In the weeks since the Republican and Democratic conventions, my twitter feed, populated by political operatives of all partisan stripes and ages, has been marked by a lament that the summer and fall campaign is devolving into a lopsided affair. Many, me included, hoped for a close contest between two competing ideologies and visions for the future. Secretary Clinton, if she wanted to win election as president, would have to defend her record and answer questions, right up until Election Day, about her thirty years in public life.
This has not turned out, so far, to be the case. Secretary Clinton staged a textbook convention, marked by powerful moments of substance and pageantry. She and Senator Tim Kaine then followed her husband’s 1992 recipe of a bus tour wending through Pennsylvania and Ohio. In recent weeks, while attention focused on her opponent’s missteps, she hewed to time-tested tactics of touring businesses to buttress her message, like the Knotty tie company in Colorado and the 3 Daughters brewery in Florida.
I spent the weekend in New Hampshire visiting my son at summer camp. One of the pastimes in the boys’ cabin, I learned, was an ongoing competition to see who could be the first to commit the entire libretto of Hamilton to memory. Hearing them practice, over and over, gave me my own pastime on the long trip back to New York tonight.
So here, inspired by the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and rapped to the tune of “Alexander Hamilton,” is a little ditty to welcome us to convention week: “Hillary and Timothy.”
Take it away, company…
HILLARY AND TIMOTHY
How does a crooked, corrupt, corporate sellout, and a
Wellesleyan, dropped in the middle of the deep South
To Arkansas for marriage, power, and work as an attorney
Arrive at Philly after beating up on Bernie?
The globe-trotting SecState flew to Russia as a starter
Took a ‘reset button,’ but the work was much harder
Was emailing less smarter from a server in her parlor
Then, at sixty-seven, campaigning like Jimmy Carter
And every year while women were bustin’ through glass ceilings
The press told the lady to show us more of her feelings
Aides concocted recipes to make her more appealing
Clinton, Fox News cried, was only expert at concealing
The Scooby Van came, made a road trip to the plains
Won the nomination, had a running mate to name
I offered my advice: a smart guy, ready-but-not-too-vane
The fella she plucked for fame: a Virginian named Tim Kaine
I tweeted out my thoughts, I said, man, “ISIS is drooling.”
Pocahontas left at the altar, who’s this girl fooling?
Pence is more prepared, he’ll give them a Hoosier schooling, and
Come January, who’s gonna be ruling?
CLINTON AND KAINE: Hillary and Timothy Our names are Hillary and Timothy Seventy million votes we’ve gotta get State by state, state by state
When dad left D.C., my folks came to New York, debt-ridden
Mom won a senate seat, left pop in Chappaqua sittin’
She served the nation, he launched a foundation
Hill rose to power while Bill sought out donations
She acted like a freshman, knew her place, downplayed her fame
Huddled quietly with her aides up on Whitehaven Lane
Fought for first responders when the towers came down
They thought it was her time, at last, when two thousand eight came around
TRUMP: I thought there was nothin’ to the job But I was less astute The Apprentice was my chosen route Owned Miss America; looked great in a suit
Kept taxes to myself; daddy was a landlord
China’s always screwing us; it’s okay to waterboard
Wrote a book with someone else, don’t care to read more
When my net worth is questioned, I get pretty sore
Fred stayed in Queens, but I headed to Manhattan
In New York I could be a new man
In sixteen you can elect a woman State by state
In sixteen you can elect a woman State by state
In sixteen you can elect a woman
CLINTON AND KAINE:
State by state
Hillary and Timothy Hillary and Timothy
You’ve waited years for your turn to come Waited years for your turn to come
You’ve done every job now
And you’ve taken your own sweet time Taken your own sweet time
Oh, Hillary and Timothy Hillary and Timothy
There’s no time left to burn No time left to burn
You might have stayed on the fence Might have stayed on the fence
Fights with Sanders were too tense Fights with Sanders were too tense
Now it’s just you and Trump and Pence Now it’s just you and Trump and Pence
I’m on the escalator now State by state
See if you can spot me
Descending from the tower,
An orange-haired nominee State by state
Makin’ America Great Again
Takin’ on our enemies
CHARLES SCHUMER/AL FRANKEN We served with them
Me? I poll for them
AMY CHOZICK: Me? I report on them
BILL CLINTON/ANNIE HOLTON:
We? We married them
And me? I’m the damn fool who tweeted them
Seventy million votes they’ve gotta get,
State by state!
