Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2007

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Spinning the Oval Office

Spinning the Oval Office
Martha Joynt Kumar ´63

Martha Joynt Kumar ´63 analyzes decades of presidential communications

by Amy Rogers Nazarov ´90


On a recent autumn afternoon, Martha Joynt Kumar ´63 was due at the White House.

She´d been invited to sit down with White House Press Secretary Dana Perino to share information Kumar had gathered in the course of writing her latest book, Managing the President´s Message (2007, Johns Hopkins University Press). Tapped in September to succeed Tony Snow, Perino — the second female press secretary in history — wanted to view Kumar´s research, which examines how press conferences shape presidents´ communications with the American people.

As she´s done with other officials in half a dozen administrations, Kumar was happy to share. “Press secretaries are interested in what their predecessors have done and in understanding the institutional dynamics” that have changed the role over the decades, she says.

Among the information most requested are charts Kumar has compiled showing the number of press conferences given by each president since Woodrow Wilson. Starting in 1913, and through his 96 months in office, Wilson gave 159 press conferences. By contrast, Ronald Reagan, who also occupied the White House for 96 months, gave just 46.

Those charged with guiding the president´s communications strategy find it useful to examine where their man has stood when compared with other presidents, says Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University in Baltimore, Md. Setting aside matters of presidential politics and policies, she takes the long view of how those in the White House have used press briefings and conferences to share their views with a broader public. “I look at the place communication has had in administrations and how it´s used to present the president´s proposals,” she says.

In the White House and on the road, Kumar has observed hundreds of press conferences, in which the presidents themselves answer questions, and press briefings, led by press secretaries.
“It wasn´t easy to get that clearance,” she noted. “But among the reasons it happened is that I don´t ask questions at briefings; I´m careful not to take up space.”

She adds, “On the other hand, when [reporters and others] are interested in what´s happened before — say the president does something unusual at a press conference — they might ask me, ´Have other presidents done something similar?” To the media who cover the White House and to those who work there, Kumar has become a trusted source of nonpartisan information.

Starting in the 19th century, she observed, presidential publicity took on a new importance. Back then, the president´s private secretary — a title roughly akin to today´s chief of staff — would have been charged with talking with reporters, among other duties. In 1929, a Congressional appropriation made possible the hiring of a presidential aide whose sole job was to oversee press communications.

Today, there are two types of briefings: the morning “gaggle,” an on-the-record but off-camera briefing for journalists on the day´s planned events that involve the president; and the televised afternoon briefings, when journalists are seeking the administration´s reactions to the day´s events.

Kumar, who joined the faculty of Towson in 1971 after earning her master´s degree and doctorate from Columbia University, recalled a memorable assignment in Professor Alice Johnson´s expository writing class in 1962. “I interviewed Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon about Mark Hatfield, who was then governor of Oregon.” (Kumar worked for Hatfield in 1962 and 1964). “I realized that I really liked working with primary materials — observations, interviews — and hearing information from the principals themselves.”

Other influential professors included Wayne Swanson, now professor emeritus of government, who used Kumar´s book Portraying the President: The White House and the News Media in several of his classes, and Marian Doro, Lucy Marsh Haskell ´19 Professor Emeritus of Government, whose constitutional law class had a lasting impact on Kumar.

At Towson, Kumar teaches several courses, including one on the American presidency and another on American government. In addition, she coordinates a political internship program where participants work for elected officials in the Maryland state government and in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

One could argue that Kumar´s research has helped open up the lines of communication between presidents and the American citizenry.

“I had told [then Bush confidant and communications adviser] Dan Bartlett that George W. Bush was behind [in the number of press conferences] where George H.W. Bush had been in the same period of his own presidency,” Kumar recalls. When the current President Bush spotted Kumar at a recent White House Christmas party, he told her that he had plans to hold a lot more press conferences.

“Winning the Picture”


The following excerpt from alumna Martha Joynt Kumar´s latest book, Managing the President´s Message (Johns Hopkins University Press), demonstrates why “winning the picture” can be more important than verbal messages.

