Mark Curtis's blog

“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- August 24, 2014

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(Cape Cod, Massachusetts) – I spent most of Saturday on Cape Cod, which was full of vacationers. President Obama and his family remain just across the water from here for their annual vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Every President (spouse and kids, too), deserves a vacation! But sometimes what a President does on the job, (or on vacation), shows a certain tone deafness to the public. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Fore-getaboutit!” – President Obama has taken his share of criticism for how much he plays golf (as have many of his predecessors). Hey I can’t begrudge any of them for wanting to get out on the links and blow off stress, but sometimes the criticism is warranted. This past Wednesday the President held a news conference to condemn the murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS terrorists. After the briefing he went right out to play golf with former basketball star Alonzo Mourning (photo above). To many people, it just seemed insensitive and out of touch. It’s a round he should have cancelled! Had he waited one more day to golf, few would have cared.

“The Plane They Call the City of New Orleans” – In September 2005, President George W. Bush flew to a long-scheduled fundraiser in San Diego. In the process, he flew over – but did not stop in – Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Look, I realize that Air Force One is a “flying White House!” A President can launch a war from there; or sign any emergency order to provide aid in a national disaster. He can put in motion everything New Orleans needed from 35,000 feet, but it’s hard to demonstrate the symbolism of compassion and caring from that altitude. Yes, he should have cancelled the fundraiser and landed in Louisiana. He went there later in the week, after much public outcry. Had he made a similar gaffe just a year earlier, he would have lost his 2004 reelection.

“It’s Impeachment; Not a Pep Rally” – One thing Presidents have to remember is that they have the job of President, but they also must represent the institution and office of the Presidency. They don’t own the job or the institution; but they are guardians of it. So on December 19, 1998 when President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, Democrats responded by throwing what amounted to a pep rally for the President at the White House. Good lord, the country was facing a Constitutional crisis, not cheering sides in the Super Bowl. I get that Democrats wanted to rally around their leader, but it came off as smug and arrogant, and not befitting the dignity of the office. I know many Democrats who were appalled that they were pressured to participate. It was one of those occasions where the White House should have just issued a printed statement saying the President would vigorously fight the charges.

“Who Cares About the Price of Gas?” – President George H.W. Bush was also guilty of a bad public relations gaffe. In June of 1989, with gasoline prices spiking, the President was vacationing at his family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Again, we shouldn’t begrudge any President who needs a breather from probably the most stressful job on Earth. Quite honestly, I’d be more concerned about a President who did not take a vacation at all. But in this case, the President was photographed and videotaped speeding around in his cigarette boat. It looked like a blast, but they are expensive and gas-guzzling boats. I forget what gasoline was a gallon back then – cheap compared to now I am sure – but average folks were struggling to fill their own tanks. As with some of the other instances cited here, the President simply looked insensitive and out of touch.

“They’re Called the Olympic Games; Not the Political Games” – In the summer of 1980, President Jimmy Carter would not allow Team U.S.A. to participate in the Olympic Games in Moscow. This was a protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. What was meant as a punishment against the Soviets, turned instead into a punishment of the U.S. athletes and the viewing public. If we truly wanted to show up the Soviets, we could have gone and kicked their tails on the athletic field, just as Black American track star Jesse Owens did to Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Instead, Carter made himself (and the country) look petty and weak. He lost the 1980 election; and the U.S.S.R. then countered by boycotting the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

“Why All of This Matters!” – Yes, most of a President’s job is about public policy, but some of it is also about public relations. Sure a President can issue billions of dollars in emergency aid with the stroke of a pen; but it’s quite another thing to go stand knee-deep in water to hug a crying victim. The President isn’t just Commander in Chief; he is also Consoler in Chief. I know it is politics by photo-op, but it matters. People want to know you care, and sometimes the only way to do that is eyeball-to-eyeball. It is a pitfall that hits most Presidents, regardless of party. I worry sometimes that the trappings of the White House, Air Force One, and the access-only to the wealthy and influential simply insulate a President and make them insensitive to the plight of ordinary folks.

Let me know what you think? Are you concerned that President’s lose touch, the deeper they get into the job? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2014, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo courtesy: AOL News

“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- August 17, 2004

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(Providence, Rhode Island) – As with many states, we are getting close to the primary election here. There is a flurry of last-minute campaign ads – many of them negative – and, as always, lots of endorsements. The big question to “brunch” on this week is, "Do endorsements really matter?" The answer is: "It depends!"

