Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency

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It's a common complaint that a presidential candidate's style matters more than substance and that the issues have been eclipsed by mass-media-fueled obsession with a candidate's every slip, gaffe, and peccadillo. This book explores political communication in American presidential politics, focusing on what political insiders call "message." Message, Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein argue, is not simply an individual's positions on the issues but the craft used to fashion the creature the public sees as the candidate. Lempert and Silverstein examine some of the revelatory moments in debates, political ads, interviews, speeches, and talk shows to explain how these political creations come to have a life of their own. From the pandering "Flip-Flopper" to the self-reliant "Maverick," the authors demonstrate how these figures are fashioned out of the verbal, gestural, sartorial, behavioral-as well as linguistic-matter that comprises political communication.

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1 Introduction: “Message” Is the Medium

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“Message” Is the Medium

If the genius of the Clinton campaign was its disciplined focus on message—“The economy, stupid”—the Clinton transition stumbled slightly out of the gate.

Although it harnessed masterfully the new prestige of the president-elect with Clinton’s symbolic reaching out to common people during his walk on Georgia Avenue last week, it has also endured a torrent of stories about such “off message” matters as homosexuals in the military and the role of Hillary Clinton.

Washington Post, 22 November 1992

In their professional jargon, political insiders call it simply—and to many outsiders, misleadingly—“message.” It is the politician’s publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere. In this book we examine the ways in which modern electoral politics in the United States revolves around contests over “message.”

 

2 Getting It “Ju … st Right!”

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Many people think about the difference between the 2003–2004 presidential campaign and that of 2007–2008 in terms of the centrality of the Internet, the number of voters of various demographic groups who cast ballots on Election Day, and so forth. One of the important comparisons, however, not to be overlooked if one is focused on how Message politics works in America, is what we can term the “Goldilocks Principle of Message-ing.” There is a “ju … st right!” use of Message, neither too much—especially of the negative kind—nor too little—especially of one’s own positive kind, the communicative weakness or absence of which renders one extremely vulnerable to the other candidates’ inevitable barrage of the negative.

So, notwithstanding its apparent effectiveness in shaping the results of the election in 2004 (for President George W. Bush was, in fact, reelected), the powerful Republican Message machine ascribed to the genius of Karl Rove seemed, in retrospect, to call the very enterprise of Message-ing into a kind of official disrepute among the media connoisseurs and much of the public—if, paradoxically, it was still clandestinely admired for its decisive success. Hence, one of the important stances in the 2008 election cycle was to seem to be above, beyond, or in some way independent of Message. And interestingly the two figures who would emerge as the respective candidates of the major parties in 2008 very much embraced an “anti-Message” or “post-Message” Message, at least in their parties’ primary campaigns and somewhat beyond. As a demonstration of what we might term reversion to the institutional norm, however, we must note that in the final phases of the 2008 campaigns, Message, and in particular negative Message attempting to define the opponent, was once again in full force. Here we compare these two electoral cycles in more detail in respect of telling moments of “too much,” “too little,” and “ju … st right” Message.

 

3 Addressing “The Issues”

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That “The Issues” are a hallowed discursive institution in U.S. electoral politics is suggested by the rote outrage expressed when people fail to address them. The day after the Democratic Party’s twenty-first and final primary debate of 2007–2008, held in Philadelphia for finalists Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama aired this complaint before supporters in North Carolina: “Last night, I think we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people.” Irate columnists echoed Obama, like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin (2008), who railed against the moderators’ “ ‘gotcha’ questions with no relevance to the problems we face,” or Nico Pitney (2008) of the Huffington Post, who, in a bid to convince readers of the new lows to which political debates have sunk, tried his hand at quantification: he sorted “policy” from “non-policy” from “scandal” questions in the debates between Obama and Clinton, arguing that the more recent were scandal-heavy and policy-light.1 The moderators, concluded Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch, “disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.”2 Unfazed by this reflexive “debate over the debate,” as the kerfuffle came to be called, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s stalwart FactCheck.org-ers, unswerving verificationists all, continued to subject the candidate responses to the acid test of truth or falsity: Did Obama really say that he wouldn’t wear a flag pin? (Yes.) Did “people” die from the Weather Underground’s bombing in the 1970s, as Hillary Clinton suggested when she tied Obama to former Underground member William Ayers? (Yes, but the three who died were group members.)3

 

4 Ethno-Blooperology

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On Tuesday morning, the twenty-third of October 2007, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seemed to some to have done it. Talking to the Greenwood, South Carolina, chamber of commerce on free trade agreements, he digressed to focus on the threat of radical Islam and the “War on Terror.” He sharply criticized the opposition of the local Democratic aspirant for the presidential nomination, former senator John Edwards, to Bush administration policies captioned by the phrase the War on Terror. “I think that is a position which is not consistent with the fact,” Romney said, presumably intending either “with the facts” or just “with fact.” Grammatical error. Slip of the old phrase generator. A minor—a miniscule—dysfluency of parole, actualized language. But Romney went on, as long as he was criticizing Senator Edwards, seeming to spread the partisan criticism wider:

Actually, just look at what Osam—uh—Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. “That is the battlefield. That is the central place,” he said. “Come join us under one banner.”

