, magazine or Web site—and allow the image to influence us subconsciously. Don’t let the show snow you. If you stay with this series, when you finish reading Part 10, you should be able to question the images just like you question the words and, hopefully, you’ll be able to deconstruct the manufactured moments you see on screen.

Let’s get started, not with the present, but with the past. Buckle your seatbelts because it’s a long trip, stocked with twists and turns. For now, put Barack Obama and the East Room out of your minds.

Give this old 60-second spot, first aired when I was 19 years old, a quick look.

The images on screen are the story. They conjure memories, emotions, opinions. Those images of Reagan capture in only a few frames so much of what made him so likable to college students of my day and what makes his image endure.

Now, fast forward 24 years to watch the first image-laden minute or so of this one, which first aired when I was 43.

Amber waves of grain. Rural highways. Clapping hands amid handheld American flags, focusing in on a wedding ring. A veteran riding by. Subdued soundtrack. Authoritative voice over.

Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. State-of-the-art 1984 – Hal Riney’s spot for Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign. And state-of-the-art 2008 – the intro to Barack Obama’s 30 minute infomercial. A quarter century separates them, but they’re linked more closely than we realize.

My goal isn’t to sway you toward appreciation or cynicism, but I doubt you’ll stay on the fence. You’ll say politicians play the game by the rules they inherited. Or you’ll recoil about how much effort goes into image making.

The shot of John Edwards is a telling one. I took this picture on a beautiful August day in 2007 about an hour west of Des Moines. I was covering Edwards’s campaign and witnessed a classic set up: an advanceman friend of mine stood out of the camera’s immediate view and tossed a pigskin to the candidate, who caught it and hurled it back, Bart Starr-style, in front of an empty storefront with a reflective glass coating. Though there was absolutely nothing newsworthy about this moment, the news photographers following Edwards—sensing a saleable moment—crouched in a scrum and shot Edwards from a low angle, capturing the athletic stance (read: “youth”) and the reflection of Edwards’s red, white and blue wrapped campaign bus standing a few feet away (read: America’s boy). A totally manufactured shot, with the photographers the conduit to audiences back home.

The Polioptics lecture uses as a bookend a more recent vignette from my several decades of political involvement: Port of Spain, Trinidad, the gathering of hemispheric leaders for the Summit of the Americas.

It’s April 17, 2009, about 6:15 in the evening. I’m standing in the Hyatt hotel a few feet away from President Barack Obama. There he is with Presidents Arias of Costa Rica and Lula of Brazil. In the background, barely visible on the left side of the frame standing behind a military officer in dress whites, is the President’s lead advance man in Trinidad – yours truly.

It’s quite a contrast from a moment in Prague in the Czech Republic in 1994, when a much younger man found himself nestled up closer to power. That’s Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel along with a certain U.S. President and his director of production for presidential events. I’m doing what I usually did just prior to letting the leaders walk out into the sight of the awaiting cameras and correspondents: offering some stage direction, usually with a diagram, like an NBA coach with his X’s and O’s. If there’s any special choreography I’m going for—the “reveal” of a special prop or a well-timed handshake, for example—it’s at this point that I’ll give the cues to the actors to make the money shot a winner.

But things are much different in Port of Spain. My imprint on events will be less noticeable, if I can affect things at all. Obama and his people don’t play the game the way Clinton or Reagan did. It just proves the adage: old advance men never die; they just fade farther into the background.

It doesn’t stop a good advance guy from trying. In Trinidad, I dust off my tape measure and graph paper and make a comeback to give the Obama White House an experienced hand for one of their first overseas trips and also to see for myself how things have changed in the image making game. On this trip I’ll try to do for Obama what I did for many years for Bill Clinton: spend a week planning his every step. For 10 days or so, I’m an advance man once again.