I’ve watched the revival of America’s favorite political stage show every four years since 1988. After twenty-eight years of podium performances, will Philadelphia become the venue for a fabled finale?
I’m gearing up, at age 50, to attend my eighth consecutive Democratic Convention. Once a kid packing his bags for Atlanta, this time I’ll have my own kids in tow for a short trip from New York to Philadelphia. They’ll see a spectacle, starting with opening gavel on July 25, like I saw in 1988.
A more celebrated convention dinosaur who betters my streak is 69-year old Bill Clinton, who I have watched — once in a cringe-worthy performance, but otherwise masterful — at each party gathering during my adult years. As Clinton takes his next turn at the podium, the words he chooses, and the manner in which he delivers them, may never be so fraught with promise, or peril. Will he upstage his wife? Can he dismantle her opponent?
Maybe he’ll do both.
The first time I saw Clinton at a convention was his worst. I was a twenty-three year old political neophyte in the nosebleed seats at the Omni in Atlanta on July 20, 1988. Somewhere below my vantage point, in the broadcast booth of NBC News, Tom Brokaw interjected during that night’s featured speakers’ remarks. “You’re listening to the lengthy nomination speech of Governor William Clinton of Arkansas,” Brokaw told viewers. “He’s now seriously in overtime. He’s only about halfway through his prepared text and he should have been done about five minutes ago because he was scheduled to go only twenty.”
In fact, Clinton was only allotted fifteen minutes to put Mike Dukakis’s name in nomination. In an extreme case study in damage control, Clinton made his way across the country from Georgia to Burbank, California to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson to make amends. When the governor was introduced on set and plopped down next to Carson, the host pulled out a jumbo hourglass from beneath his desk. The audience guffawed as the steady stream of sand served as a timekeeper for Clinton’s segment, a visual deterrent to filibuster. The stunt worked, for Carson and Clinton. Johnny, with good-natured humor, validated Bill before his huge national audience, and the show hit its planned commercial break.
Four years later in New York, in 1992, Clinton was himself the closing act. He took the stage right after Linda Bloodworth-Thomason debuted her gauzy bio-film, “The Man from Hope,” a gushing paean to small town values embraced by delegates in the hall and viewers at home. The evening ended as hopefully as it began, with Fleetwood-Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” offering a crescendo for the convention and an anthem for the eight years that followed.
By the time the confetti fell in Madison Square Garden, I had already left Manhattan, hitting the road to ready a West Virginia stop in the steel town of Weirton, a midway point on the triumphant nine-state Clinton-Gore bus tour — choreographed by Hollywood producer Mort Engelberg — that set a new standard for crowd-galvanizing convention encores.
There was method in our meandering: the stultifying early days of the party gathering bored the media. To keep their attention, we staged a big event each day en route, timed perfectly to broadcast live to the delegates. I found myself scrunched in the buffer right below Clinton’s podium during those rallies, cueing him whenever Chicago tuned in.
The only wart marring our production was the revelation, at trip’s end, that Clinton’s strategist, Dick Morris, had been outed for holing up at the Jefferson Hotel with a $200-per-hour prostitute named Sherry Rowlands. Morris tendered his resignation before he left the Windy City.
In the three conventions that followed — Los Angeles in 2000, Boston in 2004 and Denver in 2008 — Clinton returned to a supporting role, but never for a moment left the stage.
In L.A., where by then I was working for an internet startup covering the goings-on as a columnist, Al Gore sought to distance himself from his scandal-tinged boss. The vice president laid his family values on thick, slathering his then-wife, Tipper, with an extended open-mouthed smooch on national television, the kiss staged within feet of the live lenses.
