Presidential Communications, Then And Now

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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In late February 1971, roughly ten days after Richard Nixon installed the infamous taping system that helped end his presidency, I met with Nixon in the Oval Office.  I was 20 years old and was joined by two other Princeton undergraduates.  It was my first meeting with an American president, and, needless to say, I was so nervous that I could feel, and even see, my knees shaking.

We spent some 15 minutes with Nixon, accompanied by Jeb Stuart Macgruder (who later did Watergate-related jail time) and the president’s personal photographer.  Our discussion included topics of the day: the Vietnam War, campus protests, Spiro Agnew (my former governor), and national politics, among other subjects.  At one point in the discussion, Nixon asked us what we planned to do aftergraduation and then, hearing our answers, said: “Gentlemen, I want to suggest that each of you consider a career in communications….”

Say what?  The president of the United States meets three college students for the first time and suggests that they become communications professionals.  Where did this idea come from?

It wasn’t until after Nixon left office that the answer appeared in a Watergate memoir penned by celebrated presidential-campaign journalist Theodore H. White.  His Watergate history, “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon” (May 1975), contains an entire chapter devoted to Nixon’s lifelong obsession with communications – from his first congressional campaign in 1946 until his last day in the White House, August 9, 1974.

While Nixon’s communications obsession might have bordered on the pathological, it was not misplaced.  As I learned some 20 years later when I worked upstairs from the Oval Office, the modern presidency flourishes or fails on the basis of how effectively it communicates its priorities, its strategies, and its accomplishments.

One of the evident strengths of the Reagan presidency was Ronald Reagan’s well-honed skills as a communicator with and without notecards.  One of the shortcomings of his successor, George H.W. Bush, was a notable lack of communications skills, most evident in his 1992 debates with then-Governor Bill Clinton and his awkward, on-the-stump reading out loud “Message: I care” – words that were intended as a cue, not as a campaign text.  In November 1992, it was “Exit, stage left” for Bush.

What Donald Trump has failed to appreciate is that the modern American presidency is, first-and-foremost, fundamentally about communications. And communications are not just about the volume of Tweets issued but, more importantly, about a sustained, well-developed, and coherent messaging strategy.

Occasionally, presidents get lucky, but more often policy success on complex issues requires careful focus, strategic planning, and clear communications.

A president may have excellent policy ideas, but if he botches how these ideas are presented, the substance won’t matter, because people will never consider the content. Even with the massive bully pulpit known as The White House, it is still incredibly difficult for a president to communicate in today’s balkanized communications world that includes 24/7 cable shows, television networks, Twitter, Facebook, print media, digital media, and social media.  Staying “on message” really makes a difference.

A good example of sustained messaging and strategy was Ronald Reagan’s approach to the former Soviet Union.  Even before he was elected, Reagan’s focus was pretty simple: “We win.  They lose.”  You can then follow his policy initiatives: a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev on October 11-12, 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, to discuss nuclear weapons; his speech before Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate where he shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”; and then the Berlin Wall’s collapse on November 8, 1989, less than 10 months after Reagan left office.  The Soviet Union finally collapsed on December 25, 1991. Reagan had a strategy and communications plan to achieve this very result.  It was not accidental.

If the presidential message changes with every passing Tweet, the message will just evaporate.  Take, for example, Trump’s messaging during the week of July 17, 2017.  The week’s theme was, supposedly, to focus on Senate passage of legislation to repeal and/or replace Obamacare.  Instead of a focused message, Trump embraced three successive proposals: (1) just repeal Obamacare, (2) then just let it collapse on its own, and, finally, (3) let’s repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  Even Republican Senators had no clear picture of the legislative approach embraced by the White House.

The Trump administration is consumed with eliminating leaks.

That’s damage control, not positive messaging.

The real problem, however, is not staff leaks but the president’s own lack of discipline and focus.  Tweeting is fine, but only as long as it is not random, inconsistent, inaccurate, contradictory, and uncoordinated.  Trump’s spasmodic Tweeting is like atrial fibrillation: the system can only endure so much trauma.

Ultimately, it will shut down.

What this means for the Trump White House is that he and his presidency will be tuned out — dismissed as marginal, inept, and unprofessional.  Gradually, power will shift elsewhere in Washington.

One of the marks of maturity, of passing from childhood to adulthood, is learning how to filter what is said.  Young children usually learn pretty quickly not to blurt out every idea that pops into their heads.  A mature White House is no different.

Time is running out for the Trump administration.  In a few short weeks, there will be a focus on the new fiscal year and the need to address the debt ceiling – not to mention ongoing foreign-policy crises.  Thereafter, the political game will focus on the 2018 mid-term elections.

Hyperbole and bluster, unsubstantiated by underlying reality, are wearing thin.  Americans increasingly have shorter and shorter attention spans.   Trump’s communications style is wasting precious time and causing people to tune him out.  Time is no longer on his side.

Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House & currently serves as CEO of DisruptDC