"When style and charisma connotes the idea of contriving, of public relations, I don't buy it all all." -- Richard M. Nixon
THE HOT, white lights were already on, warming the studio and the improvised set, as the two men entered, talking. There was blue shag carpeting, two green molded-plastic chairs and a small Formica table between. A black cyclorama (cyc, as it's known), suggesting infinity, provided the backdrop -- perfect, because it didn't distract viewers.
"Remember that in a conversation with a journalist, there are varying degrees of who has control of the conversation.You can take control just as easily as he can," one was saying, tugging on his full dark beard. They moved onto the seat and sat down facing each other.
The bearded man was signaled for cameras to roll, and simultaneously, a female technician kicked the trigger on an Ikegami studio camera while a male assistant flipped on the Betamax video recorder.
"I'll be the show host," he said. Then, with only a beat between moods, he started up. "Our guest today is John T. (Terry) Dolan, from the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Terry, what is Nic-Pak?" Then Bill Rhatican stroked his beard again, leaned back and listened, attentively.
It was teacher -- or public relations consultant -- and client, the young political activist, on an exercise designed to demystify some of the vagaries of the television medium.
They went on for 10 minutes, exploring the work of Dolan's conservative group, funding, proposed changes in expensive federal programs. Typical Washington politics, vis-a-vis the typical Washington talk show.
"How much money did your group raise last year? How much for 1980? To do what?" Rhatican asked, firing the questions like deep, resonant shots.
Dolan went over the well-oiled responses mentally, ". . . expose some of the more liberal members of the Senate . . . their voting records," he said in flat, even tones. ". . . particularly obnoxious . . . destroying the CIA, proposing budget cuts . . . support deficit spending. They're what's wrong with the American political system," Dolan said, patting his curly, unruly hair, then crossing the arms of his navy blue suit.
"Okay, gang. Why don't we just stop right here and see what we've got," Rhatican said. Waht they had was a personalized version of what might be called "Meet the Press." Or better still, if Rhatican were doing his job, perhaps even "Beat the Press."
Rhatican is the Washington counterpart to some New York consultants: Better-known, higher-priced ones like Roger Ailes, the former prop boy for the "Mike Douglas Show," who chiseled out the Richard Nixon television image that helped him win the presidency in 1968. And Dorothy Sarnoff, and Lilyan Wilder, the actress-turned-consultant who helped George Bush sharpen his TV image from her swanky East Side apartment-studio long before his presidential bid heated up.
Rhatican is part of a coterie of Washington consultants, whose services range from classes at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce on how to appear on television, to private lessons sponsored by the Washington office of Hill and Knowlton, the massive New York public relations firm.
He is also a Republican. He is conservative. And very political. He's the one other conservative often seek out to gain them exposure and improve their press. In fact, among his political cronies, he's been touted, "super salesman for the New Right."
And though his clients, rates and methods differ from those in New York, Rhatican is preaching the same gospel to his brethren. It may be comforting to think that substances is more important than how one is perceived -- particularly on television. But is is ephemeral public perception that wins elections and causes.
"The conservatives for years sat in their ivory towers and complained about media coverage of issues. Now there's a whole new crop of conservatives coming in who understand the needs of the media. For me," he says enthusiastically, "it's like working a field for the first time."
The money, one of the reasons he jokingly gives for leaving his previous newspaper job, is much better now. His clients pay $300 an hour for his television instruction. He wears tailored suits and has moved his wife and two sons to a comfortable home out on the Potomac near Mount Vernon.
More than that, there is politics itsef: He loves his job as counselor to Senate candidates, would-be state legislators and activists like Dolan, he says, because politics is enjoyable. And despite the fact that he has never worked in commerical television, he has mangaged some impressive political bouts within the medium for the New Reight, a term he calls a "buzz word identification of a group of conservative activists who really share the same philosophy as Republicans 20 years ago. Only we're more pragmatic," he laughs.
"Conservatives have just ben Neanderthal is dealing with the media," he says, matter-of-factly. "They've done little to change the situation, seeming to get a masochistic joy out of sitting in their little circles and griping about their poor press."
So Rhatican and his associates have laid some new plans: During the Panama Canal treaty fight, the managed network coverage for treaty opponent Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) by waiting out news reports of the signing, then having a press conference for network news reporters. He made all three networks.
In Houston, he and Phyllis Schlafly publicized her pro-family views at the National Women's Conference by organizing a pre-conference press brunch. Schlafly was able to "project the agenda for them in her own terms," he explains. Or, put another way, tell her side of the argument in advance.
His work has brought him praise from other New Righters like Paul Weyrich of the tough Committee for Survival of a Free Congress, and Howard Phillips, national director of the Conservative Caucus. Weyrich told Conservative Digest. "If I were a candidate for public office and needed consultation in dealing with the media, the only person in this country I would turn to is Bill Rhatican."
It all has to do, he says, with learning how to be more effective. "We've probably stood in the control room of better than half the television stations in this country, going through talk shows with our people. We've become accustomed to grading their performances, whether or not the show host wounded our guest," asserts Rhatican.
"It's not what's there that counts, it's what's projected -- it's not what he projects but rather what the voter receives." -- Raymond K. Price on Richard Nixon in "The Selling of the President."
"That box is more interested in emotion than anything else," Rhatican was saying, as they played back Dolan's first 10 minutes on camera. "Recognize befoe you go in, 'I've accepted this inviation. What do I want to come out of this?' If you can't come up with something, don't do the show."
Every few seconds he stopped the tape to say things like, "You were reactive. It was clear you Didn't have any idea what you wanted to get across to the audience." As Dolan watched the tape, he flopped down on the set, propped his face in his hands and began pulling his mouth down into a funny face, agonizing over his image on the screen.