For his part, on August 18, Clinton staged what had to be the most extended entrance in convention history as part of his White House swan song. Cameras tracked his deliberate, ninety-second march through the bowels of the Staples Center to a rapturous crowd waving placards reading “Thank You President Clinton.” Peter Jennings quipped that the walk had “a rather strange look about it,” but inside the arena, the unparalleled promenade sent the expectant delegates into a frenzy.
In Boston, my hometown, I watched the Democratic nominee, a decorated Vietnam veteran, attempt to unwrap himself from unwelcome branding applied by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” with an awkward opening line, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” Kerry’s fleeting moment in the sun, shared with North Carolina senator John Edwards, was eclipsed by two Democratic eras.
In Denver, Clinton adopted a new role for himself at conventions, as “Explainer-in-Chief.” The primary campaign between his wife and Obama, he joked on Wednesday night, “generated so much heat, it increased global warming.”
To cool things off, a grand outdoor stage set was erected at Invesco Field at Mile High, the home of the Broncos, for the nominee’s Thursday night acceptance speech. The idea was to pack the place with 84,000 people, a crowd exceeding even John F. Kennedy’s crowning moment at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960. But during the day, a photo of the columned proscenium, with design motifs borrowing from L.A., Soldier Field in Chicago, and the White House Rose Garden, moved on the Drudge Report, unleashing a chorus of ridicule from right wing media. Headlines mirrored that that of the Daily Mail, which proclaimed, “Obama God! Democrats build a temple for Barack.”
As the host of my SiriusXM’s radio show, “Polioptics: The Theater of Politics,” I flew to Charlotte for the 2012 convention and keep my streak alive. The threat of rain, and perhaps a display of stagecraft temperance, drove the Democrats to move President Obama’s speech from an outdoor setting at Bank of America Stadium to the cozier confines of Time Warner Cable Arena. There, the Explainer-in-Chief stole the show once more.
Clinton spoke for forty-five minutes, his voice hoarse from decades of overuse. But the delegates, a generation removed from those who clamored for him to wrap it up in 1988, still hung on every word. “We believe ‘we’re all in this together,’” he told them, “is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’” When it was over, the first man to join the speaker on stage was his onetime nemesis, Barack Obama, who enveloped Clinton in a warm embrace for the cameras — but no kiss, alas. The hug tied two Democratic dynasties together, its next chapter to be written later this month in Philadelphia.
The heir in line for the throne is Hillary Clinton, a pivotal player in each of the conventions I’ve witnessed leading up to Philadelphia, but not until now cast in the leading role. Her two top supporting actors — the husband she stood behind and the president she dutifully served, each bringing her sorrow and setback, but each supporting her with political opportunity, and both a bona fide convention superstar — must execute a delicate dance through rhetoric, body language and choreography to yield her the spotlight at last.
Hillary, vastly experienced in all facets of federal government, breaks the mold in more ways than gender. Her husband was forty-five at the 1992 convention. George W. Bush was fifty-four when Republicans nominated him in Philadelphia in 2000. Barack Obama was forty-seven when he ascended to his Greek temple in 2008.
But in this pattern-breaking spectacle of 2016, there is neither script nor precedent to follow from the conventions through Election Day. A commander of policy by study, and yet an introvert by nature, Hillary Clinton faces a similarly-aged but asymmetrical opponent. If preparation for the fall debates is the qualifying factor for victory, she will have the advantage. If the voters are swayed by the size and zeal of the crowds during autumn rallies, she could find herself on the losing end of the stick to Donald Trump. Unlike Dole, McCain or Romney, this year’s GOP nominee is man whose long-nurtured celebrity and genuine on-stage charisma has brought him farther than anyone, except maybe himself, thought possible.
A year of prologue is now history. Our ability to directly compare and contrast these two aspirants for the Oval Office begins in Cleveland and Philly. The last time that the delegates of major national parties met, one gathering was marked by unity, two men hugging it out after years of rivalry, the other was marked by Clint Eastwood debating with an empty chair. These stage shows matter. This year, oddly, they matter more than ever. I can’t wait to pack my bags.
