By Tevi Troy
President Obama’s recent announcement of his policy change on gay marriage made news, and not just because of the policy, but for the way in which he announced it: In an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts. As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote, Obama’s release was “controversial” in that he did not do it in the traditional ways of a press conference or an Oval Office address, but in a daytime television interview on the second-ranking network, and with a reporter who does not typically focus on politics. Politico’s Dylan Byers also noted the oddity of the choice, speculating that the White House may have selected Roberts, who is an African-American and a Christian, to soften the blow of his policy shift in those particular communities.
Regardless of the reason, it seems clear that the Obama administration put some serious thought into how to manage their policy shift. This fits into a pattern of Obama and his team aggressively micro-managing their relationship with TV news. As CNN’s Jonathan Wald told Byers, “The White House is very careful who it picks for which message.” As this story shows, for all the talk about Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, television remains the key medium by which Americans get not only their news, but also their impressions of our political leaders.
The relationship between presidents and TV goes back a long way. For decades, White House and campaign communicators have recognized that a president’s initial appearances on television shape the American people’s views of an entire presidency, and it is difficult for initial impressions, once established, to be overcome. This makes TV a key gatekeeper for determining not only who becomes president, but also how that president will be viewed both during the administration and beyond. As a result, mastering TV has become a crucial skill for presidents and wannabes alike. It also creates challenges for presidents. In order to be successful, they must be acutely aware of how they are portrayed on TV. They must also recognize that how they are portrayed goes beyond news programming. Despite this high-wire act, they cannot be overly reactive to how they are portrayed on a daily basis. These challenging tasks have been faced by every one of our presidents in the TV age–with varying degrees of success.
JFK and the Sangfroid Approach
If there is one lesson that can be learned from the history of presidents and TV, it is that presidents who have kept their cool and tried to set, rather than follow, an agenda have found the most success. John F. Kennedy, for example, was a master of using humor and a calm disposition with the TV news. Obviously, this was easier in the 1960s, when CBS, NBC, and ABC were the only three nightly news broadcasts. While on TV, Kennedy showed remarkable sangfroid, even when faced with a hostile question. For example, when asked about a resolution from the Republican National Committee that deemed his presidency a failure, he coolly responded, “I’m pretty sure it passed unanimously.”
Kennedy also set the tone by appearing in 64 live press conferences during his time in office–about one every two weeks. Fourteen of these were aired live. According to author Fred MacDonald, Kennedy adopted this open approach at the suggestion of White House press aide Pierre Salinger. And in the days before cable and the Internet, Kennedy could be confident that Americans were watching his performances–his first press conference was watched by 65 million Americans in 21 million households. An astonishing 90 percent of Americans in one poll reported that they watched one of Kennedy’s first three press conferences. Unlike today, these were not tough grilling sessions so much as opportunities for the young and telegenic president to shine. Even the reporters themselves realized how well Kennedy was using the medium. ABC News’s Bill Shadel saw in Kennedy an ability to “use television as FDR used radio, to get the people to go along with his policies.”
Of course, other presidents did not quite have Kennedy’s TV skills, which meant that some of his successors would get flustered by the TV news, even as they carefully tracked how it portrayed them. Lyndon B. Johnson famously installed three television sets in an Oval Office credenza so that he could follow his coverage on all three networks, as well as an AP news ticker. (Richard Nixon, interestingly, had the contraption removed from the Oval Office). Johnson coupled awareness of the media with a calculating approach. According to Stephen Vaughn, Johnson was the one who had insisted that the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings be televised because he felt that Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy would not stand up well on live TV. He did not.
Even though Johnson knew how to play the media, he was extremely skeptical of the press. In the margin of one letter requesting that Dan Rather and CBS News be granted permission to film the White House staff, Johnson scrawled to press aide George Reedy “this man and CBS are out to get us any way [CBS head] Bill Paley can. Tell him you have much more work than you can handle and these men are workers on routine, not actors.”
In the end, CBS did “get” Johnson, although not by filming White House aides in action. After Walter Cronkite’s famously negative assessment of the Vietnam War following the Tet Offensive in 1968, Johnson is supposed to have remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Even though Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report live, the influence of the network news–and especially of Cronkite–had a strong impact on Johnson’s thinking. Not long after the incident, Johnson gave his press conference announcing that he would “not seek and would not accept” the Democratic nomination for president in 1968.
