The Styrofoam Columns
An article at Politico describes the genesis of the President's scheduling conflict with the Green Bay Packers-New Orleans Saints football game. The President wanted to give a speech and needed an appropriate setting. Someplace grand, with a lot of marble in evidence lined with earnest, statesmanlike faces.
On Wednesday, the White House staff did not know exactly what President Barack Obama was going to say in his major jobs speech, but it knew exactly where and when he was going to say it.
The location would be before a joint session of Congress in the august marble-clad chamber of the House of Representatives. And the speech would be next Wednesday night, when the House returned from vacation, and there would be maximum TV viewership.
There was only one problem with the chosen venue. Its inmates had scheduled a previous function of their own. So the obvious solution was to get the inmates to accommodate the guest. "The White House was well aware the president’s speech would conflict with a planned Republican debate sponsored by POLITICO and NBC to be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif." No difficulties were anticipated. The White House fully expected Speaker Boehner to fully comply with the President's request.
At about 10 or 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, White House chief of staff Bill Daley called House Speaker John Boehner and asked that a joint session of Congress be assembled the following Wednesday night. The White House viewed Boehner as a political opponent, but not an enemy and the call was cordial, even pro forma considering such a request had never before been refused.
According to Politico, Boehner at first agreed but after pushback from other Republicans, the Speaker then asked the White House if it could be more conveniently rescheduled. The White House was furious. Here was a slight they did not expect.
The White House did not want to give in and look weak, but what was the alternative?
An Oval office speech instead?
“You can’t speak for 40 minutes from the Oval Office,” the source said.
How about the East Room?
“He’s going to speak to an empty East Room with just the Teleprompters and staff there? No,” said the source
So it had to be in the House of Representatives, which the Republicans control. “But we couldn’t go if they didn’t let us come,” the source said. “You can’t hold the speech in the lobby or in the parking lot. And you’re not going to get network coverage if you hold it at George Mason University.
“After a month of world chaos, the setting had to match the topic. And you don’t get any better setting than a joint session of Congress.”
In the end, the White House felt it had no choice but to give in on the date, and Obama sent an email to his supporters with the subject line: “Frustrated.”
Why the fuss over a venue? Why such emphasis on ceremony? Washington is a place where the art of communication is treated more seriously than religion. When Glenn Beck scheduled a rally at the Washington Memorial watchful reporters waited to see whether he would have the temerity to stand in the exact place once occupied by Dr. Martin Luther King. Beck didn't. He stood two steps down.
Members of the public who might sympathize with Jim DeMint's suggestion that the President send over his proposal in writing simply don't understand the art and high purpose of communications strategies, optics, and messaging. Here is what de DeMint said:
“If he has a jobs proposal, put it in writing, give us a cost estimate, and send it over. I want to read the bill, not listen to talking points off a TelePrompter. If he insists on playing politics by picking the night of the GOP debate, I will object to the session.”
Such a suggestion flies in the face of everything that Washington holds holy. Can DeMint seriously suggest that a website posting, a written letter, or even a recording can have anything near the visual impact of the President manifesting his authority over a solemnly silent chamber, holding out his finger, pausing at dramatic moments, now quickening his speech, now upbraiding his listeners, on the all important subject of jobs for America? That would be to blaspheme against the great god of optics, whose name shall not be taken in vain.
Just how seriously this deity is treated is shown by how President Obama selected his venues while still campaigning for office on a tour through Europe. He spoke at the Temple of Hercules in Greece and at the statue of Victory in Berlin. Just what an ancient Greek Hero and a memorial to the prowess of the German army had to do with the Presidency is little to the point. They had nothing to do with anything but the visuals were good for someone who Newsweek was later to call, 'a kind of god'.
And when finally the candidate was ready to assume the mantle of his party, the DNCC spent $140,000 on "podium production" including magnificent styrofoam columns suggestive of Roman grandeur to lend dignity to the event.
Visuals are why the President couldn't speak in the Oval Office, the East Room or just anywhere else. He needed the setting. He needed the props. He needed the magnificence imparted, not by his presence, but by the architecture which surrounded him. Because if he didn't need such things then it would imply that such trappings were unimportant and half of Washington would be out of a job. Therefore he needed a Joint Session of Congress to deliver his lecture to the nation for reasons quite independent of whatever will be contained in the message.
And for that same reason his speech will end before the Packers meet the Saints. The focus groups have decreed that the same immutable laws which prevent him from speaking in a parking lot also preclude him from talking past the kickoff.
But where does dignity -- the kind of dignity which allows him to upbraid the Supreme Court and Congress in the venue of another branch of government -- come from?
It used to come from the message. Presidents were more careless of setting in the past. President Washington's inaugural address was inaudible except to those close by him. He spoke 135 words. Someone forgot the Bible at FDR's inaugural address in 1933 but a policeman provided his. Today a policeman might be sued for possessing one on duty. They had none of the spin doctors, media consultants, focus group experts and wordsmiths of modern Washington. But they had themselves. And often they had something consequential to say.
Winston Churchill, whose bust once sat in the Oval Office until President Obama returned it to Britain, observed that real magnificence flowed from the inside out. You could utter drivel in a marble hall or deliver the gospel from a mountainside. It depended not on the quality of your teleprompter, but on what lay within you. "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Not the singer, but the song.