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Lead Balloon Ep. 14 - Dukakis in a Tank: White House Comms Pros Talk Presidential Optics

With Josh King and Kevin Sullivan: A staffer from Team Dukakis '88 and his Republican counterpart explore how the most disastrous photo op in history still shapes politics today.


1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in a tank is an image that has become synonymous with abject public relations failure. And for marketers and PR practitioners, it serves as an enduring reminder of the power that our mistakes have to burn down powerful people and institutions in one moment of lapsed judgment.

Josh King was a junior campaign staffer for the Dukakis campaign, and went on to serve as White House director of production for presidential events under President Bill Clinton. Kevin Sullivan served as White House communications director under President George W. Bush.


And with another election this week--chock full of its own PR lessons and case studies--Josh and Kevin will shed new light on the political legend of Dukakis in a Tank, offer a glimpse behind the scenes of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and explore 32 years worth of other presidential PR blunders.


Because, after participating in democracy this year, we've all earned a good chuckle...


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

So, I know we're all tired of presidential politics, the ads, the phone calls, and texts, the toxicity, the audible strain of our democratic institutions being tested like never before. With the 2020 election this week, get ready for a "fever pitch," and "a fight to the finish," and all the other over hyped cliches that accompany this wonderful, exhausting pageantry that we call democracy. I get it. While there are countless lessons that we could analyze from the past years' campaigns, nobody's in the mood for that right now.


We need a fond memory. We need a reason to smile again. We need Michael Dukakis in a tank.


Josh King:

All five feet, eight of him, put him in a gray jumpsuit, put a helmet on top of him labeled, "Mike Dukakis" on the front, the National Press Corps and everyone on the press riser bends over guffawing, "What a ridiculous stunt that this was."


Dusty Weis:

It's the most notoriously disastrous photo op in history, blamed in part for squandering Dukakis's 17 point lead in the 1988 presidential election against future President George H. W. Bush. In the spirit of election week, we'll explore what led up to the catastrophe, and its lasting impact on the world of public relations and marketing, with one Democrat and one Republican, both of whom have worked in the White House.


Dusty Weis:

Josh King was a junior staffer on the campaign trail for Team Dukakis '88. He went on to serve as White House events director under Democratic President Bill Clinton. Kevin Sullivan was the White House spokesman under the 43rd president, Republican George W. Bush. Together, they'll shed new light on the political legend of Dukakis in a tank, offer up a glimpse behind the scenes of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and remind us of a few other times when the republic teetered on the brink of PR calamity. I'm Dusty Weis, from Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing and branding disasters and the well meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

If you are one of those people who can't be bothered to vote, go soak your head. Everyone else who voted or will vote, thanks for tuning in. Election day has always felt like a holiday to me. This year, it's a little bit different. With the pandemic, with the high stakes, with a lot of uncertainty about our democratic institutions, voting feels more like a mission this year. So here is hoping we can get back to celebrating our democracy again.


Dusty Weis:

But speaking of celebrations, we recently got some pretty great news here at Podcamp Media. Industry leading publication AdWeek has named this show its marketing podcast of the year. I am just beside myself. So thank you for tuning in, thanks to the awesome show guests from all across the country, and especially thanks to anyone who has told a friend, or shared an episode on social, or started a Lead Balloon happy hour where they discuss episodes like it's a book club, because apparently that's a thing at an agency on the west coast, and I love that. But please do make sure that you're subscribed in your favorite app, and follow Podcamp Media on social, blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. Whatever. Dukakis in a tank, let's do this.


Dusty Weis:

Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in a tank is an image that has become synonymous with abject PR failure. It was a meme before meme was a term in the lexicon. For marketers and public relations practitioners, it serves as an enduring reminder of the power that our mistakes have to burn down powerful people and institutions in one moment of lapsed judgment.


Dusty Weis:

So in this week, at the "fever pitch" of an unprecedented presidential campaign, I am delighted to introduce somebody who has worked to orchestrate presidential optics, and has spent a career studying the science of public relations. Josh King served as event production director for President Bill Clinton, orchestrating just about every iconic appearance that defined his eight year term of office. Mr. King is the author of Off Script, an Advanced Man's Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide. Perhaps most notably, for our purposes, he was even a young campaign staffer for Team Dukakis '88. So Josh King, thank you for joining us on the Lead Balloon podcast.


Josh King:

It's a pleasure to be here, Dusty.


Dusty Weis:

I think if I was going to go through and rank moments of political imagery from the past century, you could probably make the case that Dukakis in the tank makes the top 10, at least. This is something that we studied in our intro to PR unit in journalism school. It's still a cultural touchstone. President Donald Trump just brought it up last year in a speech. So as someone who knows all the key players involved in creating that moment, why is it that you think that this resonates so strongly to this day?


Josh King:

Well, Dusty, I'm not sure it's in the top 10. It really has to be in the conversation for the top one, and really that was what made me embark on wanting to uncover a story that I was only a couple hundred miles away from when it happened on September, 13th, 1988, 32 years ago now. But to really get a perspective on that ride, which might have taken 10 or 15 minutes of one politician's life, and still lives with him today, I think you should probably take a little bit of a step back.


