New Strides in Presidential Stagecraft
Even Hollywood would have been hard-pressed to conjure up a more auspicious setting for a presidential speech. And as soon as White House image-makers saw it, they knew they had found the ideal venue for President Bush’s major speech in Turkey.
The picturesque Ortakoy Mosque, with its two soaring minarets, stood behind the spot. Beyond that loomed the majestic Bosporus Bridge, uniting Europe and Asia. Together, the mosque and bridge could send a compelling, albeit subtle, message to counter Bush’s image, especially prevalent in the Arab world, as a unilateralist waging war against Muslims.
Last week, just as Greg Jenkins and his staff of event designers had envisioned back in April, the president spoke at the Galatasaray University terrace, as the waters of the Bosporus Strait lapped against a retaining wall.
The White House leaves little to chance when it comes to projecting Bush in a favorable light. With its extensive location-scouting, technical expertise and attention to minute detail, the Bush administration is setting new standards in presidential stagecraft.
On that same April planning trip, Jenkins and his staff from the White House Office of Presidential Advance found themselves in a vast courtyard in Ankara, contemplating which footpath Bush should take in approaching the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state. One aide produced a pedometer to gauge the distances. Another considered the sun’s angle. Others busied themselves with digital cameras.
Jenkins and his colleagues soon returned to Washington and choreographed, to the last step, the president’s recent visit to Ireland and Turkey.
“The Bush White House has learned a lot from previous administrations and become even more efficient at producing these events,” Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary under President Clinton, said with grudging admiration.
“I use the word ‘producing’ deliberately, because that’s what they are: TV productions, designed to both articulate the president’s agenda and, probably more importantly for the Bush team, show the president in a position of strength and authority,” Lockhart said.
The panoply of memorable images served up by the White House during Bush’s term, such as his profile against Mt. Rushmore and his bullhorn-wielding appearance at the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, have impressed no less a maestro than Mike Deaver. As a senior staffer in the Reagan White House, Deaver turned the art of presidential public relations into a science.
“They’re very good. They understand the importance of the visual. Camera angles, lighting, background -- all that stuff’s so critical,” he said. “Most importantly, I think the president understands.”
Said Lockhart: “There’s nothing unusual or sinister about this. It’s bipartisan. We spent a lot of time on it too.”
On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Bush delivered a prime-time address from Ellis Island in New York Harbor, the White House moored three barges with giant flood lights at the base of the Statue of Liberty, producing a stirring backdrop.
When Bush went to Mt. Rushmore in August 2002, aides positioned the media platforms so that photographers could not avoid capturing Bush with the four sculpted icons of American democracy -- Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln -- in the background.
For nearly every public event, the White House considers creating a backdrop if a naturally compelling one does not present itself. At an October 2002 speech in Cincinnati designed to build support for declaring war on Iraq, Bush spoke before a gigantic world map as he declared that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “stands alone” as a threat to America and the world.
For a July 2002 speech in Birmingham, Ala., on the economy, the White House created a huge backdrop that repeated the phrase “Strengthening Our Economy” 34 times. The lettering was too small for many in the audience to see, but television cameras picked it up easily.
“You want to fill in the space around the president’s head,” said Deaver, adding that over the years he came to appreciate the importance of “building stories visually.” When, for instance, Reagan spoke about new housing starts, Deaver made sure the backdrop was the frame of an unfinished house.
“So, when you’re listening, you were also getting the message through another sense, which I think is more important,” he said.
Bush aides rejigger the lineup of people arrayed behind him. If an event is about supporting Muslims, women with head coverings might be positioned behind him. Aides have asked men to take off their ties when they wanted Bush to be seen as among “ordinary” folks.
In dry runs, White House planners send to the podium a stand-in who is Bush’s height in order to set the lighting and camera angles. Before the president emerges from behind the curtains to deliver a speech or participate in a town hall meeting, they show him a precise diagram of the event’s layout, including camera positions.
Though such stagecrafting has won admiration even from political adversaries, excessive use of imagery can be counterproductive, said David Gergen, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents. “If you over-stage, and if people think there’s something not authentic about it, it doesn’t work.” Gergen also said striking images can haunt a president. Gergen said that in his view, Bush’s “most important” public relations event backfired. He was referring to the president’s May 2003 landing by military jet on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and his speech under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” after Hussein was toppled. Bush proclaimed an end to major combat operations in Iraq, but far more U.S. troops have been killed there than before Bush donned a flight suit for the announcement.
“I wish the banner was not up there,” Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist, said this year.
“Sometimes substance has an odd way of cropping up and undoing your picture,” said Lockhart.
“Headlines and pictures matter,” added Scott Reed, a GOP strategist. “But it also reminds you that in politics, governing matters. You have to match your governing with your rhetoric.”