Advance work — the best job in politics that few people really understand. It’s a behind-the-scenes process of wheeling, dealing and designing to stage political theater amid logistical constraints, security challenges and practical realities of media coverage. You work with counterparts on the U.S. Air Force advance team to plan the Arrival of Air Force One. You work with you local hosts — in this case, the Trinis — to determine who will greet the plane. You meet with the U.S. Secret Service, who will map out the route the President’s motorcade will take. Those ‘impromptu’ stops at an ice cream stand or a burger joint? They’re all part of the plan. And that’s just the bare bones stuff.

Once we get to the site where our event is going to be staged, the advance person’s creativity has a chance to take hold.

  • Is there a metaphor for our site? In this shot by Erik Lesser, which made A1 above the fold in the March 5, 2010 New York Times, then-candidates Obama and Clinton stand shoulder-to-shoulder (separated by a sea of fellow marchers) in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the sacrifices of civil rights protesters in 1965. The image clearly and succinctly accompanies the message of the news story: winning the democratic nomination will come down to winning the voting block represented by the group that stands between the two leading candidates,
  • Is there a blueprint for the visual plan? When I was working at the White House, and in the 1992 campaign in which Bill Clinton won the presidency, I often channeled an architect’s approach to site design, factoring in all of the elements to conjure the images I wanted to create. In this drawing for a June 1992 rally in Oakland, California, you can make out how we constructed a 220-foot long, 12″-high Miss America-style runway so that the candidate’s torso would be elevated above the cheering crowd, clearly visible to the news cameras that followed the action on an elevated press riser, with a small ocean of exhuberant attendees in between.

    Site design, Oakland, California Rally for Governor Bill Clinton, June 1, 1992

  • Next: how should we raise the crowd ? In this old days, this wasn’t my thing. For one reason, it was damned hard, especially if your candidate wasn’t a rock star (Mike Dukakis) or, at least, didn’t have a rock star (say, Bruce Springsteen or Jimmy Buffett) traveling with him. The audience-recruitment process involved a week of passing out leaflets, organizing busses, cutting radio spots, and negotiating with local leaders to turn out their people to fill the vast empty spaces between the barricades. Today, a lot of the old rules apply, but it’s a lot easier, at least if you’re Barack Obama (rock star) facing John McCain (not a rock star). The Obama effort was helped, no doubt, by his campaign’s mastery of Internet-based organizing tools that would let the staff raise a massive crowd from headquarters through targeted e-mails to visitors to its Web site whose zip code matched the planned coordinates of the event site.
  • Once you’ve built a swell site, the question becomes who’s going to be on stage? You have to give deference to the local pols, but be careful who you invite. Usually, the headquarters’ legal staff and the Secret Service will ’vet’ the backgrounds of those close to the candidate to avoid any embarrassing two-shots.
  • The backdrop is often the topic of most discussion back in headquarters. This shot captured the hours of preparation before the 2008 outdoor convention acceptance speech in Denver, Colorado. It was a clever design, weaving in elements of the classical facade with details that, in the ”tight shot” would suggest an image of Nominee Obama speaking from where he would end up several months later: in the Rose Garden of the White House, the easily-identifiable West Wing collonade as part of the overall set. For Team Obama, it was a little too clever. The open-to-press-coverage set up time allowed Republican opposition researchers to brand it—through an orchestrated release to certain Web sites—as a Greek Temple to the Gods, which fit conveniently with the Republican campaign’s counter-branding of its Democratic opponent.

This level of precision choreography never happens by accident. Political puppeteers are always at work on both sides of the spectrum. When it works, it’s invisible, influencing subconsciously. When it backfires, it can be historically embarrassing. Remember Reagan at Bitburg? The late Michael Deaver, who gave me much needed mentoring when I joined the White House staff, will always be remembered for that controversy. And of course: who could forget Dukakis in a tank? (In upcoming posts, I will discuss in greater detail a major screw up on my watch, which drew the ire of Rush Limbaugh and is still the subject of some mythology to this day.)

