Share / Discuss

White House Stagecraft

Running for president is our nation’s highest-stakes production

This fall, Swatties return to campus—or arrive as freshmen for the first time—against the backdrop of a once-in-a-college-career event: a presidential election. When I pulled up to College Lane for my sophomore year in fall 1984, with another election looming, I counted myself a Ronald Reagan supporter, a rare breed on Parrish Beach.

Thirty-two years ago, as now, I was fascinated by the American political spectacle and its foremost institution of propaganda, the presidency. My politics evolved during my time at Swarthmore, leading to six years in Bill Clinton’s campaigns and on his White House staff, but my obsession with how our candidates market themselves has never wavered.

As a member of Swarthmore’s Peaslee Debate Society, I revered rhetorical skills but, over time, came to appreciate the more operatic elements of politics that trigger emotional response. In some ways, Reagan and his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, combined forces as the Lin-Manuel Miranda of their time, the impact of Reagan’s words augmented by Michael Deaver, his visual impresario, an unlikely forebear to Andy Blankenbuehler, the Hamilton choreographer. 

Looking back at that time, I’ve often wrestled with what gave Reagan his power of persuasion over the electorate. 1984, Orwell’s dystopian novel that was required reading back then, gave us Big Brother lording over Oceania through ubiquitous telescreens. In reality, the actual 1984 gave us, instead, a seemingly benevolent Ronald Reagan targeting the heart of America with precision-guided cinematography conveyed through television.

It was the dawn of what I call “The Age of Optics” in my new book, Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide. This new visual-dominated era arrived that summer with a 60-second TV spot called “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” The flag-infused montage of a nostalgic utopia reeked of Norman Rockwell, tugging the same heartstrings as Bernie Sanders’s mesmerizing Simon & Garfunkel-scored ads this spring. 

Reagan’s offering, voiced reassuringly by Hal Riney, leader of his “Tuesday Team” of Madison Avenue ad men, began hypnotically with the famous phrase, “It’s morning again in America.” That theme has been a touchstone in every campaign since ’84 as candidates, Republican and Democrat, mimicked The Master’s playbook as best they could, deploying legions of “advance men” (and “advance women”) to create the scenic tableau that then gets packaged as “news.” 

The Reagan re-election road show arrived near campus when Air Force One brought the president to a rally on the steps of the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa., eight days before the election, with buses full of the national press corps in tow. Some whispered in Sharples about protesting the event. I just wanted to witness the spectacle. 

The courthouse backdrop gave Reagan a perfect façade from which to send his message. “It was a very classic setting, plus it dead-ended in front of the street, so you had a good crowd area. I saw the whole thing in a matter of 30 seconds,” Bill Henkel, head of the White House advance office, told the Washington Post at the time. “We spend a lot of time with the cameramen and photographers, asking, ‘What did you think of that, how could we make it better?’”

In the same article, Howard Stringer, the future Sony CEO who was then leading CBS News, posed the thesis for my book three decades before I wrote it: “On the daily story with the rush to edit, the pictures dominate, almost despite the narration,” he said. “The White House—and all great politicians—understand that.”

My own career in political stagecraft began after graduation in 1987, starting with Illinois Sen. Paul Simon’s quixotic pursuit of the presidency, eventually joining the campaign of Michael Dukakis ’55. Although I wasn’t personally responsible for the visual disaster accompanying Gov. Dukakis’s ride in an M1A1 Abrams tank in Sterling Heights, Mich., I was a close friend of the unlucky fellow who was, Matt Bennett. 

In 2012, Bennett entrusted me with the quarter-century-old journal he kept from the Dukakis fiasco, which served as the basis for Off Script. In its pages, Bennett recounts his efforts to raise a red flag about the plan. The advance person’s commandment, which many remember simplistically as “Never let a candidate put something on their head”—President Obama later called the lesson “Politics 101”—is really “Don’t let your candidate pretend to be someone they’re not.” 

Dukakis was an accomplished administrator, but he wasn’t George S. Patton. When he got behind the barrel of the tank, wearing a helmet with his name boldly stenciled across the brow, it backfired spectacularly, providing all the ingredients needed to create the infamous “Tank Ad.” 

Each cycle since has served up an example of a candidate “getting tanked,” from George H.W. Bush’s being seemingly “amazed” by a supermarket scanner in 1992 to John Kerry’s windsurfing outing in 2004 to Mitt Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful” in 2012. 

As director of production in Bill Clinton’s White House, I owned a share of stagecraft miscues: In 1995, I allowed Clinton to form “a cross of stones” on Omaha Beach, arousing the ire of Rush Limbaugh and the Republican far right, which never let him forget it. A year later, at the G-7 Summit in Lyon, France, I slathered Clinton’s podium in a thick layer of insecticide to rid a swarm of gnats from the news shot. The move did nothing to the gnats but nearly blinded the president when he rubbed his eyes to wipe beads of sweat forming on his brow. 

Beyond those occasional nightmares, I emerged from five years of Clinton’s presidency with far more stories of success than failure. But the game has changed dramatically since then, with the current chapter of the Age of Optics being written in real time. The network news correspondent has been supplanted by a legion of embedded road warriors, social-media mavens, and stay-at-home bloggers, all producing mountainous material across a blinding array of digital platforms. 

The gaffes remain, from Marco Rubio robotically repeating his talking points, to Hillary Clinton struggling with a subway turnstile, to Donald Trump tweeting his taco bowl. For the most part, the worst—and best—of our candidates’ performance has less staying power today, an outcome of our infinite menu of content doing daily battle with our ever-declining attention span.

All of these specimens of political suicide spawn a mythology that adheres and calcifies to these politicians over time. Al Gore did not, in fact, claim to have “invented” the internet, but who would believe you if you tried to make that case in a bar? Truth often can’t keep pace with legend. Running for president is our nation’s most brutal sport, with misfortune befalling Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal measure, where only the strong survive. 

Barack Obama, the cerebral writer who rejected the essential theater of his office so resolutely that I dubbed his two terms “the Vanilla Presidency” in Off Script, may actually have ushered in a new era for the next generation of advance people. He and his team found the right recipe for his brand of leadership when his motorcade arrived at the Los Angeles garage of Marc Maron, host of the popular WTF podcast. For one very meaningful hour, there were no cameras present as the president spoke movingly about the many challenges that arrive at the Oval Office. Both the message and the medium seem to me the best fit for this moment in our history.

As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fight for political power this fall, the Age of Optics will ride on familiar rails. Barack Obama vanquished John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 by first sharing his life’s journey in Dreams from My Father and then masterfully deploying the tools of paid media and rapid-response video against his opponents. Clinton, in Hard Choices, and Trump, in The Art of the Deal, are more pilloried for their past than ennobled by it. They’re left to wrestle with the present, and their vision for our future, which they must project through the media’s business-model-driven prism. Clinton drives clicks. Trump drives ratings.

Somewhere near Swarthmore this fall, Clinton will likely hold a large rally not unlike Ronald Reagan’s stop at the Delaware County Courthouse, festooning her site with her slogan, “Stronger Together.” Trump will do the same, making sure his “Make America Great Again” tagline is expertly aligned with the TV cameras trailing him from stop to stop.

We’re the audience for this new act of political theater, charged with seeing through the chorus of noise to discern what lurks backstage in the head and heart of our next leader. If we can separate substance from stagecraft, and distill journalistic rigor from horse-race reporting, we’ll help our democracy flourish. In choosing our president, we’re wise to heed the final line of Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies—who tells your story?”


Editor's Note: Josh King ’87 will offer a "A Tour Through the Age of Optics" on Tues., Oct. 18, at 4:30 p.m. in the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility. 


Crossing paths between the College and the White House

1913 — Less than a year after his election, President Woodrow Wilson speaks on campus to urge “every generation of Swarthmore men and women” to add to the “glory of America.”

1915 — Former President William Howard Taft plants an Eastern hemlock on campus for Commencement Day.

1920 — Eight years before being elected president, Herbert Hoover receives an honorary doctor of laws for directing the country’s post-World War I relief effort in Europe.

1929 — Months before the Wall Street crash, newly minted first lady Lou Henry Hoover receives an honorary doctor of letters for serving as president of the Girl Scouts of the USA and vice president of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. 

1947 — Harold Stassen, Minnesota’s former “boy governor,” receives a doctor of laws for helping write the U.N. Charter. He would be a serious candidate for president in 1948 and 1952—and less of one in 1964, 1968, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992.

1960 — Johns Hopkins University President Milton Eisenhower—Dwight’s brother and former adviser—receives an honorary doctor of laws. He would appear on the ballot in 1980 as the vice presidential running mate of independent John Anderson, but only in Texas.

1964 — At our Centennial Commencement, President Lyndon B. Johnson receives an honorary doctor of laws and gives the address, filling in for the late John F. Kennedy.

1967 — Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, who nearly got the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and 1968, gets a Swarthmore honorary degree instead.

1969–74 — Legend has it that President Richard Nixon—a lifelong Quaker—is seen driving on campus, but doesn’t actually visit. Whether the description of Swarthmore as “the Kremlin on the Crum” famously—and possibly apocryphally—attributed to Vice President Spiro Agnew played a role is lost to history.

1975 — Massachusetts governor—and future 1988 Democratic presidential nominee—Michael Dukakis ’55 receives an honorary doctor of laws. 

2008 — White House intern Anne Kolker ’08 confirms a rumor about President Barack Obama. “Ah, Swarthmore. Great school. They rejected me,” she reports him saying, noting he held no grudge.

2010 — Stephen Lang ’73, who played President George Washington in the 1997 miniseries Liberty! The American Revolution, receives an honorary doctor of arts.