Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Catch of the Day

Want to know why the press overrates Jon Hunstman's chances? Greg Marx makes the case that Huntsman is using a modified version of John McCain's press strategy, and it's working -- reporters are easy marks for a candidate who openly mocks the political process. Or, as Marx puts it, "wry self-reflection and apparent candor about the act of running for president, qualities that helpfully echo journalists’ own preoccupations." Marx also notes that Team Huntsman includes John McCain's old campaign guy John Weaver. The result? "[T]he ironic detachment from events, the understanding of a reporter’s need to write about the campaign as spectacle, the willingness to join the interviewer in knowing inside-baseball talk." And a lot of reporters who want to hang out with the candidate and say nice things about him.

There are, of course, limits to this strategy. I'm thinking of an old Bob Dole anecdote...I suspect it was in Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes, but I don't remember for sure or have another citation for it, and so I'll allow the possibility that it might be apocryphal or, perhaps, enhanced in my telling. Running for president takes enormous discipline, an ability to repeat the same stump speech over and over and over, because of course just because the folks in Concord and Manchester may have heard it doesn't mean that people in Atlanta or Los Angeles have. Or even the people in Keene or Nashua. Bob Dole wasn't good at that, and the press (in 1988) bashed him for it. What would happen, though, is that Dole would be giving his stump speech, and he would notice the Washington press corps sitting there at the back of the room, and he'd crack a few jokes that they would (presumably) go over the heads of the audience but would make the speech a lot more fun to listen to, for reporters, than it would be to hear George Bush or Michael Dukakis mechanically repeating the same thing, in the same tone, over and over. So the press enjoyed the jokes -- and then went back to write their stories about how Bob Dole wasn't up to a presidential run because he didn't have the discipline to stick to his prepared speech.

The point is that press relations can probably buy some good will, but translating that into good coverage may turn out to be a little trickier than one might think. Also, that I absolutely love the image of the cynical press corps enjoying Dole's jokes and then tearing him down for making those jokes.

But that's not to take anything away from Greg Marx. Good story, and great catch!

1 comment:

  1. Hi John,

    Just seeing this now -- thanks for the point about Dole; I almost mentioned him as a politician who used ironic awareness of the political process to bond with reporters, then didn't because I don't really know enough about the details of his case. I can certainly see reporters doing the same to Huntsman, if he sticks around the race long enough to be a worthy target. (I'm doubtful.) But for now I do think those qualities make Huntsman a more attractive subject to feature writers than, say, Pawlenty, who judging by his campaign videos seems to live in an irony-free zone.


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