The Bush White House staff focuses on controlling those aspects of presidential communications that are possible for them to manage successfully. How the president is portrayed in pictures is one of the areas in which the White House has both an ability to control what is released and an interest in doing so. Communications staff members think through how to explain what the president is doing, right down to the pictures they want to see on television. As in earlier administrations, especially those of Presidents Reagan and Clinton, communications staffers in the Bush White House invest heavily in producing memorable pictures. Because presidential appearances are now covered live from beginning to end on cable television, every detail of such events can affect their effectiveness at conveying messages.

Karl Rove1 traces the high point of media sophistication in this regard to the Reagan administration: “I think in the post-1980 era, we all owe it to [Michael] Deaver, who said, ´Turn off the sound of the television, and that´s how people are going to decide whether you won the day or lost the day: the quality of the picture.´” He explains, “That´s what they´re going to get the message by, with the sound entirely off. And I think that´s simplistic, but I think it´s an important insight. There is a reason why that old saw, a picture is worth a thousand words — how we look, how we sound, and how we project — is important. So winning the picture is important, and [so is] having a president with the right kind of people to drive and hone the emphasis of the message, [so he will] be seen in a positive, warm, and strong way.”

After White House strategists determine what themes they want to communicate, their implementation people decide how to structure an instructive event, and their operations people set everything up and frame the pictures so that they will communicate what the planners and implementers want to convey. Scott Sforza2 capitalizes on his background in television and his experience with White House policymakers to make sure that both sides are handled well. As he said, “I sort of use the rule of thumb, if the sound were turned down on the television when you are just passing by, you should be able to look at the TV and tell what the president´s message is. If you are passing by a storefront and see a TV in the window, or if you are at a newspaper stand and you are walking by, you should be able to get the president´s messages in a snapshot, in most cases.”

Among other things, Sforza is the official who designs the backdrops that appear behind the president when he speaks in indoor locales around the country. For a speech about homeland security delivered in Kansas City, this “wallpaper” was lined with the phrase “Protecting the Homeland,” interspersed with profiles of a firefighter. At the White House, where these message banners are only occasionally used, the preference is for scenic locales in and around the White House itself. In his effort to produce precisely the pictures he wants, Sforza leaves no detail to chance. The background before which the president appears is chosen with the aim of maximizing the impact of the “tight” shots that television cameras are most likely to use. And the president speaks from a special podium tagged “Falcon” because its top seems to hunch over a thin stem, which has been crafted to allow televised close-ups to show as much of a selected background as possible.

According to Sforza, “Falcon” is “designed so that you can see the lower portions [of a picture]. You can see around it. So it really opened up the shot for us, and you could see the process behind it.” He continues, “It made for a much, much better event. When you look at the photos, you can tell it´s really — it´s a striking difference. So it has had just really terrific results. We have had great results with it, even in events where we have message banners. You can see the banners much better, because this sits lower, and it really plays well with that backdrop, so it doesn´t dominate the show.”

Until the end of the 20th century, presidents had very few choices when they wanted to go live on television with a speech. Most of them used the Oval Office as their setting. In addition to the 11 addresses he delivered to Congress during his eight years in office, President Clinton made 19 formal “Addresses to the Nation.” Fifteen of them came from the Oval Office. By April 2006, in Bush´s sixth year, setting aside his two inaugurals and his seven addresses to Congress, only three of his 17 “Addresses to the Nation” took place in the Oval Office. Seven of them were delivered in locales other than Washington, namely Crawford, Texas; New York; Cincinnati; Atlanta; New Orleans; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and an aircraft carrier. The remaining seven were staged in other White House locations — three from the Cabinet Room; three in Cross Hall (located on the first floor of the White House midway between the East Room and the State Dining Room), and one from the White House Treaty Room.