 

5 Unflipping the Flop

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CHERYL OTIS: Senator Kerry, after talking with several co-workers and family and friends, I asked the ones who said they were not voting for you, “Why?” They said that you were too wishy-washy. Do you have a reply for them?

JOHN KERRY: Yes, I certainly do. (laughter)

—8 October 2004. Second presidential debate, held at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

On 30 October 2007, more than two months before the primaries began, the Democratic Party held a televised debate in Philadelphia for seven of its presidential hopefuls, which included then front-runner New York senator Hillary Clinton (New York Times 2007). At a certain moment, as recounted in chapter 3, Clinton was pressed about her view on governor of New York Eliot Spitzer’s beleaguered proposal to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. “It makes a lot of sense,” she was quoted as saying of his plan in New Hampshire. In response to the debate’s co-moderator Tim Russert, her answer this time around seemed more measured: two parts sympathy (“what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum”) and one part disapproval (“we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap”). Sen. Chris Dodd, one of the seven candidates on stage, read Clinton’s sympathy as tacit agreement with Spitzer’s position, and she swiftly corrected him: “I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.” With this John Edwards and Barack Obama resumed the evening’s grating refrain: that Clinton was inconsistent, that her inconsistency bespoke a lack of conviction. This was arguably what people in the industry call a “moment,” a turning point in a candidate’s fortunes. In post-debate coverage on the political talk show Hardball, Joe Trippi, senior strategist for the Edwards campaign, ratcheted up the criticism, attributing Clinton’s shifting positions to whether she was in “primary mode or general election mode” and predicting that her position would change again once she spoke with her consultants (MSNBC 2007a). It was left to the commentariat to name the charge against Clinton, as editorialist Michael Graham (2007) of the Boston Herald did in an uncharitable opinion piece published two days after the debate:

 

6 The Message in Hand

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That politicians can sway audiences through gesture is an old conceit, as the writings of the first-century Roman rhetorician Quintilian, for instance, attest. Quintilian offered copious advice on how orators should use their hands and manage their bodies, and made it sound as if these signs had stable meanings and predictable effects: “To strike the thigh, a gesture which Cleon is supposed to have first practiced at Athens, is not only common, but suits the expression of indignant feeling and excites the attention of the audience” (Book 11: 374). The contemporary scholarly literature on gesture has had precious little to say about this venerable subject, and what has been said has been eclipsed by a mass of op-ed-styled musings by journalists and political commentators, with the occasional cameo played by the more sober, if often dubiously trained, “body language expert.” These musings range from the waggish (e.g., a shot at Sen. John McCain’s “twitchy finger air quotes” [Muller 2008]) to the incendiary (e.g., accusations that Obama slyly flipped off Hillary Clinton in April 2008 when he scratched his cheek with his middle finger [Malcolm 2008]). And there’s always ample satire, like the Huffington Post’s Matt Mendelsohn’s piece from late October 2008, which poked fun at McCain’s proclivity for air quotes: “McCain Injures Fingers Making Quotation Marks Sign, Suspends Campaign.” “Today,” complains Jürgen Streeck in one of the few, careful case studies of political gesture, “most publicized pronouncements on the matter have the quality of pop psychology or pop ethology: Unconscious motives or psychological dispositions are attributed, often on the basis of a single photograph, and universal meanings of isolated behaviors are invoked, in statements that are sometimes witty, but rarely enlightening” (2008, 155).

 

7 What Goes Around …

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How much of what a candidate or incumbent says and does makes it through the concentric layers of media filtration to reach at least a segment or sector of the public? And in what form do the doings and sayings as they are represented by media reports advance or counter the Message intended by the occasion of those doings and sayings? Here we deal with the circulation of Message—that is, with the chains of reports of reports of reports of … happenings or events the apparent movement of which through social space-time is controlled, in our political public sphere, by the organized political press across a variety of media.

Reporting a prior event, in print journalism or elsewhere, is never merely a report, never a passive, disinterested relay of narrated event in the past to addressees in the present. It is well known that one’s personal or organizationally derived attitude toward how a prior event should or should not become newsworthy colors how we report it, and that this coloring can have consequences—“media effects” as students of communication are wont to say. Less obvious is the fact that our very sense that we can follow the principals of a reportable political event by tracking the circulation of their Message-worthy images in social space-time depends on many such events of reporting. As prior events get reported and re-reported, extended chains of interdiscursivity form, and these chains across events of reporting events that themselves report events … elaborate a network across which we feel the palpable illusion of Message-in-motion. Understanding the crystallization of Message requires that we break up this illusion, especially, as in this extraordinary example, when there are competing Messages sent through the highly reticulated institutional structure of the White House press corps and its sponsoring press organizations.

 

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