If one thing has become clear from John McCain’s defeat, it is that the next Republican presidential candidate needs to be a great communicator.
To be sure, McCain probably would have won if the economic crisis had not washed away so many Americans’ retirement accounts. But that win would have reflected more of Americans’ skepticism toward Barack Obama’s ultra-liberal agenda than an embrace of McCain.
In this media age, a presidential candidate must have the skills to inspire — not only in speeches and televised interviews but also in dealings with the media.
In the early days of McCain’s campaign, he would joke that his base was the press. That was because he gave the media unlimited access, spending hours shmoozing reporters on his bus. Then last summer, the Bushies took over.
The Bush approach, as explained to me by Dan Bartlett, who was in charge of White House communications as counselor to President Bush, is to present his message publicly in speeches and at news conferences. Bush sees himself as a CEO whose agenda would be undercut if subjected to the constant leaks that occurred when his father was president.
So with the press, the White House became known as a buttoned-down operation, often unwilling to feed reporters even harmless tidbits that would make their stories more colorful.
That policy was epitomized by former Press Secretary Scott McClellan, whose utterances were as repetitious as reporters’ questions. It was on display again today, when The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen reported that the White House would not say what the menu was at Laura Bush’s birthday celebration. Bill Clinton’s White House would have leaked the menu a day before to a favored reporter.
Even hostile reporters find it harder to write slanted stories if they are receiving cooperation in obtaining behind-the-scenes vignettes or interviews. If they are not fed stories and leaks, they will look to the administration’s enemies for their material. Having been on the other side as a reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, I can attest to that.
As outlined in the Newsmax story “U.S. Spokesman at the U.N. Makes His Mark”, a savvy PR operation can make all the difference in the coverage an individual or institution receives.
In my view, Bush’s closed or “disciplined” approach to the press led to many of the myths about him and undercut his support and approval ratings. In turn, that undermined his ability to further his agenda. Although I believe Bush will be seen as a great president some day because he kept us safe after 9/11, he could have accomplished much more if he had adopted the most basic tactics of PR 101.
I am not normally a fan of Maureen Dowd, but she was dead on in her Nov. 2 New York Times column when she described how former Bush aide Steve Schmidt closed down McCain’s contacts with the press after he took charge of the McCain campaign in July.
“Before he was bubbled by Bushies, McCain was one of the most known and knowable quantities in American politics,” Dowd wrote. “For most of his long public career, he prided himself on his openness with the press — he even allowed some reporters to watch the results of January’s New Hampshire primary in his hotel suite in Nashua. He relished spending all day being challenged by voters and reporters.”
Then last summer, Schmidt took over, in effect “shackling” the candidate. Schmidt turned the “vibrant and respected McCain into a shell of his former self,” Dowd said. “No more of the oldest established, permanent floating crap game of press confabs.”
Although Obama played the same game with his cards close to his chest, he did not need to woo the press. Reporters adore him and tend to favor Democrats in any case. Using the Bush playbook, McCain turned the press into adversaries.
That left McCain only one way to sway voters: his own communication skills. But his disjointed, wooden delivery dismays even his strongest backers. Unlike the eloquent Obama, McCain does not know how to connect with voters by citing their everyday experiences.
Although McCain enunciates Republican principles favoring smaller government, lower taxes, and a strong national defense, he never takes the time to spell out clearly and convincingly why those principles are superior to the Democrats’ approach.
In contrast, Ronald Reagan was able to enlist the support of the American public with his direct speaking style, warmth, and humor. Perhaps that was because he genuinely liked people.
After Reagan had been out of office three years, he was to speak at an event in Akron, Ohio. In contrast to the retinue he had as president, Reagan traveled with just one staffer and his Secret Service contingent.
The agent in charge of the former president’s protective detail came into the command post and said to other agents, “You know, the president’s been sitting in his room alone all morning. And he’d really like for some folks to talk to. Would you guys mind if he came over and sat in the command post and just chatted with you guys for a while?”
For two hours, Reagan chatted with the agents, telling stories and jokes.
To win the presidency again, Republicans must find another Great Communicator.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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