Josh King:

Mike Dukakis was the governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, a graduate of Swarthmore College, had all of two years of military experience under him, assigned infantry duty in Massachusetts after graduating from Swarthmore. But was a terrific administrator, governor, technocrat, leading the so called Massachusetts miracle back to health in the commonwealth. In a disciplined fashion, got the democratic nomination in July of 1988, the convention at the Omni in Atlanta. But he was running against a guy who had a terrific national security pedigree, Vice President George Bush. Vice president for eight years. Before that, head of the CIA, envoy to China, Congressman, and himself a certified war hero, having been shot down in his Avenger aircraft over Chichijima in the Pacific Ocean, World War II.


Dusty Weis:

Yet coming out of the Democratic Convention in July, Governor Dukakis was a strong front runner in the race, pulling 17 points ahead of Vice President Bush. Which was seen as sort of a second fiddle character to President Reagan, somewhat aloof, and definitely an establishment candidate. The specter of the Cold War still hung heavy on hearts and minds. Dukakis' message of domestic prosperity, well, that was a welcome breath of fresh air. That early polling might have prompted some complacency on Dukakis' part.


Dusty Weis:

In August, he spent an inordinate amount of time in his home state of Massachusetts, over the objection of campaign staff who insisted that he was wasting valuable campaign time. Meanwhile, the tireless Bush campaign machine chipped away at that lead with a coordinated strategy that played to American's worst fears. The notorious Willy Horton ads that stoked fears of violent crime and dog whistle to racist themes, questions about Dukakis' patriotism, even though he, himself, had served in the army, and of course, the old chestnut that Dukakis didn't have what it would take to protect America from its foreign enemies.


Josh King:

As accomplished as a domestic policy technocrat could be, had to prove his national security bonafide, which polls showed in the spring and summer of 1988, had Dukakis well behind Vice President Bush. So as summer turned to fall, as campaigns often go, they talk about, Dusty, theme weeks, where every day of the week, the candidate is going to be consistently on message, talking about the theme. The theme of that week that started, I think, September 11th, that Monday, was going to be national security.


Josh King:

It would start that Sunday, September 10th, in Boston, where all of the high ranking members of Congress who had a national security resume themselves, people like Sam Nunn, people like Les Aspen would gather in a Boston hotel, and almost anoint their nominee. Next day, he goes to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gives a speech at Carpenter's Hall. Next day he's in Ohio at a jet engine plant, where they make engines for the F1-11 fighter. The next day, that Wednesday, he's going to give a major speech in Sterling Heights, Michigan, at the campus of General Dynamics Land Systems. But before he does that, he's going to put through its paces the product that is manufactured at Land Systems-


Announcer:

The M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, armed with a 120 millimeter high velocity cannon, and protected by composite armor that's as tough as 60 centimeters of pure steel.


Josh King:

A behemoth, a deadly weapon, usually with an experienced crew of four. He's going to be given a demonstration ride by the head of Land Systems at the time, a guy named Gordon England, who would go on to become, I think, deputy secretary of defense, secretary of the navy, and a terrific guy himself.


Dusty Weis:

Now, you've made a career out of discussing the power of the visual, especially in presidential politics, and optics, and the role that those play. Optics were proving to be an increasingly important part of presidential campaign strategy in that era. So looking at it from the Dukakis campaign perspective, they could have had him go to the factory, and watch the tanks being made. They could have had him give a speech in front of the American flag at the tank factory. Why did they feel the need to get the visual of him riding in the tank?


Josh King:

Well, Dusty, I have to explain what this legion of campaigners do that we know as advance people. I was a young advance trainee in the summer of 1987, a year before this happened, when I started working for another candidate who eventually would fail away, Paul Simon, the senator from Illinois. Then I joined Dukakis' team. Dusty, I got to tell you that it's the most fun in politics there could possibly be, because they take young people like I was then, 22, 23 years old, they stick an airline ticket in your hand, give you a voucher for a rental car, and they say, "Go travel to these places around the country, and eventually when you get to the White House, around the world, and make stuff happen. Learn everything you can about this place that you have to go."


Josh King:

In this case, it was McComb County, Michigan, where so many electoral votes were at stake, then as they are now, where Dukakis had to win back the Reagan Democrats, that Ronald Reagan had taken from Jimmy Carter in 1980, and he had to prove his mettle by showing his machismo, doing the same kind of thing that a Detroit autoworker, and dare I say, a tank manufacturer would want their boss to do. I can ride in the tank. That was the mission, not assigned to me at that time, but a guy who has become my friend for 32 years as well, Matt Bennet, same age. They dispatch him to Sterling Heights, they say, "Back in Boston," because they've got a grand plan, and maybe they've watched a little too much Patton, Dusty.


Josh King:

They say, "Figure out how Governor Dukakis can ride in the tank. We want it to look a little like Patton. We know that movie." They wanted to see a scene of that movie to leaven or illustrate, or provide artwork for that three minute news package that Chris Wallace and Sam Donaldson would put together four or five hours later for the evening news. For that, you need a visual. You need a few seconds of the candidate doing something about which he is going to speak oh so seriously 30 minutes after the ride, talking about how we have to hold the line on the western frontier in Europe, the NATO allies against the advancing Warsaw pact, using this very equipment that I now have taken a test drive in, and I can attest to. So it was a disconnect between this big idea, perhaps absorbed through the silver screen, and the reality of putting a small man, Governor Dukakis, inside the turret of that main battle tank.