Donald Trump has teased viewers that he will reveal his vice presidential nominee at the Republican Convention, which begins on July 18 in Cleveland. Coming from a reality show star who respects the viewership value of building suspense for live television broadcasts, this sure-fire recipe for ratings is faithful to his media-savvy brand. Traditionally, after all, there’s little to keep a viewer tuned into the gavel-to-gavel goings on when there’s now so much choice elsewhere on cable and the unknowns are all known.
But don’t set your DVRs just yet.
In fact, if history is any guide, Trump will announce his pick on July 11, exactly 6.75 days before the gavel comes down on Cleveland. Later in the month, Secretary Clinton, assuming she will be the nominee, will reveal her pick for vice president on July 17, exactly 7.8 days before the festivities begin in Philadelphia begin.
How are we so certain of the dates of which we speak?
The average VPOG for Republicans over this 28-year time horizon 6.75 days; for the Democrats, it’s 7.8 days. Granted, extenuating circumstances of Olympics scheduling tend to play havoc with the timing of domestic political events, and two outliers in 2004 and 2012 skew the numbers, but averages are averages.
So, you can take Donald Trump’s word, or be guided by the certainty of history, dammit! Let’s review the VPOG history during the Age of Optics, where the only precedent for Trump’s plan can be found at dawn:
Republicans: George H.W. Bush announced the selection of Dan Quayle on August 17, after the GOP Convention started in New Orleans on August 15. (VPOG = 0 days) Democrats: Mike Dukakis announced the selection of Lloyd Bentsen on July 12, six days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Atlanta. (VPOG = 6 days)
Democrats: Bill Clinton announced the selection of Al Gore on July 9, five days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in New York. (VPOG = 5 days)
Republicans: Bob Dole announced the selection of Jack Kemp on August 10, two days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in San Diego. (VPOG = 2 days)
Republicans: George W. Bush announced the selection of Dick Cheney on July 25, six days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. (VPOG = 6 days) Democrats: Al Gore announced the selection of Joe Lieberman on August 8, six days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. (VPOG = 6 days)
Democrats: John Kerry announced the selection of John Edwards on July 6, 20 days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Boston. (VPOG = 20 days)
Republicans: John McCain announced the selection of Sarah Palin on August 29, three days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in Saint Paul. (VPOG = 3 days) Democrats: Barack Obama announced the selection of Joe Biden on August 23, two days prior to the start of the Democratic Convention in Denver. (VPOG = 2 days)
Republicans: Mitt Romney announced the selection of Paul Ryan on August 11, 16days prior to the start of the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. (VPOG = 16 days)
With the certainty of Nate Silver, I can tell you to set your watches to these numbers, folks. Now that you know exactly when to expect the VP selections for Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, you can plan your VEEP viewing around it.
Those who gathered in the New York Public Library’s Trustees’ Room on May 5 took a with Fortune Editor-at-Large Shawn Tully and me through the past half century of political crises, campaign spectacles, and larger-than-life personas.
Only the first 37 minutes of the hour-long conversation were recorded, unfortunately. The session took place at the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Wachenheim Trustees Room, on Thursday, May 5, 6:30 p.m.
Fortune: “King has written one of the best political books this writer has ever encountered…worthy of John McPhee.”
Library Journal: “King presents one of the liveliest and funniest political books of recent years; it will keep political junkies and campaign professionals guffawing and learning. He has done for advance men and women what Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus did for print journalists almost a half-century ago.”
Kirkus Reviews: “An eye-opening trip behind the political scene demonstrating how showbiz helped money wreck our political landscape. If you enjoy the TV show Veep, you’ll enjoy this book.”
Well, I do enjoy Veep. More reviews should be coming in the weeks ahead, and I trust it will be okay to share an update or two.
In addition, a group of renowned operatives from both sides of the political fence, as well as writers of enormous accomplishment in journalism and entertainment, have weighed in with generous endorsements. They’re listed below in alphabetical order:
Don Baer, Mike Barnicle, Paul Begala, Jay Carney, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, Mark McKinnon, Brad Meltzer, John Podhoretz, Karl Rove, George Stephanopoulos, Danny Strong, Nicolle Wallace, Beau Willimon
Many friends have asked, “How can I help you build awareness about the book?” There are several ways, all of which come with my enduring gratitude.