There are other questions that advance people ask, constantly checking with their minders at the White House or at campaign headquarters. Should we use a TelePrompTer? What kind of music should accompany the event — is Hail to the Chief on the playlist? What time of day is our gathering? Where exactly, at that time of day, will the sun be in the sky, and what kind of light will it bathe on the candidate? (Please, let it be “magic hour.”) Should the illumination be enhanced, using artificial HMI lighting to do the work of the sun? Have we, in our planning, given the press good angles to shoot the event, good sound to record the goings-on through a multiple input (or ‘mult‘) box and – key to keeping beleagured reporters who have been on the road for long stretches happy – good food?

The goal of political stagecraft is to control the image through the lens and, by extension, through the prism of today’s journalism.

This shot shows what that earlier picture of the set up at INVESCO field in Denver became: the acceptance by Barack Obama as Nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States. The anti-Obama machine could pitch the Greek Temple story until the keys on their Blackberrys jammed. When every American woke up the next morning to watch the morning news or read the day’s paper, a variation of this image is what they saw. The shot was taken from one of the “cutaway” stages placed strategically to deliver an over-the-shoulder image: candidate, nicely lit, up-close; placard-waving Democrats in the middle ground; and thousands cheering him on creating a wall of humanity in the stands beyond. Even the Internet URL—WWW.BARACKOBAMA.COM—on the stadium scoreboard reminds viewers why they’re there (and serves as an invitation to donate to the campaign’s war chest).

And let’s welcome to the dialogue the elephant in the room: Matt Drudge may be the most important photo editor in news. The image atop his site shapes opinion by the millions of influential readers who visit his site each day.

So, given those realities, the image maker’s mission is simple: design what you want seen; and choreograph what you design. This rough pencil-on-graph paper illustration was created after a White House meeting in January 1995 as a part of President Clinton’s strategy to rebound from his party’s catastrophic loss in the 1994 mid-term elections. The plan: return to the middle class roots of his 1992 triumph. Don’t be shy about it. Put those two words—middle class–front-and-center where everyone can see them. Lay it out in a parchment-style graphical construct that tugs at the sensibilities of mainstream voters. We took this drawing to Galesburg, Illinois, near where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held one of their historic debates, and turned it into this. Like a building emerging from the architect’s drawings, the final result is what we intended to emerge through the lens.

It all begins with pencil on graph paper

That was 15 years ago. Now, fast forward to the recent past. My problem in Trinidad, more than two decades after I first started asking these questions as a nubie advance man, is that I’ve become what’s called a “dinosaur”: lumbering, largely extinct old beasts walking the political tundra. We old salts have lots of experience, but borne from a time when only two newspapers and three networks really mattered.

It’s different now. Anyone can upload stills, video or audio to Tumblr and make news. Senator George Allen sits forever in the political graveyard for his “Macaca” moment.

Do you remember this sound bite from the 2008 campaign? It was recorded at a fundraiser by Mayhill Fowler and uploaded to the HuffingtonPost. It gave the edge in Pennsylvania to Senator Clinton and became a “bitter” pill to swallow for Senator Obama.

So in Trinidad, I sense what might happen in the minutes following that tête-à-tête between Presidents Obama, Arias and Lula in what, for all who care, was supposed to be a closed-door reception for Western Hemisphere leaders prior to the opening of the 2009 Summit of the Americas. But the problem is, as a volunteer advance guy, I have a lot less control over the events that are about to come than I might have in the past. My mind is replaying the all-time screw-ups, and I’m thinking, ‘What disaster am I about to be tagged with? Could it be Obama in a tank, with my name permanently associated with it?’ What I don’t understand entirely, at the moment, is that Obama is in control and about to make history with a handshake.

But let’s set Trinidad adrift and travel back in time. You might guess what’s next and how a camera in unknown hands may make history. We’ll return there in a follow-on post.


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 2: Founding Fotos
Part 3: The ‘Mere Exposure’ Effect
Part 4: Road to the White House
Part 5: Director of Production
Part 6: The 21st Century Presidency
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