Dusty Weis:

I worked for a while in the realm of political PR, certainly not at a national level. But my former boss's boss, a city clerk of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has a saying of which he's quite fond. He likes to say, "Don't ever be the person in the meeting who hears a bad idea, knows it's a bad idea, but doesn't speak up to say that it's a bad idea." You mentioned your friend Matt Bennet, and from reading your article in Politico, I know that he was that person who spoke up and said, "Guys, this is not a great idea." Why did it still go forward?


Josh King:

I think Matt's quote that at least he wrote to himself contemporaneously in a journal that he gave me to originally write the article that then I used to write the book was, "Guys, this idea sucks." Matt was actually onsite, he could see the angles, Dusty. He knew the way the visual would look. He, just like [inaudible 00:14:28] could hold out his hands in the frame of a 16 millimeter celluloid and figure out what a camera would see, and he didn't like what he saw. I guess his dad was a professor of political science at Syracuse University. Matt was wiser than his years in terms of understanding geopolitics. He knew that just putting on the accoutrements of a tank commander, the jumpsuit, which by the way, didn't look like Patton's uniform, it was an ugly gray, with these yellow extraction tracks.


Dusty Weis:

It kind of looks like pajamas, almost.


Josh King:

It looked like a set of bad, auto repair shop coveralls, or pajamas, if you will. It had a kind of crappy patch on it. It had this helmet, which serves a current tank commander or a contemporaneous tank commander back in '88 very well. It's bulbous, Dusty. It has sort of big earphones built in, and a very rounded cranium to really protect a guy's skull, as we had seen happen too often in the war in Iraq, when an IED would blow a piece of armor like a main battle tank, maybe not destroy it, but send it three feet off its track. That would send any human being into whatever hard metal it was, and could destroy a person. These helmets were made to protect them, but they were not what we remembered from these Sherman tanks from World War II, and the tank commanders like Brad Pitt played in one, and certainly George C. Scott did in Patton.


Dusty Weis:

This wouldn't look good on Vin Diesel. It certainly didn't look good on Mike Dukakis.


Kevin Sullivan:

It looked to me like he was wearing a costume. It looked inauthentic.


Dusty Weis:

Kevin Sullivan remembers seeing the footage on the evening news, and chuckling. He wasn't yet a figure in politics, that would come later in 2005, when he accepted a comms role in the George W. Bush administration. Eventually in 2006, would assume the title of White House communications director. In 1988, he was the VP of communications for the Dallas Mavericks NBA team. But it didn't take a political wunderkind to tell you that the tank photo op was not working for Mike Dukakis.


Kevin Sullivan:

He just didn't look the part. He didn't quite pull it off. It looked a little silly. It had Mike Dukakis on that label across the helmet. It looked phony, and completely, obviously, as history has shown, backfired on him. Really, it was not a good idea. There is a history with putting things on your head as an elected official or candidate that goes back to Calvin Coolidge in 1927. In August of 1927, he was on vacation in South Dakota, and was actually made an honorary chief by the Lakota Sioux. As part of the ceremony, he put on a headdress. If you read about this, his advisors told him, "You're going to look foolish, Mr. President, don't do this. It's going to look funny." He said, "Well, isn't it good for people to laugh?"


Kevin Sullivan:

So he had been advised, and he decided to do it anyway. Now the interesting thing is he had some Native American ancestry, apparently. But most importantly, three years earlier, in 1924, he had signed into law the Indian Citizenship Act. That's why they were naming him Chief Leading Eagle, an honorary chief in the Lakota Sioux. I'm sure he felt as part of that ceremony he wanted to honor them for this recognition. So he did it.


Dusty Weis:

The photos of the President Coolidge event caused him some grief. But he chose not to run for another term in 1928, so we'll never know how that might have played out for him. However, the lesson had entered the zeitgeist of political convention. Don't put anything on your head.


Kevin Sullivan:

Famously, President Kennedy, on the morning of his tragic assassination in Dallas, he was given a pair of rattlesnake boots and a Stetson, I think it was the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce Chief. He sort of famously refuses to put it on.


Chamber Chief:

We know that you don't wear a hat. We couldn't let you leave Fort Worth without providing you with some protection against the rain.


Dusty Weis:

In film of this moment, and it's really a lot of fun to watch, you can see Kennedy sort of falter in the moment of indecision. He looks at the hat in his hands, and out at the cheering ballroom of adoring Texans. He shuffles his feet a little bit, and then leans into the mic with this almost sheepish smile.


John F. Kennedy:

I'll put it on in the White House on Monday. If you come up there, you'll have a chance to see it there.


Kevin Sullivan:

Sadly, Monday at the White House never came. He was saying, "I'll do it in private," because he had been taught this political lesson not to put anything on that is going to make you look funny. You can find a picture of President Kennedy before he ran for president wearing a rice hat. Maybe he learned something from that, too. But I think the lesson of the Calvin Coolidge Indian headdress photo was don't put something on that someone is going to think makes you look foolish. Candidate Dukakis, Governor Dukakis in 1988, disregarded that, as it turns out, at his own peril.


Dusty Weis:

So with an established political mandate against headgear, and an advance operative waving the red flag, how is it that this doomed photo op kept rolling? Well, Josh King says it was partially a crisis of momentum.