Nixon had his troubles with television news as well. He was irate at Cronkite for highlighting the Watergate story, and four of the people on Nixon’s “enemies list”–Marvin Kalb, Daniel Schorr, Lem Tucker, and Sander Vanocur–were either from CBS or NBC. Schorr, who broke the story about the list, was shocked when, reading the list live on the air, he discovered his own name. Later, Schorr reveled in his enemy status, even joking that as a result of the prominence Nixon bestowed upon him, his “lecture fees went up.” Schorr also never passed up an opportunity to mention the story or his position on the list for the rest of his life.
Gerald Ford continued the string of presidents who had difficulties with TV. Unfortunately for him, his biggest challenge was something new to TV and something over which he had no control: Saturday Night Live. On October 11, 1975, a very young Chevy Chase began his famous imitation of Ford, and the portrayal was not kind. As Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum described it, Chase “portrayed Ford, one of the best athletes ever to occupy the Oval Office, as a bumbling buffoon.” Even though Chase did nothing to make himself look or sound like Ford, the image stuck. Ford Chief of Staff Don Rumsfeld noted in his memoir that “Chase’s popular parody . . . did damage to the president’s image throughout his presidency.” According to Purdum, some of Ford’s “lieutenants credited Chase’s caricature with helping to seal the president’s fate in the razor-close election of 1976.” This instance of Americans getting political information and impressions of their leaders from non-news sources foreshadowed our current age, when many young people are apt to get their news from comedy news shows like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show instead of actual hard news programs.
With respect to things within his control, Ford did not fare much better. In 1976, he engaged in what White House reporters called a “Rose Garden strategy.” As the political scientist Michael Baruch Grossman described it, under the strategy, Ford would be “limited by his managers to one highly structured and controlled appearance before the news media, but one in which he appeared ‘presidential’ by participating in a ceremonial activity.” While the strategy was supposed to elevate Ford in the eyes of the American people, it actually put him in a poor light next to the media-friendly 1976 campaign version of Jimmy Carter, who was appearing at multiple events every day, and used his openness to great effect in winning the 1976 election.
Once he became president, Carter saw first-hand the dangers of the TV news, to his benefit and detriment. On the positive side, TV news helped Carter when Ted Kennedy, Carter’s 1980 Democratic primary challenger, had a disastrous interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd, in which he was completely inarticulate on the question of why he wanted to be president. Kennedy’s rambling answer lacked any sense of vision:
The reasons I would run are because I have great belief in this country, that is–there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world, there’s the greatest educated population in the world. It just seems to me that this nation can cope and deal with the problems in a way it has done in the past . . . and I would basically feel that it’s imperative for the country to either move forward, that it can’t stand still or otherwise it moves backwards.
According to Mudd, “It was almost a parody of a politician’s answer.” Years later, Kennedy alleged that Mudd blindsided him with the fairly straightforward question, an accusation Mudd vehemently denied, calling it a “fantasy.”
On the negative side, President Carter was damaged by Ted Koppel’s nightly broadcasts on the Iranian hostage crisis, which eventually evolved into the show Nightline. As PBS’sAmerican Experience described it, the media coverage of the hostage crisis, and in particular Nightline, “provided a dispiriting backdrop to the presidential election season for Carter.” In addition, Carter, like Ford, tried his own version of the Rose Garden strategy during his 1980 reelection campaign, but fared no better with it than his predecessor.
The Reagan Doctrine: Being Proactive and Not Reactive Reagan, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, understood that the way to handle the media was to be proactive, not reactive, and to drown them with a message of the day, relentlessly pressed by a disciplined White House communications team. This strategy was the brainchild of Reagan aide Michael Deaver, whom the Encyclopedia of Television News described as “especially good at providing visually attractive, prepackaged news stories and photo opportunities for television.” While the approach was in some ways similar to the Rose Garden strategy, the Reagan staff carried out the concept far more effectively, a talent that was recognized across the globe. According to the University of Botswana’s Eno Akpabio, “The Reagan team showed remarkable skill at manipulating media coverage by providing television with an irresistible visual to support the ‘line of the day’–the message the White House wanted the media to emphasize in the day’s reporting.”