"Why are you looking at your feet? Watch this shot, your eyes. You're daring me to ask a tough question. And why are you wringing your hands?" asked Rhatican.
"Well, are the gestures okay?" Dolan asked, confidence eroding. Dolan was wringing his hands again, then stood and wrapped one leg tightly around the other, ballerina style, drawing into himself like a man in search of protection.
"Gestures are fine, as long as they're natural and not threatening," comforted Rhatican. "Now let's go again. Same questions. Let me see you cross your legs. No, not like that, redneck!" he teases. "At the ankles." He signals to start the camera.
"Wait! Why am I here?" asked Dolan, chewing on his lip. "Tell me before we go on."
William Rhatican is an outgoing, barrel-chested man who, at 39, looks like a Marine in a tailored suit. He is a former newspaper reporter from The Patterson Evening News who drifted into public relations in the mid-'60s, then came to Washington as an advance man for Richard Nixon in 1970 and spent three years in the Nixon White House as deputy special assistant in charge of issue-oriented media planning.
There were two short stints as director of communications for the Commerce and Interior departments. Later, he was a special assistant to Gerald Ford and deputy director of the White House office of communications.
Along the way, he learned a lot about campaigning and television and political packaging, taking heed of historical precedent: Advertising agencies have been selling presidents since at least 1952, when Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborn was hired for Dwight Eisenhower.
"There is a legitimate fear that candidates will be 'packaged,'" Rhatican says, "and it goes back, probably, to 1960. Political analysts who watched said Kennedy won. Those who listened said Nixon won [their televised debate]. But candidates for big jobs have all learned that they have to use television. It is not a distortion of [a candidate], his issues and honesty to make him fell comfortable. All we try to do is work with the candidate so when he's confronted with a TV studio, he isn't freaked out. And many candidates, running for the first time, simply don't know how they look."
Still, "don't say I'm a television coach," Rhatican says, laughing, leaning back in one of the quartet of rich brown wing chairs around the coffee table in the reception room of his elegant offices in Rosslyn.It is furnished with expensive dark wood and art projects done by his children.
"I mean, I am a coach, but we do so much more than that," he says, pouring coffee. There is a hint of defensiveness, a playing down of television-as-tool-of-politician.
He disagrees with the suggestion that the candidate becomes artificial if he learns his way around television. "It's the old 'who is your shrink?' political ploy,"he says, waving one hand. "And I think it is a phony, unfair issue."
The response is reminiscent of one Washington consultant who, when asked about his client list, responded, "My God. Who am I coaching? Are you kidding? That's the kind of information his opponent would love to have. Forget it."
Then Rhatican says how important strategy is. "He may give a sensational answer, or a primitive one. If we don't know his strategy we can help him answer, but we won't even know if he should answer."
Rhatican explained, "We're not out to change the candidate or his views. But we want him to be as relaxed in front of that camera as in his own living room. Most times, they're not. All they think is, 'There are 150,000 people looking at me right now. I've got to be perfect.' So they're wooden. We want to strip that artificiality away and expose their real personalities.
"This is the beginning of a whole new concept. This is it. This is the way they'll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers." -- Robert Ailes, Election Eve, 1968
The overhead lights were on in the TV studio again, in the basement of the National Press Building. It was a Saturday afternon and Rhatican was doing another lesson, this time for Lawrence D. "Larry" Pratt, 37, a Northern Virginia representative to the Virginia General Assembly.
"We'll do a talk show set-up," Rhatican was saying to Pratt, a large man with a double chin, dressed in a pinstriped suit. Pratt nodded, his silver metal eyeglasses catching the light.
"Now remember. When we get to specific things, such as what issues you ran on, and you want to talk about opposition to the D.C. voting rights amendment, say it. Get it out. Remember that any editor watching needs a concise, 30-second sound bite. Anything more than that, you're losing them," Rhatican warned.
The camera and the videotape rolled again.
"Tell me a little about your district," began Rhatican.
". . . Fairfax County, high income, high educational level," responded Pratt.
"Why did you lose your first election?" probed Rhatican.
"Lack of name identification. Recognition," replied Pratt, without cracking a smile. They went through a 10-minute drill . . . opposed to the ERA, feels laws now guarantee equal rights in most areas . . . concerned about government intrusion in people's lives . . .
Then Rhatican started in. "You're not giving a lecture to a group of committed conservatives. You're going into someone's living room and trying to convince them. Be forceful. Commanding."
"One reason candidates might not be so convincing," Pratt cracked, sounding slightly defensive, "is that they're happy if people just love 'em."
"Good, good," Rhatican said frequently, stopping the tape to observe. "Answers good here. You stopped when you felt you'd answered the question. Good. But can you see your lack of enthusiasm?Lean forward. Point your finger. It gives resolve. And why not try to inject a little humor in here? A great place, talking about your lack of name recognition. You know you accepted that question on my terms. Why Answer?"
They go on for an hour and a half. They've analyzed questions, answers, gestures and gone through a six-pack of Michelob, as afternoon has turned into early evening. They talk about the local kids who egged the Rhatican house, and the plans to catch them that night.
"One more thing," Rhatican adds, right before they break down the cameras. He hesitates and then goes on. "You're doing great. But what do you put on your hair? Spary? The wet head is head," he says, mustering a large grin. "Why don't you try blowing it dry? Maybe just once, to see the difference. Under the lights it looks . . . wet."
"What, stand there all that time with that hair dryer in my hand?" argues Pratt with a growl. "I'm not going to take all your advice."