Josh King:

What happened, Dusty, was they tried to have their cake and eat it too. There is an expression or some maxim that goes, for these young people who travel, like Matt and myself, that the desk always wins. The decision of headquarters is going to prevail, despite people like Matt speaking up and saying they're not going to let Governor Dukakis take your full speed ride of the tank without a helmet on. So the answer that Boston tells him is, "Well, okay, we'll let him have the full speed ride, but let him come out of its hangar with the helmet off. That's where the lenses will take a great picture of the governor, and we will feed them the image that we think will look best on him. But then the governor is going to speed up, get up to it's 30 or 60 mile an hour speed and wear the helmet."


Josh King:

So in pictures that are not part of the historical record, that no one ever cared about. Governor Dukakis comes out of the hangar without wearing a helmet, looks good, and then put the helmet on, and that was the money shot. There is a driver and a secret service agent down below, Gordon England, Governor Dukakis on top. The National Press Corps, a raid on almost baseball bleachers, on a flatbed truck, watching this tank go through its paces. Then finally, after it had gone at full speed, the tank approaches the Press Corps, and does a last minute turn, avoiding Sam Donaldson and Chris Wallace. Everyone on the press riser bends over, guffawing, "What a ridiculous stunt that this was."


Josh King:

Yet, Dusty, if you were to watch the evening news that night, they didn't call it a fail at that point. They reported it straight. Indeed, Governor Dukakis goes on to give a very serious minded national security speech. But all the way back in Washington DC, a guy is sitting in a temporary rented apartment. His name is Sig Rogich. He's a Las Vegas advertising maven, working temporarily as the head of advertising for Bush Quail. He's making notes, and he's seeing the way Sam Donaldson and Chris Wallace are reporting it on the evening news.


Josh King:

He's saying, "I think if we write a good script and make a good ad, and use a narrator's voiceover, over all of the military programs that Governor Dukakis has said he has opposed, the irony of him riding in this tank, as long as we can put it in front of enough million eyeballs, is going to put the nail in the coffin of this candidate's credentials on national defense.


Dusty Weis:

So coming up after the break, how one bad photo op came to define the entire Dukakis presidential campaign. Plus, how the lessons of Dukakis in a tank shaped the presidential stagecraft that Josh King orchestrated for President Bill Clinton.


Josh King:

You'd have to pry him away from the rope climbing.


Dusty Weis:

And the moments that Kevin Sullivan crafted for President George W. Bush. That's in a minute, here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. The ill fated photo op that put Massachusetts governor, Mike Dukakis in an M1A1 main battle tank for all the world to see. It was pretty rough. But it was 1988. Most folks then didn't even own a VCR. Had it been 2008, the moment would certainly have gone viral almost instantly. YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, they would have had a field day. I mean, remember Obama girl? But Josh King, a junior staffer for the Dukakis campaign, says they didn't know in the moment just how damaging that image would be.


Josh King:

This moment, Dusty, could have come and gone. We might have had a war story, as you say. We might have drunk a beer to talk about this thing that didn't quite work out. But, and this is what people don't understand, they think that everything bad about this moment happened on that day, September 13th, 1988. It wouldn't have been anything other than maybe a missed opportunity or one day screw up, had not a television ad been made by Sig Rogich.


Dusty Weis:

Originally a creative for the Reagan '84 campaign, Sig Rogich was Iceland borne, with a reputation as cold-blooded strategist. He worked as director of advertising on Bush Quail '88, under none other than chief media advisor, Roger Ailes. Yes, that is disgraced former President of Fox News Roger Ailes. Together, they seized on one unfortunate moment and turned it into a brand.


Announcer:

Micheal Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed ...


Josh King:

The narrator sounds so grave as the sound effects of the grinding gears of a tank play under his voice. Then these [inaudible 00:25:17] of weapons system after weapons system that this technocratic governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts was said to have opposed-


Announcer:

America can't afford that risk.


Josh King:

Then take out your checkbook, and write a check to the television network broadcasting the Las Angeles Dodgers and Oakland As, I believe, in the World Series, and put this ad in front of the millions upon millions of swing voters in states like Michigan, and others that eventually Bush prevailed in. It was, I think, one of the highest rated games of the World Series, where the ad played. That is what we remember as Dukakis in the tank. It wasn't the moment itself. It was ad man Sig Rogich putting it together, and going well beyond that one day evening news audience, which wasn't even that negative, and turning it into the negative, by making Dukakis seem someone he wasn't.


Dusty Weis:

This is certainly something that not only changed the course of American history by helping elect George H. W. Bush as president, but changed the course of the American political history by really changing the tone and tenor of political advertising going forward. In fact, I've read that Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for George H. W. Bush, who later became ill, apologized on his deathbed to Governor Dukakis for the savagery of that and some of the other political advertising that took place there.


Dusty Weis:

When you look at this now, from the perspective of being in the middle of Donald Trump's second campaign for president, is that a pivotal moment in history that paved the way to the type of politics that we see now? Can you trace what we have now back to some of the lessons that were learned in the Bush/Dukakis campaign?