For a time, it seemed as if George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, had captured the Reagan magic with respect to dealing with TV news. When badgered one night by CBS’s Dan Rather about Bush’s role in the Iran Contra affair, Bush fired back, saying, “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash of Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?” Bush’s team, which included current Fox News head Roger Ailes, correctly suspected that the interview was going to be an ambush. Consequently, Bush’s aides insisted that the interview be carried live so that CBS could not cut the exchange to make Rather look better. The ploy worked, helping to propel Bush past Bob Dole in the 1988 GOP primaries, but also foreshadowed positive coverage for Bush in his campaign against Michael Dukakis. According to a report by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) on the 1988 general election campaign, Dukakis was “called a liberal twelve times as frequently as he was during the primaries” and, more importantly for Bush, “Bush received over twice as much good press as Dukakis during the critical period when he moved ahead in the polls.” Dukakis’s presidential hopes also suffered due to an indelible TV image, the much derided footage of him riding in a tank with what U.S. News and World Report’s Brett Schulte recalled as “a dopey grin and a huge helmet.”
Unfortunately for Bush, the good news in terms of relatively positive TV portrayals compared to his opponent did not last, and the pendulum swung back hard. Bill Clinton, Bush’s opponent in 1992, was a savvy operator when it came to dealing with TV news. Clinton and his wife Hillary dispelled stories about Clinton’s womanizing with a joint appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” This interview, in which Hillary made her famous “stand by her man” comment, helped Clinton get over the womanizing issue and earn a spot in the three-man general election race with Bush and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. In that race, CMPA found, Clinton got 82 percent positive coverage, compared to Perot’s respectable 49 percent and Bush’s dismal 24 percent. In addition to the tenor of the coverage being against Clinton’s opponents, Bush also suffered from footage of his own indelible TV image–the picture of him looking distractedly at his watch during a presidential debate. Clinton, in contrast, broke new ground by appearing on the syndicated Arsenio Hall show, where he wore sunglasses and played the saxophone, putting forth the appealing young and hip image that helped him win in 1992.
As president, Clinton and his team recognized the continuing movement of TV images away from the monopoly of the three network news shows. As Robert Denton wrote in his book on Clinton’s communications strategy, “He moved presidential communication to new media outlets and formats, attempting to bypass the national press corps and to create new lines of communication with the American people.” Even though he was good in what Denton described as “his social interaction in the contexts of TV talk shows and ‘town meetings,'” he needed to make himself more presidential once in the White House. To do this, he hired former Reagan White House aide David Gergen, who “coached Clinton on TV appearances, how to appear more presidential, and how to get more involved with ‘value issues’ like crime, welfare, and national service in order to look more like a new Democrat.”
Another communications insight that the Clinton team had was regarding the 24-hour news cycle. With the creation of CNN in 1980, and more importantly CNN’s emergence as a primary news source in the 1991 Gulf War, the country had entered an era in which TV news was no longer limited to national news shows at dinnertime and the local news coming on at 11 p.m. News was not only happening all the time, but being broadcast all the time, too. As John Harris wrote in his book about the Clinton presidency, The Survivor, “The cable networks now put a president before the public twenty-four hours a day.”
Given this new reality, as well as the whirlwind of scandals and accusations that seemed to follow Clinton throughout his presidency, the Clinton team took their campaign’s rapid response approach and made it part of White House operations. Under this war-room structure, Denton explained, aides were tasked with “monitoring all messages about Clinton and allowing no charge to go unanswered within a news cycle.” This immediate response capability proved essential to Clinton when he needed to fight for the survival of his presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Thanks in part to their war room, the White House proved quite adept at dismissing new accusations as old news, finding surrogates to defend the president on TV, and continually get out the White House’s message despite the scandal’s omnipresence.
Clinton’s team had adapted to the new realities of the 1990s, but Clinton’s immediate successor George W. Bush became president in what seemed like a different era once again. In the 2000s, the diminishing dominance of the big three networks was further broken by the development of TV alternatives such as Fox News, as well as new outlets for conservative voices in the form of talk radio and the blogosphere. Consequently, the Bush White House no longer treated the big three networks with the same deference as had previous administrations, and often fed scoops to Fox News or the blogosphere rather than the less friendly big three networks. This proved to be a frustrating time for the networks, and they often tried to assert their relevance. One of these attempts backfired on Dan Rather when he put forth a document purportedly showing how Bush had not fulfilled his National Guard obligations. This document was later shown to be a forgery, and Rather lost his anchor position and then was fired by CBS News. In a column on the subject, Art Buchwald uncharacteristically understated the disdain between the two men by predicting that we should not “expect George Bush to invite Dan Rather to dinner.”