Purchase a book. Better yet, purchase a dozen for your friends and family, your book club, or that grad who’ll be working on the campaign this summer. I’ve been told not to be bashful about this request, which I make with some hesitation, but every advance purchase through Amazon,Barnes & Noble or your local bookseller counts as ‘first week sales’ for the various bestseller lists. If nothing else, I promise a good read.
Write a review. When you buy a book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you are free to write your thoughts and assign a rating to the book. These reviews, among peer readers, build momentum for the book through electronic word-of-mouth. I would be eternally grateful for any kind words that you can share about the stories and ideas in OFF SCRIPT.
Spread the word through social networks. The most powerful grass roots catalyst to launch the book will occur through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and similar sites. Please follow me on those sites (I’m @Polioptics on Twitter) and retweet, comment or share news that I post about OFF SCRIPT. More powerful still is if you can offer your own brief blurb, or link to one of the reviews or booksellers to help build awareness. I’ll be sure to “like” or “retweet” anything that references the book.
Help me see what I’ve missed. I’ve ticked through some ways that good-hearted souls can help grow a following for OFF SCRIPT, but I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve overlooked. Is there? If it will sell books, I’m glad to give a talk at a local bookstore or speak to a larger group if you have one. I’m open to any ideas you have about how to take this effort to the next level.
By far the most gratifying aspect of writing a book is the enjoyment people get from reading it. As OFF SCRIPT has advanced from first draft to proof pages to galleys to, now, the final proof pages, I have been honored to have a number of old friends and acquaintances look over the text and provide some commentary for prospective readers when the book goes on sale on April 26.
Presented below, in alphabetical order, is advance praise from Don Baer, Mike Barnicle, Paul Begala, Jay Carney, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, Mark McKinnon, Brad Meltzer, John Podhoretz, Karl Rove, George Stephanopoulos, Danny Strong, Beau Willimon and Nicolle Wallace. I appreciate beyond words the time and effort that this extraordinarily gifted and creative group of creative people put in to reading the book and providing feedback for me to share.
Pre-order your copy today of OFF SCRIPT: Ad Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide.
* * *
“Josh King knows what he is talking about when it comes to political messages, because he was there, painting with ingenuity many of our most enduring images from the great canvasses of American politics and the U.S. Presidency. In Off Script, Josh gives us an unprecedented and a candid, fun look behind the scenes at the creative processes that have shaped the reputations of some of the most important political figures of our times.”
White House Chief Speechwriter, 1994-95,
and White House Communications Director, 1995-98
* * *
“In the middle of a campaign, right at its core, are the major-league concierges, the people who can pick the right route, find the perfect setting, the best optics and the spot where a candidate can flourish while the press can find its way to a semi-good place to eat and drink. It’s a full time, full focus job that comes complete with hilarity, heartache, worry, weariness and the constant realization that what you do or don’t do can mean a good or a bad day for the candidate. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Josh King opens a window on the world of the tireless advance men and women who make any campaign work.”
“Ever wonder what happens in a presidential campaign when the cameras are off, the doors are closed and no one’s looking? Find out in Off Script, a guide to the messy, ugly and sometimes poignant world of political stagecraft by one of the best practitioners in the business.”
White House Press Secretary
to President Barack Obama, 2011-2014
former Washington bureau chief, Time magazine
* * *
“Discreetly leading the way in every campaign are the advance men and women who literally set the stage. Josh King, a Jedi master of that profession, vividly brings the image makers out of the shadows in Off Script.”
“In Off Script, Josh King takes us on a guided tour of the theater of politics as we rarely see it: from the other side of the proscenium, all the way back stage, and even into the performer’s dressing rooms. For those seeking to decode the power of image in the age of optics in our politics, King’s book is a must-read.”
“Josh King captures a truth in politics–our candidates need stage management on a grand scale to be elected and re-elected. Many gifted advance people have ushered leaders into power, but more importantly many have driven them back into private life. But King’s real insight is that in critical moments it’s up to the candidates to perform on the political stage or simply know enough to not put on the funny hat. A great read for anyone who wonders how the political sausage is made.”