Josh King:

Well, I certainly thought so. Atwater was a genius, Sig Rogich a genius, James Baker, who ran that campaign, a terrific manager. If you think of the campaigns prior, Ronald Reagan, Morning in America, against Walter Mondale, 1980, the overhang of the Iran hostage crisis, the economic malaise under President Carter. But '88 is a pretty pivotal moment in terms of ad making, media buying, targeting, and coverage by the network news using pretty big still, but still much more mobile video tape units, rather than film units on your shoulder that could get uploaded and bounced off of a satellite from wherever you were, in this case, Sterling Heights, Michigan, back to the transmission facilities and editing bays in New York for the evening news.


Dusty Weis:

Kevin Sullivan, who served under the second President Bush as White House comms director, questions that the Bush '88 team didn't invent dirty campaigning.


Kevin Sullivan:

That tenor existed long before. There is lots of material out there in this. President Nixon at one time famously claimed he learned some dirty tricks from the Kennedy campaign in 1960. You can go back to the founders of our country, and some of the things that they said about each other on a campaign trail. So I don't think the Dukakis thing was the change. Politics is a rough racket. There is no question about it. I think it definitely predated the Dukakis thing.


Dusty Weis:

But Josh King still sees Dukakis in a tank as a historical signpost that's still relevant today.


Josh King:

What I thought about, as I worked in that first campaign, Dusty, then came back and worked for Governor Clinton in '92, and President Clinton's reelect in '96, saw lots of friends working for Vice President Al Gore's campaign in 2000, John Kerry's in 2004, Barack Obama's in 2008 and 2012, the ultimate matchup between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, you'd think, Dusty, that the old phrase, "Don't let history repeat itself," would prevail in the way that people manage presidential campaigns.


Josh King:

Yet, as I looked hard at each of those quadrennial match ups, I found one that I thought, in various ways, fits the Dukakis in the tank mold of a visual screw up, in itself a very small matter, but when magnified, either by the media or negative advertising by the other side, had a drastically unscaled negative effect on the candidate that committed the error. I thought in 1992, it was Bush and the supermarket scanner, which we could have a long discussion on, too, which was an unfortunate view of, his view about the working class.


George Bush:

Read my lips. No new taxes.


Josh King:

In 1996, it was Bob Dole, falling off of the stage in Shego, California. Again, sort of adding to this impression that he was maybe too old to be president, running against a much younger man in Bill Clinton. In 2000, Al Gore had promoted himself as an environmentalist.


Al Gore:

This is really not a political issue, so much as a moral issue.


Josh King:

Yet, got caught, not himself, but his campaign got caught actually orchestrating a large release of millions of gallons of water on the Connecticut River, on the border between Vermont and New Hampshire, so that Al Gore's bucolic canoe ride would have less risk of running aground as he came down in camera's view. 2004, there was so much going on. President Bush, and mission accomplished on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln.


George Bush:

Our coalition will stay until our work is done.


Josh King:

Howard Dean and Dean's scream.


George Bush:

Then we go to Washington DC to take back the White House.


Josh King:

John Kerry who went windsurfing during the Republican Convention, and that was turned into a very Dukakis-like devastating ad, whichever way the wind blows, set DeWalt's music.


Announcer:

In which direction would John Kerry lead?


Dusty Weis:

That windsurfing ad sticks out in Kevin Sullivan's memory too.


Kevin Sullivan:

He was trying to look athletic, young, and vigorous. Instead, he came across looking elitist, I think. I don't know what percentage of the American people have ever windsurfed, but it's not a big number. They used that windsurfing footage, where they talked about how he changed his directions on things.


Announcer:

Five times to do so. John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.


Josh King:

Then Mitt Romney trying to beat President Obama 2012, goes to the villages in Florida, which is a place where so many votes are at stake even today, and sings America the Beautiful in front of the crowd.


Mitt Romney:

Oh beautiful, for spacious skies-


Josh King:

Then that is then turned around by the Obama campaign into a sort of discordant singing of the song by Governor Romney, overplayed with pictures of boarded up factories and empty offices.


Mitt Romney:

America, America-


Josh King:

Then it sort of came to this battle between Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, and Trump coming down the escalator, being very much himself. The one thing you could say about 2016 is Trump was the character Trump wanted to demonstrate. So many of these examples leading up to 2016 that I've talked about, going all the way back to Governor Dukakis in 1988, were examples of people who were actors trying to take direction from their headquarters and from their advanced people, but ultimately not being comfortable in their skin, playing a role that they weren't perfectly at home playing.


Dusty Weis:

That notion of being yourself, of playing to your strengths in politics is certainly one that I've always strived to drive home during my tenure as a public relation's practitioner in politics. But in that same vein, you had a front row seat for history as a junior member of the Dukakis campaign in '88. Then you went on to work for Bill Clinton, when he was president, as his events director. Someone who was pretty much always himself, for better or worse. But he was always honest about that. Was that direction that he was taking from you and the rest of his staff? Or was that also something that was just inherent in his personality?


Josh King:

Totally inherent in his personality. The things that we would do was maybe take him to places that allowed his character to shine through in a more colorful way. But as a human being, such an interesting cat, young man, growing up in Arkansas, his birth father dies when he's very young, the stories about his father's alcoholism are well known. His mother trying her best to put Bill and his brother, give them education. Bill working his way up as a showman, as a saxophonist in high school, going to Georgetown, then getting a road scholarship at Oxford, and coming back Yale Law School, and working his way up as a teller of great stories on the campaign trail in Arkansas, through his many campaigns, I think three or four successful [inaudible 00:34:47] campaigns.


