Jonathan Martin, Brad Lichtenstein and Nicholas Burns are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: September 15, 2012 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
Polioptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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The week began innocently enough.
I was delaying bedtime last Sunday night, my fingers strumming the Twitter feed on my iPad, when the first images came in of Scott Van Duzer, owner of the Big Apple Pizza Parlor in Fort Pierce, Florida, exhibiting his finesse at bench-pressing a svelte United States President. Try that on William Howard Taft, I thought.
My friend Doug Mills (Polioptics, Episode 24), photographer for the New York Times, who spent a good chunk of the summer in London shooting the Olympics and who I caught up with in Charlotte, got the shot that started the buzz going.
With the conventions in Tampa and Charlotte over, this seemed to me a good week to start talking about the tactics of advance work that go into moments like this, which will serve as valuable image currency in the final 50 days of the campaign. I reached out to Jeff Tiller, an Obama advance man that I worked with a few years ago, who posted a version of the Full Van Duzer shot on his Facebook page with a knowing caption, “Just love this photo. Definitely unscripted.”
Maybe Tiller, I thought, would like to come on the show and offer his perspective on how the “OTR” (which, in advance parlance, stands for “Off-the-record movement) actually went down. As I can attest, every OTR has a colorful backstory. POTUS rarely says to his entourage, “hey guys, I’m really hungry for two slices of pepperoni and a Coke. let’s drop into a pizza parlor in vote-rich Palm Beach County.” Just like a good advance man, staying below radar, Tiller never not back to me.
Instead, JMart gave voice to what advance people like us have a hard time saying in public, and he joined us as our lead guest on this episode.
JMart is Jonthan Martin, senior political reporter at POLITICO and one of Washington’s keenest observers. As if on cue with the Van Duzer moment in Fort Pierce, JMart filed his September 10 story, “President Obama’s suds-‘n’-sports regular-guy tour,” which validates the entire Polioptics premise.
Speechwriters for President Obama and Governor Romney are very busy churning out content. These days, their work is loaded into the teleprompter and the candidate flies off to City X to give the speech. The problem is, the speeches themselves, and the backdrops behind the speeches, often sound and look alike. And the teleprompter in the medium and wide shots, if it hasn’t yet become part of the standard furniture in the viewer’s field of vision, is a constant reminder that we’re watching a completely scripted show. No spontaneity here, thank you.
But places like the Big Apple Pizza Parlor or, in JMart’s piece, Gators Dockside in Orlando, look different, and you never quite know what’s going to happen when you get inside. As Tiller reminds is, the moments are “definitely unscripted.”
And for a candidate who doesn’t drink alcohol, and may feel uncomfortable in surroundings where the pitchers move from bar to table like flying saucers in The Jetsons, it offers Team Obama a real image differentiator. As JMart explains in his piece:
As both Obama and Mitt Romney look to find any advantage heading into the final nine weeks of a nip-and-tuck presidential race, the president and his advisers are dispensing with subtlety and launching a suds-and-sports tour of America aimed at burnishing his regular-guy appeal.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because Republicans have long sought to win the who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with campaign, as George W. Bush did hands down in both 2000 and 2004.
Now, though, the cleat is on the other foot and Republicans are facing a bit of cosmic payback in trying to win with a nominee of their own who struggles to connect with the people.
With JMart on the show, we also talked about some of the Polioptics-related issues of his recent stories, such as Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention; Bill Clinton’s show-stopper the night before; how to contain Joe Biden on the campaign trail; and early entrants into the 2016 field of candidates.
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As regular listeners of our show know, I love documentaries. In past episodes, we’ve welcomed Barack Goodman (The American Experience: Bill Clinton); Peter Schnall (George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview); Sebastian Junger (Restrepo); and Lynn Novick (Prohibition) to our microphones for some great conversations.
So when I heard that film maker Brad Lichtenstein had been working for three years on a film about the idled GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin that has been at the core of controversy since Paul Ryan used it as a cudgel against President Obama at his speech in Tampa, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an advance copy.
It turns out that Brad’s film, As Goes Janesville, which premieres on October 8 on PBS’ Independent Lens Series (check local listings), is a lot less about the plant and why it won’t reopen as it is about give people whose lives change as a result, and how they adapt to the reality, as one citizen says in the film, “We’re not an auto town anymore. Boom.”
For a hundred years, Janesville thrived on watching cars roll off the General Motors assembly line. Then one day, it ended. What next?
That’s what As Goes Janesville tries to answer, and it does so movingly, with Lichtenstein’s lens trained mostly on five central characters: Gayle Listenbee, Mary Willmer-Sheedy; Angie Hodges and Cindy Deegan. While we see these characters grapple with the personal and civic challenges and stresses that economic upheaval brings, Lichtenstein also brings us on a journey into the heart of the Mid-West, to Janesville, a town most hadn’t heard of until Paul Ryan was elevated onto Mitt Romney’s ticket. Lichtenstein’s wide shots are gorgeous (he credits Robert Altman’s Nashville as one of his inspirations), and his music reminds me of Ken Burns at his best.
In our conversation on Polioptics, Brad introduces us to each of his characters, but to find out what happens to them, tune into your PBS station on October 8.
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As I said at the top of this note, the week began innocently enough.
But by Tuesday, September 11, parts of the Arab world were igniting with anti-American sentiment. In Cairo, the U.S. Embassy Press Office worked to calm tensions by issuing a hastily-written statement. Later that day, in Benghazi, Libya, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in what appears to have been a coordinated military-style attack on the U.S. Consulate there.
Debate, discussion and analysis of what happened on September 11 began instantly and will continue indefinitely. The tragedy that took Ambassador Stevens’ life will surely find its way into a long form narrative created with the craft of war journalists like Mark Bowden or Sebastian Junger. The sense a viewer gets watching initial feeds of video arriving from Libya is that the circumstances and chaos of the assault on our consulate echo the claustrophobic maze of Mogadishu in early October 1993 as Army Rangers and Delta operators fought to escape forces loyal to Somali Warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
With every major news outlet covering most of the angles on a story that stretched from Cairo to California, we just wanted to get a sense of what brought a diplomat like Chris Stevens aboard a Greek cargo ship to a place of such obvious peril. For that, we turned to Ambassador Nick Burns, who I was lucky enough to work with on many of President Clinton’s overseas trips during the 1990’s. Nick served as U.S. Ambassador to Greece as well as our Ambassador to NATO among many other assignments, and his unique perspective on the mission that Chris Stevens undertook — and the risks he accepted — when he arrived in Benghazi in April 2011.
Because Nick also served as State Department spokesman in the late 1990’s, he also could appreciate the issues surrounding the other hot spot on September 11 — Cairo, Egypt — and the deep tension that existed between the Public Affairs Office at Foggy Bottom, which usually creates its communiques with obsessive precision, and the press office in U.S. Embassy Cairo, which found itself trying to quell protests through crafted statements churned out even as the mob outside was gathering force. Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy‘s “The Cable” blog posted what reads like a very informed early view of the communications and polioptics issues at play, the first of many, I’m sure. No easy day.
I appreciate Nick Burns coming on our program to share his insights with listeners during what had to have been an excruciatingly difficult week for everyone in the U.S. diplomatic community.
Nick ended his 27-year career as a Foreign Service Officer in 2008, leaving Foggy Bottom as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He’s currently Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and also works for the Cohen Group, headed by former Secretary of Defense (and Maine Senator) Bill Cohen.