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The two stars of the recent election were Barack Obama and “mainstream media” bias. In this media climate, the terms “Republican” and “conservative” have been relegated to epithet status.
My Democratic-leaning friends argue, fairly, I think, that if the media are so biased, why have Republican presidents sat in the Oval Office for nearly 20 of the last 28 years? The answer is that while the media always play a huge role in presidential elections and their aftermaths, they don’t play the only role.
As Republicans burrow into the political desert, a strategic, if anecdotal, walk down memory lane may be instructive. After all, the only difference between what we’re seeing with the mainstream media now and what we saw when I entered the work force in the early 1980s is that today there’s not even a pretense of objectivity.
So what are the Republicans to do?
While my present career in damage control is apolitical, I got my start in Washington in 1982 as an intern in Reagan White House’s PR operation headed by the late, legendary Michael Deaver, whose worldview famously served as the touchstone for all Reagan administration communications. I recall no hallway debates during this time period about mainstream media bias. It was simply assumed as a point of indisputable fact - and palpably felt in the cramped press office. Deaver knew, however, that to espouse a belief in a liberal media bias in polite society was to admit to being an uncouth rube, so Americans never heard much carping on the subject from Reagan officials.
Still, Reagan’s team knew that managing the press in some manner was crucial, so the administration’s approach was anchored in two of Deaver’s favorite terms: The Talent and The Optics.
The Talent referred to President Reagan himself. Despite the emergence of the term “spin doctor” during the Reagan era, Deaver believed The Talent was, in essence, the strategy for overcoming media bias. Did Michael Jordan, after all, have a strategy, or did he just take to the court and play like Michael Jordan? Surely, it was the latter. Similarly, in the months ahead, we will hear a great deal of attribution of Barack Obama’s success to strategy when, in fact, he, like Reagan, is a rare and phenomenal political talent whose very name encapsulates a host of beliefs and comforting emotions.
While the Reagan White House accepted that most of the human beings in the Washington press corps were adversarial, this assumption did not extend to the media’s equipment. That was where The Optics came in. By speaking directly into the camera - on issues consistent with the Reagan brand - against backdrops ranging from the California mountains to the Normandy beaches, the Reagan White House was able to bypass hostile interlocutors and convey resonant, self-contained narratives.
When an anti-Reagan friend asked me back in those days why the president held so few press conferences, I answered, “He’s not good at them.” My friend was outraged, wrapping his opposition to Reagan’s press conference policy in a vague First Amendment cloak, adding something about the public’s “right to know.” “That’s code,” I explained. “You want your compatriots in the press corps to skewer the man, and his handlers aren’t letting you. That’s not a violation of the First Amendment.”
Indeed, Reagan did a great deal of communicating, he just did it in advantageous venues, as candidate Barack Obama did by eschewing specifics for sweeping cinematic allusions to hope and change.
Despite all the talk about the alchemy skills of fabled handlers, Republicans and Democrats alike must appreciate that The Talent and The Optics only work when The Talent has a ripe platform that resonates in the current political environment. One cannot, after all, spin a public that doesn’t want to be spun. Nor will voters be moved by a messenger who has no message. Just as Reagan had the substantive foils of Jimmy Carter’s malaise, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Russians in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama had the very real foils of George W. Bush, Iraq and the implosion of America’s financial system.
Mr. Obama’s victory was surely aided by journalists who liked him personally, shared his politics and actively wanted to play a personal role in making history. While he won’t have the same gale force winds at his back throughout his entire presidency, Mr. Obama will, at the very least, be cut slack on the grounds that his political heart is in the right place, something his decisive victory would suggest many Americans believe as well.
For Republicans to re-emerge and bypass a hostile press, they will need more than The Talent, The Optics, Fox News, center-right online blogs and talk radio. They will need both messenger and message, genuine political foils and symbols that square with current priorities.
Media bias remains a huge obstacle, but Mike Deaver’s legacy is that past Republican tenants of the Oval Office are proof that this obstacle has been—and can be—overcome.