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A Modern History Of White House Spin

By Peter Baker
Monday, August 13, 2007

As a college professor, Martha Joynt Kumar studied and taught the art of presidential communication for years. But one day, she did what few of her colleagues in academia had: She showed up at the White House, planted herself in the basement along with the reporters who covered the president and started watching the whole process up close. That was in 1995. Now we have the fruits of her labor.

After attending briefings and presidential events for most of the last dozen years, Kumar has seen the sausage being ground for longer than most of the officials and reporters she studies. Her new book, "Managing the President's Message," published by Johns Hopkins University Press, pulls back the curtain on the machinations and recriminations that always seem to shadow the interactions between presidents and the media.

Kumar, a Towson University professor, got most of the important figures of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies to talk with her about their strategies for spinning journalists -- including Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett and Joshua B. Bolten from this administration. What emerges is a portrait of a rapidly shifting environment in which the White House has had to adapt to keep a quicker pace because of cable news, talk radio and the Internet.

Nothing is left to chance, she writes. Take the backgrounds during President Bush's speeches, which the White House makes sure are plastered with slogans so that the television shot conveys the chosen message even without sound. Bush, she reports, speaks from a special podium called "Falcon," designed so that it does not block the background message in televised close-ups. "Winning the picture is important," Rove told her.

Kumar recounts how the Bush White House shifted communications strategies in its second term, as political troubles accumulated. At first, she writes, the Bush team did not pay much attention to the daily news cycle. Bartlett, then the communications director, said Bush staffers considered themselves "more like long-term investors" while Democrats were "more day traders." By 2006, Bartlett's views had changed. The White House, he said, needed to be both or it would suffer the consequences.

By then, the White House had developed a rapid-response unit to blitz e-mail messages to as many as 10,000 reporters, opinion leaders, lobbyists and congressional aides. It developed 14 categories for such e-mails: nine proactive attempts to amplify the president's message and five defensive categories intended to rebut negative media accounts, such as one called "Setting the Record Straight."

Kumar has seen plenty of change in White House communications since she wrote her first book on the subject in 1981, "Portraying the President," with Michael Grossman. "The tensions in the relationship are greater now than they were then," she writes. "Indeed, the frustrations of reporters covering the White House are more noticeable today." And the challenges to the White House, she says, are greater than ever as well.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

It turns out this is not the first Bush White House that Matthew Scully has found afflicted by pride and ego. Scully, who wrote a scathing assault in the Atlantic Monthly on Michael J. Gerson, President Bush's former chief speechwriter, also penned a piece in The Washington Post in January 1993 bemoaning that the defeated George H.W. Bush was ill served by "a staff of self-promoters" akin to "parasites."

Scully, a speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle, singled out Dick Darman, Jim Pinkerton and others for "self-aggrandizement." Of one unnamed colleague, he wrote: "The quintessential Bush underling, he was a man in whom vanity ran far deeper than conviction. He brought to public service the greedy zeal of a hobbyist, a loyalty dependent on the next presidential favor or keepsake and principles about as fragile as his little model airplane."

Bush Still a Money Magnet

Bush's approval ratings may be in the tank, and GOP presidential candidates may be keeping their distance, but he remains the fundraiser in chief. Bush will headline events in coming weeks for Republican Sens. Pete Domenici (N.M.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.). Despite his political troubles, Bush has raised $55 million at 16 events so far in 2007, Tracey Schmitt of the Republican National Committee told our colleague Michael Fletcher -- roughly as much as at this point in 2005.

Russian Ballet

Mary B. Warlick, the Russia director at the State Department and a former U.S. Embassy diplomat in Moscow, has taken over as senior director for Russia at the National Security Council.

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