The high art — and power — of political stagecraft in the age of optics

In this age of internet media and 24 hour news coverage, visuals can make or break a given political campaign, press conference or White House event. The latter is of special significance to former White House aide Josh King, whose new book “Off Script” is a personal narrative of the importance of imagery in an era of perpetual optics. Judy Woodruff talks to King for more.

Read the Full Transcript


    And next: the latest addition to our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    It's a personal narrative on the importance that visuals play in making or breaking a political campaign or a White House event.

    Judy Woodruff sat down with author Josh King to discuss the significance of imagery in the age of optics.


    Political stagecraft has evolved into a high form of art. But that doesn't mean mishaps don't take place along the campaign trail or on the road with the president.

    We turn now to Josh King. He is the author of "Off Script: An Advance Man's Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide."

    Josh King, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    JOSH KING, Author, "Off Script": Thanks, Judy. Thanks for having me.


    So, first of all, what is an advance man?


    An advance man is basically a political movie producer.

    We roam the hustings of America and around the world trying to tell political stories by setting up tableaus that connect a president or a presidential candidate with the places they are or the people that they're interacting with.


    You were there for some of the most memorable moments of the last several Democratic political leaders in this country, Michael Dukakis, when he ran for president, Bill Clinton.

    But you make a wonderful point of saying the mistakes are where the people learn, someone in your job learns. And you write beautifully about what happened to Michael Dukakis. Tell that story.


    Dukakis was down in Michigan. He was down in the summer of 1988, and he had to go and into a General Dynamics land systems plant and ride M1-A1 Abrams tank to try and look like a more credible commander in chief. But the tank didn't fit him, and it showed that day, and then in the commercial that Sig Rogich made five weeks later and put on the air on behalf of the Bush-Quayle campaign.


    On behalf of the Republicans.

    And it's interesting, because you point out Michael Dukakis had served in the military, been in Korea, in the U.S. Army, but he still didn't — this picture didn't work. What is — how do you know what works for a candidate or for a president? What is a setting that's going to work?


    Well, it has to fit who he is. And as much as Dukakis had come out of Swarthmore and was drafted into the Army and served in Korea after the armistice, his persona and his executive experience was based much more on his life in Massachusetts, a competent administrator, a person who could get things done.

    He wasn't running to be a commander in chief. He was running on the economy. He would have been much better in a hospital setting or in a school, where he could point to so many things in his record that matched who he was.


    There are other images. You were there for Bill Clinton. And you shared some images that are — pictures that are in the book. You shared with us just today a picture of Bill Clinton surrounded by a swarm of gnats. What happened?


    Well, they sent me to Lyon, France. It was the G7 Summit.

    And so much of that happens indoors around a big conference table. I wanted to show him in a little more bucolic setting to show that he was really enjoying his European trip. And the heat was growing. It was one of the hottest days of the year. And a swarm of gnats was forming around the presidential podium.

    So I go into a store, and I buy what I think is insect repellent. I can't really read the French writing on it. But I spray it all over the podium. Turns it out it was insect killer. And because it was so hot and the movie lights that we trained on the president to even out the shadows for the TV shot was — were making him sweat.

    He got his hands on the podium. And the questioning was withering and he's starting to rub his eyes. And before this news conference is over, he's almost poisoned in his eyes. He can't — can hardly open them as he's answering questions about the Middle East.

    It was a disaster for him and for me that day.


    One of the other scenes you write about memorably, Josh King, is what happened to President Bush when he went out on the aircraft carrier at the end of — what people thought was the end of the Iraq War.



    It's May 1, 2003, the end of combat operations in Iraq. And to declare the end of combat operations, President Bush takes an S-3 Viking from San Diego to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Pacific Ocean.

    And when he gives his speech to the nation later on, now dressed in a blue suit, does this beautiful walk out from the tower of the carrier and comes to stage, perfectly positioned and behind him is a banner that says "Mission Accomplished."

    And if you heard the White House's original explanation and the ship's, those two words, "Mission Accomplished," were for the crew of the Lincoln, which had completed the longest deployment of any aircraft carrier since the end of the Vietnam War.

    But the White House was the team that put that banner exactly where it was, positioned perfectly for a live national TV shot. And I declared that day it was a great event in all respects, but they didn't need those two words, because that's what dogged Bush for so many years after that event.


    How do you explain — if you are working with a candidate or a president who says, wait a minute, I thought this was all on the level, I thought — I thought serving the country was about policy positions and about substance, you're telling me it's about optics, what do you say?


    To win any particular primary or general election and take home electoral votes in certain states, it's going go to be covered by local newspapers, by local television, by national television.

    And what they need is imagery to fill their packages, and we need to provide the content that you, frankly, edit in and present as what happened that day in such a boiled-down fashion in two minutes. You get — Bill Clinton or Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton can't get their policy ideas across in two minutes. So we feed the way the system works.


    But, finally, as you know very well, what we're dealing with today is a much faster news environment.


    Yes. Yes.


    Pictures are taken all around. A president can be photographed in so many more ways or a candidate. How much harder does that make the job?


    Infinitely harder.

    I call 2004 the high watermark of the age of optics, because after that, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube took over. And we're flooded with so much, Judy, that perhaps there's not staying power of any great picture or any negative picture for more than a few hours or a news cycle or two.

    And what I think is the most powerful thing that President Obama was able to do last year was that hour-long podcast with Marc Maron that he calls "WTF." And in that, when you remove the visual entirely, and you just hear what the president says for 60 minutes, and almost have this conversation in your head, let him say in long form what he needs to, I had a much better appreciation for Barack Obama after that than, frankly, seven years of televised coverage.


    So, you're saying, after all this effort to get the picture right, the picture may not matter?


    My epiphany was that perhaps the words are more important.

    And we need to do better job listening and creating content and allowing people to have a longer conversation. We don't have all that time on broadcast or commercial television, but there are new mediums coming through where we can understand what people have to say a lot better.


    Josh King, thank you very much.

  • “Off Script:

    An Advance Man's Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide."

    We appreciate it.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment