George Bush became president after perhaps the most public relations-driven presidency in history. President Ronald Reagan's command of the media was masterly and it created very high expectations for his immediate successor. For Bush, the trouble was that he lacked Reagan's communications skills and was not enamored of placing so much emphasis on public relations. Bush had his own distinct leadership style, yet journalists evaluated his approach against the backdrop of his predecessor's achievements.
Bush constantly was aware that he could not replicate Reagan's approach. To his credit, