As a pack rat — friends call me a hoarder — I found myself rifling through a drawer of old campaign memorabilia. Among the detritus was a vintage 1992 t-shirt printed for staff and press slogging along on Governor Bill Clinton’s plane. The shirt foretold how, 24 years later, our current campaign will end.
The front was a U.S. map with ten stars on it, identifying the cities that Clinton’s 727 “Express One” charter touched down during the campaign’s final 29 hours. The back noted that the sleepless journey spanned 4,106 miles, including two stops in Texas, one in McAllen, the other in Fort Worth.
It wasn’t the first time in 1992 that Bill Clinton and Al Gore invaded George Bush’s space. In late August, in the middle of a bus tour through the Lone Star State, the Democratic ticket arrived with their wives in Waco, where it was my job set up and prepare the rally site in advance of the campaign. We erected a stage in Doris D. Miller Park, along the east bank of the Brazos River, and had the Clintons and Gores stride into town across the Waco Suspension Bridge that forms part of the Chisholm Trail. That bridge might be part of our path to victory, we schemed.
This fall, Swatties return to campus—or arrive as freshmen for the first time—against the backdrop of a once-in-a-college-career event: a presidential election. When I pulled up to College Lane for my sophomore year in fall 1984, with another election looming, I counted myself a Ronald Reagan supporter, a rare breed on Parrish Beach.
Thirty-two years ago, as now, I was fascinated by the American political spectacle and its foremost institution of propaganda, the presidency. My politics evolved during my time at Swarthmore, leading to six years in Bill Clinton’s campaigns and on his White House staff, but my obsession with how our candidates market themselves has never wavered.
As a member of Swarthmore’s Peaslee Debate Society, I revered rhetorical skills but, over time, came to appreciate the more operatic elements of politics that trigger emotional response. In some ways, Reagan and his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, combined forces as the Lin-Manuel Miranda of their time, the impact of Reagan’s words augmented by Michael Deaver, his visual impresario, an unlikely forebear to Andy Blankenbuehler, the Hamilton choreographer.
Read the rest of my piece on presidential stagecraft in the Age of Optics, from Reagan to Trump, in the Fall 2016 edition of the Swarthmore College Bulletin…
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.