“The Kennedy Name” – Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) came back to the Ocean State this week to endorse Angel Taveras for Governor; Seth Magaziner for General Treasurer (photo above); and, Guillaume de Ramel for Secretary of State. All three candidates are in highly-contested primaries. Obviously these aren’t household names to my readers outside of New England; and, even inside New England, only Taveras (the current Mayor of Providence) is well-known. Look, a Kennedy endorsement can help (especially among fellow Democrats), but a lot of people don’t like the Kennedy clan; so in the general election, it could cut the other way. Forty percent of Rhode Island voters are Democrats; only 10 percent are Republicans; but, 50 percent are Independents who go their own way.

“When Real News Breaks” – The downside of political endorsements occurs when real news breaks. Sadly, this week the world lost one of its great entertainers when Robin Williams committed suicide after decades of struggle with substance abuse and depression. So, while former Congressman Kennedy was out trying to back his favorite candidates, his own struggles with substance abuse and depression came back to the forefront. Kennedy is now one of the nation’s foremost advocates for treatment of those issues. Most reporters were far more inquisitive about that than about whom Kennedy was backing for any office. His endorsements were almost completely overshadowed.

“Pensacola Press” – The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that media endorsements don’t mean a hill of beans. Sorry to break the news to my own industry, but the public really resents your trying to sway the outcome of races that you purport to try to cover objectively. "Don’t take sides" means "Don’t take sides!"

I can’t remember the year (It was sometime between 1988 and 1992, when I was a reporter in Pensacola, Florida), but I think only one candidate - out of many - who was endorsed by the "Pensacola News-Journal" actually won. I mean the newspaper’s endorsements were like a curse of death. Just about everyone who got one lost!

“Boots on the Ground” – I always tell my students and my broadcast audience, “You need the four M’s to win in politics! Those four M’s are money, manpower, message, and media buzz!” If an endorsement just gives you a one-day photo op, it’s a flop! But if your endorsement brings campaign contributions, volunteers, media coverage, and an issue statement that rings true with lots of voters, then you are golden. For example, union endorsements can mean a lot, but only if members actually campaign door-to-door for you and take voters to the polls on Election Day. That’s in addition to members giving you money. Any group – union, or otherwise – that can give you actual ground troops is gold. Otherwise, an endorsement is just dust in the wind!

“Media Matters?” – In the 2000 Presidential Election, 116 newspapers and magazines endorsed Al Gore, compared to 179 for George W. Bush. Bush won the Electoral College (but not the popular vote) and became President. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry won 208 newspaper endorsements, versus 190 for George W. Bush. Bush still won reelection. There’s no precise science to it, but the number of times the American public seemingly contradicts the supposedly liberal-leaning media recommendation is noteworthy. In the ten Presidential elections from 1972 to 2008, the winner of most media endorsements won seven of the ten races. It’s interesting to note that in five of those seven winning races, the majority of the media endorsed the winning Republican candidate.

“Celebrity Politics” – The honest-to-God truth about this is that political candidates – from dog catcher to President – have to win their races on their own. I point-blank asked former Congressman Kennedy about that this week. “What do you hope the Kennedy name brings to these three races?” I asked the retired Congressman.

"Listen, if it gives them a little bit more attention to their campaigns.... [but] it's really their message that the voters have to vote on," he responded, and that’s pretty honest. All politics is local, so even the famous Kennedy name does not guarantee a win.

Rhode Island College Political Communication Professor Kay Israel put it another way: "The fact is, the significance of the endorser can make a difference, but you've got to be Oprah Winfrey to have that much of an impact." In short, even Patrick Kennedy is not Oprah Winfrey!

“Ten-Foot Poll Award” – Here’s the unvarnished truth. In 1998, many Democratic Congressional candidates sent back-channel messages to the White House saying they did not want President Clinton endorsing or campaigning for them amidst his own impeachment scandal. In 2006, similar messages were sent to President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Iraq War and after the Hurricane Katrina response. Sometimes political endorsements bring a simple, “No thank you!”

How much does a political endorsement sway your decision over whom to vote? Let us know by clicking the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2014, MarkCurtisMedia, LLC.

Photo credit: Mark Curtis, ABC6 News

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