While Bush may have disliked Rather, he also had a level of detachment with regard to TV news. On inauguration day in 2009, Obama adviser David Axelrod found this out when he tried to tell Bush about a positive comment Axelrod had made regarding how Bush had handled the transition. According to Bob Woodward, Axelrod told Bush: “Mr. President, I was on television this morning.” Bush cut him off, saying, “I don’t watch television.” Since we know that Bush watched sports on television–even choking on a pretzel while watching an NFL playoff game in 2002–it may be safe to assume that Bush’s remark was referring to TV news programming, and not all on-screen entertainment. Still, it is hard to imagine such a comment coming from three-screen watching LBJ.
Obama and the Sharp Elbow Strategy
As Obama’s gay marriage policy change demonstrates, President Obama and his team have an aggressive TV news management strategy. He used this aggressive approach to great effect in his successful 2008 campaign, during which the Obama campaign benefited from TV far more than did their opponents. There is little question that the Obama campaign benefited from relatively positive treatment from the three major networks, while Senator John McCain’s campaign suffered a huge setback after Sarah Palin’s catastrophic interview with CBS’s Katie Couric. But governing is harder than campaigning, which has led to some frustrations and some mistakes made by the Obama White House.
In some cases, it appears that President Obama may be following the news too closely. In Obama’s press conference releasing his birth certificate to the media, he complained that the news media were paying too much attention to the “birther” issue and not enough to national security, noting that he “was just back there listening to Chuck [Todd]–he was saying, it’s amazing that he’s not going to be talking about national security. I would not have the networks breaking in if I was talking about that, Chuck, and you know it.” Obama’s comment that he was “back there listening to Chuck” was a revealing admission of how aware Obama is of what is being said about him on TV news, who is saying it, and how it sometimes aggravates him.
Some of the Obama team’s frustration with its TV portrayals has led to a divide-and-conquer approach that has attempted to single out Fox News for administration criticism–subtly communicating to other networks that criticism will receive a retaliatory response. Obama even had a communications staffer, Anita Dunn, lead a campaign against Fox News and its coverage. But even beyond Fox News, Obama and his team have been far more combative with, and sensitive to, TV news once in office. President Obama has even been shown to lose his trademark cool about his treatment on the TV news. After recording an interview with Belo TV’s Brad Watson, Obama told Watson, “Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?”
These tough tactics have been noticed by the White House press corps. The Washington Post’s Farhi wrote a story talking about how the White House’s sharp elbows have strained relations with a number of reporters. Farhi noted that CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson was “cussed” at by White House aide Eric Schultz for her reporting on the Fast and Furious scandal, which many other mainstream reporters avoided. Farhi also noted that another half dozen reporters “described censorious e-mails or phone calls from Carney or his staff members that they characterized as heavy-handed.” All of these reporters refused to speak on the record, figuring, probably correctly, that it could damage their already prickly relations with White House communicators.
As these incidents show, the Obama White House is both very aware and very thin-skinned about what reporters, and particularly TV reporters, say about them. They also show how awareness can easily tip into hypersensitivity regarding presidential portrayals on television. These difficulties can challenge Obama’s ability to shape his message going forward. They can also provide Republicans with an opportunity to shape the debate in the upcoming presidential election.
Overall, it is important for political leaders to maintain a sense of equanimity in their dealings with the press. Candidates who soar to popularity on favorable coverage will see the pendulum swing back. Any sign of being temperamental when this happens is a dangerous trait. That is why it is important for presidents to invest in cultivating good relations with the news media in both the good times and the bad. Otherwise, the good times will be less likely to follow the bad ones.
How presidents handle the TV news goes far beyond the question of content. As Time noted after the 1988 Bush-Rather exchange, “In television, style overwhelms substance, image replaces information.” As Obama enters campaign season, however, he needs to relearn the lessons of previous successful presidents: Careful management of television news, which requires an aggressive and proactive–but not hostile–approach, will beat passivity and pettiness in getting your message out.
Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and served as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2007 until 2009.
This article was published by The American and reprinted with permission.