By Brigitte L. Nacos
The death of Michael Deaver, who was Ronald Reagan’s premier image maker, and the departure of Karl Rove from the Bush White House highlight the centrality of public relations, propaganda, and manufactured news in modern White Houses and administrations. Power-holders and power-seekers have always tried and often succeeded in manipulating public views about themselves, their politics, and policies, but Michael Deaver opened a new chapter of public relations stagecraft during the Reagan years. While major factors during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Karl Rove and his associates proved the most aggressive and ruthless yet in marketing a president, branding their party, and manufacturing news to sell their policies—most notably the Iraq War. Calling Deaver rightly “the media maestro who shaped President Ronald Reagan’s public image,” the Washington Post’s Patricia Sullivan writes. “As the White House deputy chief of staff during the first term of the Reagan presidency, Deaver orchestrated Reagan's every public appearance, staging announcements with an eye for television and news cameras. From a West Wing office adjacent to the Oval Office, Deaver did more than anyone before him to package and control the presidential image.”
Commenting on Karl Rove’s sudden retirement from his White House job, Frank Rich takes his readers back to the summer of 2002, when “Andrew Card, then the president’s chief of staff, told The New York Times why the much-anticipated push for war in Iraq hadn't yet arrived. ‘You don't introduce new products in August,’ he said sounding like the mouthpiece for the Big Three automakers he once was. Sure enough, with an efficiency Detroit can only envy, the manufactured aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds rolled off the White House assembly line after Labor Day like clockwork.” While Card offered a glimpse of the behind-the-scene marketing tricks in selling the war on terrorism--in Iraq, Karl Rove was, no doubt, the brain behind such political maneuvers.
Deaver and Rove acted according to the assumption that the perception
of what is real and truthful matters more than the actual reality and truth. To
put it differently, what a president and his administration (or other public
figures) actually do or fail to do is far less important than what the public
believes they do.
The example that stunned even public relations genius Deaver concerned President Reagan’s education policy. While otherwise enjoying a solid public approval rating, Reagan was seen as not at all concerned with education. Once he decided to remedy this, Deaver gave the marching order to make the president and his commitment to education “the line of the day” for as many days as feasible in the following weeks. The White House press office arranged for photo opportunities when Ronald Reagan visited schools, received teachers in the White House, talked to students. There were no changes in and no new initiatives in terms of education policies but the staged news events changed the public’s perception drastically so that within weeks Reagan turned into “the education president.”
But even the best choreographers of manufactured news make mistakes. As noted in the above mentioned Post article, “Deaver resigned in 1985, shortly after a presidential trip to Europe included a stop at the military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where 49 Nazi SS soldiers were buried. The brief ceremony there drew strong opposition from Jewish groups, veterans and others; Deaver had made the advance arrangements and failed to foresee the uproar the Bitburg stop would cause.”
What about Rove’s sudden departure? The results of last fall’s congressional elections may have been the beginning of the end of his “boy wonder” reputation and White House effectiveness. But the more hopeful explanation is the one Frank Rich puts forth in today’s column, when he concludes,
“The rise of YouTube certifies the passing of Mr. Rove's
era, a cultural changing of the guard in the digital age. Mr. Rove made his
name in direct-mail fund-raising and with fierce top-down message management.
As the Internet erodes snail mail, so it upends direct mail. As YouTube
threatens a politician's ability to rigidly control a message, so it threatens
the Rove ethos that led Mr. Bush to campaign at "town hall" meetings
attended only by hand-picked supporters.”
Hopefully, the Internet grows as check on the manufacturers
of news and the twisters of truth.