Josh King:

So he is a master speaker, and a storyteller, and had the intellectual wherewithal and heft to back up what he was saying without a script, without notes. So the things that we might have been able to do through scheduling and advance work would be to take him to interesting places, put him against backdrops that evoked some of his policy views, and made the images of those speeches or moments all the more powerful because of where he was. But very seldom was he not doing things that were innate to him.


Josh King:

He had that expression, so many times kind of mocked, "I feel your pain." But that guy grew up with a lot of pain in Arkansas. He really knew the plight the people were enduring, and wherever he happened to be, around the country or around the world, he could empathize with that. It was only a matter of finding those places around the country, around the world, that gave him the opportunity to meet with people, talk with people, shake their hands, until all hours, that was all that we had to do. We basically had to wind him up and send him out.


Dusty Weis:

I've had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions, and our current president right now, previously branded one of his foes as low energy. Bill Clinton was a guy, and is a guy, that is never low energy. He is always going 110%. So can I just say, I could stand to hear a little more of your Bill Clinton impression. That was pretty good. You've got that one nailed down.


Josh King:

I don't have that nailed down. I have a couple of phrases that we all heard so many times, that it was sort of ingrained. But there is a lot of people how do a better Bill Clinton than I do.


Dusty Weis:

Josh King may have served in a Democratic administration, Kevin Sullivan in a Republican White House. But Kevin says PR and marketing pros of all political stripes can take lessons from the disaster of Dukakis in a tank.


Kevin Sullivan:

We were very mindful of what the lead image would be, and carefully staged events, to capture an image that, again, would reinforce and elevate your message of the day.


Dusty Weis:

Taking those lessons from the Dukakis campaign, were there then moments when you saw a photo op coming, and had to sort of run into the line of fire and say, "No, no, no, this is a bad idea, let's not do this, please?"


Kevin Sullivan:

All the time. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. I'll say a couple of funny ones, I remember one time we were doing, I think it was a Medicare drug benefit. What would be called an OTR, off the record, where the president, without much notice, would show up at a drug store, I think it was a CVS in Washington DC, and we'd go in, and we'd do a photo. There were rules, because it was a drug store, the president could not go behind the counter, which is where the controlled substances are. Of course, you look around a CVS, and you're trying to pick a place to stage a photo, and there is materials in there, products for senior citizens, there is a magazine rack that has god knows what on it, and all kinds of things. Let your imagination run wild as to what you see in a drug store. So we had picked the most harmless backdrop we could.


Kevin Sullivan:

Yet, when President Bush arrived on the scene, even though we had sort of gamed this out, he wanted to be with the people who worked there, and he went right behind the counter, even though that was not what the plan was. What was technically even against the rules, because he wanted to pose with the women working behind the counter, talking to seniors about their drugs. They loved it, and he loved it, and it made for a great photo.


Kevin Sullivan:

In that moment, his instincts were much better than ours. It really didn't matter that he had technically broken the rule about going behind the counter where the controlled substances were. It mattered that he was with people. Images of people are always more interesting than image of things. So his political instincts, which were typically very good, paid off in a way, in a big way on that day. There were other days, he liked, again, mixing with the people.


Kevin Sullivan:

I remember one, we were at, it's called Wright Manufacturing in Maryland. This was in early 2008. This company manufactures equipment for landscaping. There was a standup lawn mower that was a new product, that they were promoting. We didn't necessarily want him to get on this thing and ride it around the factory floor, because again, something could go wrong. He thought it was cool. But what he really wanted to do was honor the men and women who had worked on the designing and building of this new standup lawn mower, to have the American president, as he used to say, not old George W., but the American president is going to test drive this baby.


Kevin Sullivan:

So he just jumped on it and started driving it around. Again, it ended up being a good thing. So you hope the candidate, or in this particular case, the president listens to his advisors. But sometimes it works out better when he relies on his own instincts for what's going to mean most in those kind of moments.


Dusty Weis:

Looking back with 32 years of historical perspective, maybe we've had the takeaway message wrong this whole time. It's not about hats and helmets, because say what you want about George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton as presidents, but you'll never hear anyone say that they weren't comfortable in their own skin. So maybe the lesson here for political candidates, hell, for brands and corporations too, is a lesson in authenticity. Be honest about who you are, play to your strengths, improve in the places where you're weak, and don't try to be something that you're not.


Dusty Weis:

Mr. King, I proudly call Wisconsin my home. In 2016, Wisconsin is one of the states where Donald Trump upset Hilary Clinton, ultimately handing him the election. During her campaign, Hilary Clinton didn't visit Wisconsin once. The first presidential candidate in decades to have [inaudible 00:40:58] a visit to the badger state. So for four years here, the political conversation has, rather tediously, centered on, "If only Hilary Clinton had visited Wisconsin, she'd have won." I think that's oversimplifying a little bit in a chicken and egg sort of way. I think that her campaign was also wanton to glossing over meat and potatoes Midwestern issues and states, and that skipping the customary cheese curd sampling was symptomatic of that, not the other way around. All of which is a really long winded way of asking you, do you really think that the tank photo op cost Dukakis the election? Or was there a bigger problem of which it was just the perfect, shining visualization?