Thanks to the fiber-optics technology that was in place by the time he was elected, thanks to the Clinton communications operation, President Bush can appear live on television in a matter of minutes from several locations in the White House itself, in the West Wing and on the White House grounds, such as the South Lawn and the East Garden. While the Clinton communications team was responsible for acquiring this technology, only the Briefing Room and the East Room were wired when Clinton left office.

On October 7, 2001, when President Bush addressed the nation to announce a campaign of military strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan, he spoke from the Treaty Room in the White House, so named because it was where President McKinley signed the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. He began his speech at one o´clock in the afternoon. Through the window behind him one could glimpse the midday traffic on Constitution Avenue.

No president had delivered a speech from this room before. President Bush and his staff selected it because they felt the visuals themselves would convey important messages. “The president wanted to really address the nation in a different way than he had before,” remembered Sforza. “He enjoyed the history of the room, and what it was all associated with.” He also wanted the traffic in the background: “We wanted … [to] send a message to the world that we´re still in business here.”

In earlier times, a satellite truck arriving the day prior to the event would have been needed for a television broadcast, and it would have taken a lot of time to set up all of the necessary equipment. The existence of fiber optic lines “really enabled us to go on the air much quicker than we ever would have been able to the old way, the way it was 10 years ago,” said Sforza. “So this way it´s a very short cable line. You just plug it in and you´re ready to go. And with that speech in particular we had as little time as possible to notify the networks.” Instead of the previously required hour-and-a-half warning, “we were able to notify them in 15 minutes, 20 minutes before we would go on the air.”

“Winning the picture” is important for any administration. But Bush´s communication staffers are more sensitive than their predecessors of the need to reach particular segments of the public through television. Even though the Internet is attracting a large number of readers, television is an important source of news for most who follow it. The goal of “winning the picture” influences how departments and agencies showcase presidential policies as well as what the White House and the president do. The creation by outside contractors paid by government departments and agencies of video news releases to be shown at the regional and local levels in addition to the national one is a practice that builds on traditional efforts to shape newspaper coverage.

The “picture” is an area where the White House can make use of changes in technology as well. When asked the differences in broadcasting the presidential image between 2002 and 2004, Sforza pointed to some of the developments. “It´s a lot easier to get a satellite signal out. It´s easier to do the video taping, a lot of the networks, the locals have the ability to turn stories around much more quickly now that there is an advancement in the editing capability and the software that´s available.” These changes require staff to assess how networks and local television stations broadcast in order to make the most of their opportunities getting television time.

When President Bush announced what the administration considered to be the end of military operations in Iraq, he and his staff did so in a dramatic location. Through developments in video technology, they were able to broadcast live from the Pacific Ocean while the USS Abraham Lincoln was moving. That was something that previously was not possible, Sforza said, as the transmitters would “always hit black holes when … traveling through the ocean.” For the USS Abraham Lincoln event where President Bush landed in a Navy S-3BViking fighter jet, improved technology allowed a clear, stable signal for transmitting the president´s arrival and his speech given at dusk: “That was the first time that we used this new technology, which was a Sea-Tel Antenna … that could lock in to a KU-band satellite signal while moving.” That meant continued transmission for all news organizations without any loss of signal while they journeyed toward San Diego.

The USS Abraham Lincoln event demonstrated the problems that can arise when a communications operation focuses so heavily on the technology of an event that one misses the larger communications problems. The White House made a sign that served as a backdrop when President Bush spoke. The sign read “Mission Accomplished.” Sforza said that the derivation of the sign was a request by the commander of the ship, who wanted it because the crew had been at sea for 11 months. The president´s critics portrayed the sign as a presidential announcement that the war in Iraq was over, which proved to be far from the case. Sforza said that the sign “took on a life of its own, and to this day they still try to apply it like an anniversary of the ´Mission Accomplished´ speech.” Though the president was reluctant to declare an end to hostilities, the sign seemed to indicate that he had. The communications staff learned that “the image overrides even sometimes the truth.”

1 - Former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush

2 - A former TV producer who was responsible for visual image control at the White House. He resigned in July.

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