White House Press Secretary
to President Bill Clinton, 1998-2000
* * *
“Josh King is one of the most creative political visual artists of our time. He understands how image, picture, and content come together as one to communicate the messages that America sees and hears as it considers its national leaders. What could be more timely as we embark on a national election to pick our next president?”
White House Press Secretary
to President Bill Clinton, 1995-1998
* * *
“Presidential politics is theater at the highest level. Successful events are huge productions that require master stage craft. Josh King is the Wizard of Oz of presidential advance. In Off Script, King pulls back the curtain to reveal the stories and secrets behind the making and sometimes breaking of presidents.”
“Josh King has written a zippy, snazzy book about the inner workings of American politics and the thankless work performed by idealistic grunts who get no credit when things go well and all the blame when they go badly.”
“Advance men (and women) are the wildest characters in most political campaigns, in my experience generally a mix of well-organized and half-crazy. In a rollicking ride though the last nearly three decades of presidential campaigns, Josh King chronicles some of the low – and high – moments created by, inflicted upon, or suffered through by the political wizards of stagecraft and appearance, presidential campaign advance teams. Quite a read!”
“Josh King has been at the top of the campaign game for more than 20 years — and Off Script takes us behind the scenes to show what works, what doesn’t and why. A must read for anyone who works on — or just loves — the Presidential trail.”
Chief Anchor of ABC News,
co-host of Good Morning America
and host of This Week
“Off Script is the inside story of what really happened behind the scenes in the most infamous political campaigns in modern history. Josh King uses his unique perspective as a former campaign “advance” man and political observer to pull back the curtain and reveal the truth behind the spectacle. With the voice of a storyteller and the experience of a seasoned political operative, King deftly brings us along for the ride and shows us how and why these moments defined campaigns, toppled candidates and presidents alike, and forever changed the optics of presidential politics.”
“Josh King’s nuanced insights into the world of political optics and spin is a must read for anyone who is interested in what really goes on behind the polished veil. He’s been both in the campaign trenches and seen the political landscape from 35,000 feet. His perspective is fascinating, entertaining and informative.”
Creator, Executive Producer and Showrunner of House of Cards on Netflix
* * *
“Off Script is a deep dive into the juiciest and most fascinating aspects of modern day government and presidential politics. Perfectly written, there’s plenty of page turning drama for everyone from the White House history buff to the Hollywood screenwriter trying to get the smallest of details about White House stage craft exactly right. Josh nails it.”
Eighty-three days before OFF SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide hits the bookshelves, Kirkus Reviews has weighed in with the first review of the book. It’s a keeper!
Here’s part how Kirkus’s review:
Public relations executive King chronicles the rise and fall of what he calls “the Age of Optics, where playing to the camera and creating compelling imagery forces candidates far from their comfort zones.” As a former campaign advance man and director of production for presidential events at the White House, the author knows his material well, and he recounts it with irresistible detail culled from firsthand experience.
At long last, a few years worth of noodling over advance war stories and wresting over the right words to tell them has resulted in OFF-SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide To White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle and Political Suicide, from St. Martin’s Press, due in bookstores on April 26.
For those of you who enjoyed the Polioptics podcast in the past, this book encapsulates the ideas, theories and images that we talked about every week of the show during our 159 episodes and which have shaped my political aesthetic since I joined Paul Simon’s presidential campaign just out of college in 1987.
OFF-SCRIPT picks up where I left off on my 2013 POLITICO Magazine long-form deep dive into Dukakis and the Tank, diving even deeper into the tank and giving similar treatment to the game-changing visuals of each campaign from 1992 through 2012, reserving the final section of the book for an optical analysis of the Obama years and the early months of the current campaign.
My hope is that it’s useful reading for campaign operatives, road warriors, reporters covering the political spectacle and those beyond the beltway amused or aghast by how the sausage is made.
Pre-order your copy now: http://www.amazon.com/Off-Script-Stagecraft-Spectacle-Political/dp/1137280069