Josh King:

Oh, I think there were many problems in that campaign, Dusty. But let me touch on something that you hit on, because in your last question, you talked about how President Trump dubbed one of his opponents low energy, how Governor Clinton, people talk about, in the places like Milwaukee, and [inaudible 00:41:57], and other places, they say Secretary Clinton didn't visit here in 2016, those are connected in a couple of ways. One is Bill Clinton, President Clinton, as I implied, you'd have to pry him away from the rope line. You'd have to force him to get away from people, back into the limousine, and over to whatever hotel we were staying at.


Josh King:

But even then, you really couldn't get him back in his room. He would find the mayor, or the congressperson, or the governor, and say, "Where is the best place for dinner?" After all this campaigning, as late as it was they would spend the night talking, and gabbing, until he would have the last word, and given the end of his sermon on a particular night. Only then, Dusty, would he go back to the hotel room to rest, and then wind up and start again the next morning.


Josh King:

I found it interesting in both candidates, in 2016, how they thought they were using to best effect their campaign aircraft to get from wherever they were around the continental United States that day, back to either Westchester, New York, or Trump Tower in Manhattan, and sleep in their own bed. So I've thought a lot about what people talk about, didn't visit Wisconsin, didn't visit Pennsylvania enough, didn't visit Michigan enough, because it's only a matter of telling your pilot to descend over Green Bay, or over Milwaukee, or over a scene, find a decent hotel, do a little bit of media, meet with some local politicians, and spend the night, and begin your day the next day from the dead center of the nation to wherever you're going.


Josh King:

Maybe you think you have that state locked up, or maybe you think it's out of reach. But I don't think anything is ever lost when you go meet the folks in a different part of the country. I'm looking at you have that Green Bay Packers pendent right behind you, I remember one of the trips to Wisconsin while Bill Clinton was in the White House, stopping to visit a Packer's practice, tossing the football with Brett Favre. Having a great old time. These moments have a lot of mileage when they then get picked up in the journal sentinel the next day.


Dusty Weis:

Is there a way that you can synthesize that in a candidate? Or did they just have to have that genuine affection for people, and being out out and meeting them?


Josh King:

I mean, you have to realize, you have to love it, Dusty. You have to think that this is a once in a lifetime privilege to be your party's nominee, to have enough money to afford a 757, or a 737, or a 727 leased for 90 days, that you can take anywhere you want, mostly in the continental United States, but in other years, a trip to Europe, or a trip to Mexico, or a trip to Canada, to show your international bonafides.


Josh King:

You have to say, "Look, you got to leave it all out on the field." To get back to your own pillow, and your own bedroom, I don't think, at least in a normal year, what a nominee should be doing in their final 100 days before an election day, you really should be figuring out how many stops you can make, how many really obscure places you can be. Some of my fondest moments of the campaign trail are in the smallest towns. Fancy farm Kentucky, at the fancy farm barbecue. Yet the message always got out, because the lenses were always there.


Dusty Weis:

People who hear the name Dukakis, to this day, they bring it up. It comes up at parties, they bring up the tank. I imagine that you've been asked about it, given your history, 10,000 times. Are you tired of it yet?


Josh King:

Well, I love the story itself. I wrote the heck out of it. I turned that six or eight page story that ran in Politico Magazine into a 500 page book, 100 pages of which were dedicated to every angle of that screw up. I always thought it was an amazing event to look at and analyze. Everyone did bring it up, Dusty, as you've said. No one really got to the core of all of the elements that made it as bad at it was until I tried to unpack it. Every four years, it comes around, and people say, "Well, President Trump's walk across Lafayette Square to hold an upside down bible in front of Saint John's Church was the Dukakis and the tank of 2020. Then he takes a ride in his limo outside of Walter Reed hospital, and they call that the Dukakis and the tank ride of 2020. We're going to see people in 2022 and 2024 have analogies to Dukakis in the tank. It's really the event that keeps on giving.


Dusty Weis:

Speaking of your book, it was written in the lead up to and then culmination of the 2016 presidential election. We're recording this a few weeks before the 2020 election, so we don't know yet the outcome. This episode will be released during the week of the election, and let's be honest, there is no guarantee that we will know the results at that time either. But regardless, al to has changed over the lats four years. There have seemingly been new lessons to learn about optics every week. So what's in the works for you? Another book, a podcast? What have you got cooking?


Josh King:

Well, I've long since moved on from politics, Dusty. I work in the private sector, now, continuing to do public relations type work. I love watching the stuff. I have my own podcast, it's called Inside the Ice House. Occasionally touches on matters of history in politics. But mostly focuses on business. I just watch, now, as an armchair quarterback, knowing how a lot of the sausage does get made. Curious and interested how this year, 2020, has been so distinct from prior years, with the coronavirus pandemic. How it has prevented so many people from doing the basic political work of door-to-door door knocking, canvasing, rally building, rally holding.


Josh King:

It hasn't held President Trump back, he's certainly been criticized for it. Made Vice President Biden spend a lot of his time close to his home in Delaware, and then beginning to do events sort of in concentric circles around his home in the Wilmington area, and finally, now, getting out around the country. But speaking to very small groups. Yet, his message is getting through as well. So I do think the book could be rewritten after this campaign. No matter the outcome, I think it'll tell us a lot. But it won't tell us a lot, really, until the final votes are counted. Will the excitement and passion that is clearly evident in President Trump's rallies translate into support at the ballot box? Will Joe Biden's message, which seems to be getting out, but getting out to smaller numbers of people, still resonate just because the lenses are there, and the microphones are there to record him?


