There is a small group of people, spanning presidential administrations of the 20th and 21st centuries, whose role working at the White House has been producer of White House events. These jobs have been cast with different titles over the years, but their mission have been more or less the same: visual storyteller. Those who have served in that role have always relished how lucky they were to play a bit part in telling those stories. They haven’t worked alone. Speechwriters and other members of the White House staff, the U.S. Secret Service, the military and – most importantly – the White House Press Corps, played, and continue to play, an important part in the storytelling process.
All of the stories have one main protagonist – the President of the United States – and a cast of supporting characters, including the President’s family (and, sometimes, pets), White House staff members, cabinet secretaries, other domestic and international political leaders and, often, ordinary folks of all ages from all walks of life who either do extraordinary things or exemplify the ongoing drama of American history.
Michael Deaver, who served as Ronald Reagan’s deputy chief of staff from 1981 to 1985, is probably the best-known visual storyteller to have worked at the White House. He had as his sets the world’s most recognizable stages on which to produce his stories: the 18 acres of the White House grounds, with its majestic South Lawn, the iconic Oval Office, the intimate Rose Garden, the stately East Room, the workmanlike Press Briefing Room and the columned Cross Hall, to name a few. Deaver also worked with — few could argue — the most accomplished lead actor in White House history.
Every place the President travels becomes a production in and of itself. When Air Force One departs Andrews Air Force Base or lands on any global tarmac, it becomes a backdrop. So too does a school classroom, a hospital, an assembly line, a shop floor or a military base. When the lights go on, the microphone is hot and the President enters the scene, these often ordinary places become sound stages for the unfolding drama of politics, government, diplomacy or democracy.
The audience is the invited guests in the room or the crowd at the rally and, beyond them, everyone around the world. You can point to long-running television shows like Meet the Press, Today, Guiding Light, The Tonight Show, As the World Turns, the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, Sesame Street or The Wonderful World of Disney, but no American show has been as enduring as the Presidency. The cast will change every four or eight years, but the show must go on.
There’s just one catch. If you’re directing or producing a TV show or a movie, you control not only the actors, script, props, lights, sound and staging – you also control the cameras, control room, editing bays and also hold great sway over the channels of distribution. Not so at the White House.
When producing the Presidency, there is, at different times and in different circumstances, cooperation and complicity, but also antagonism and argument, with the White House Press Corps. These are the writers, radio and television correspondents, photographers, cameramen, sound technicians, editors and producers whose longevity at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue often spans many administrations. The stories that unfold before their eyes and through their lenses must pass through their prisms on their way to a wider audience. How they view, interpret and package the action affects how the story is interpreted to the global audience.
That’s changing, of course, a trend documented in the Story of Polioptics. With its own microphones, television cameras, photographers and Internet channel through which to distribute content, the White House is increasingly an end-to-end producer and distributor of the President’s story. Observers beyond the traditional White House Press Corps are becoming important players in the process as well. Anyone with a means to create content and distribute it via the Web now has a voice in the drama.
Is one word – Polioptics – sufficient to describe what’s going on? No way. And is the White House the only stage worth keeping an eye one? Not at all. The creation, production and distribution of image to persuade audiences in one direction or another is happening all around us, from Washington to Beijing and every place in between. It is a fundamental driver of politics, entertainment, marketing and popular culture. It is ever-changing and endlessly fascinating, from the roots of influence through image to the technology-driven developments of today.
That’s what interests us, and that’s why Polioptics is shining a par can on the theatricality of the political process.