Josh King:

We won't really know until we know the outcome of election day, which was the same as it was 32 years ago in 1988. I was a young man, flying all over the country with a couple of days notice, to put on yet another political show in a different part of the country. My last visit was to, I think, Portland, Oregon. Did a big rally at Portland State University. It did feel, in those closing two weeks, that Governor Dukakis had, even as he had been through so many things, had been through the tank episode, had been through the Willy Horton attacks, he'd been called mentally ill, he'd been questioned whether he had full allegiance to the country, and didn't like to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He had been through the three presidential debates with Vice President Bush, when Bernard Shov, CNN, would ask, "Governor, if you wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered, would you seek the death penalty for her perpetrator?"


Josh King:

All of these things you would think he'd be dead and buried, and yet there we were in Portland, Oregon, with a week or two left, and we saw this guy actually have the kind of fire in his belly that we hadn't seen him have all year. We thought, "Hey, maybe he can pull a rabbit out of the hat." I think we flew back to Boston from a last minute, midnight rally at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, got in the Governor's campaign plane, landed at Logan Airport in the wee hours of election day, probably wearing the same clothes I'd worn for three days. I'd managed to make it to the polling place, cast my ballot, and then went to sleep until the votes came in. The votes came in certainly signaling defeat for Governor Dukakis. But we were sort of, kind of hopeful. Even in those last, dying days, that miracles could happen. So who knows where things are going to turn out this year.


Dusty Weis:

Certainly. Well, it has been delightful to talk about a presidential campaign that doesn't have seemingly immediate and apocalyptic ramifications at every turn. Your expertise and your knack for storytelling are very much appreciated. Josh King, former event production director for President Bill Clinton, author of Off the Script. Thanks for joining us on the Lead Balloon podcast.


Josh King:

Thanks so much, Dusty.


Dusty Weis:

For his part, Kevin Sullivan is also a political Monday morning quarterback these days. He has his own consulting agency in Dallas and he's an advisor to the George W. Bush Presidential Center. He's actually the one who recommended that I reach out to Josh King, who is an old friend of his. That's right, two people with different political ideologies, who don't feel the need to brand their opponents as enemies of the people. It's kind of a throwback of sorts.


Kevin Sullivan:

You're point about bipartisanship, I would commend to any of your listeners who are in the communications business, or really any business, to read Josh's book, Off Script, which has all kinds of lessons learned. This is a really bright, talented guy with a ton of experience. I've learned a lot from Josh, and occasionally I was the guest Republican counterpart to him on the Polyoptics podcast and show on SiriusXM. We had a lot of fun doing that.


Kevin Sullivan:

There is no reason why we can't work together across the aisle as communicators in terms of helping each other, and learning from each other, and certainly as elected officials. We need to work together to get things done for the betterment of the people. This is a small example of that, where Josh and I Have been friends for several years now. I knew he would be a terrific guest for your audience because he has so much experience. He's a great storyteller, and a talented, capable, good person.


Dusty Weis:

I have to say that in the course of our conversation, at one point, I got to hear Josh's Bill Clinton impression. So in the spirit of fair play, if you have a George W. Bush impression, I would love to hear it right now.


Kevin Sullivan:

I'm sorry to disappoint you, I won't do it. I don't have, I'm not an impressionist. So I don't want to embarrass myself or disappoint your audience.


Dusty Weis:

That's fair. That's fair.


Dusty Weis:

It's been fascinating revisiting this, and of course, the timing couldn't be better. I think in a lot of ways it harkens back to a more innocent time in political communications. You wonder if Joe Biden's campaign manager will ever be able to have a friendly conversation with Donald Trump's campaign manager.


Kevin Sullivan:

Yeah, who knows? If not, that's too bad, because there ... They're going to have to ... One thing, whether it's this year or in four years, we went through a transition from a Republican president to President Elect Obama's team. The transition process, which President Bush told us way in advance, "We're going to do this the right way, the stakes are very high. We're at war." By the time we got there, we had the financial crisis.


Kevin Sullivan:

So we needed to do everything we could to help President Obama's team be successful. It was a very rewarding process to be a part of, and a great example of rising above party to do what's right for the people. President Bush made it very clear, not just to the senior staff at the White House, but to the cabinet, led by Josh Bolton, the chief of staff, that we were going to do transition in the most robust, helpful way possible. I think that should be the spirit, where people work together no matter what party.


Dusty Weis:

I think after the year that we've had, that's a sentiment to which we can all raise a glass.


Dusty Weis:

And that is going to wrap up this season of Lead Balloon. It has been a heck of a ride, folks. The trophy from Ad Week for marketing podcast of the year, it's awesome. But it's also going to open up doors for me to bring you even bigger guests, even wilder stories, and maybe even a little bit of hell raising in season two. Because the irons that I have in the fire right now, they're hot. It's going to be fun. Season two of Lead Balloon, it's going to land in January 2021.


Dusty Weis:

You'll probably hear a short update from me before then, because I have some other awesome news about our growing company as well, that I'm just going to have to share on this feed. What company is that? Well, it's Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where I will be leaking exciting details about season two. Please subscribe to our show on your favorite app, and if you've got a great story to share, hit me up. Until the next time, folks, thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.

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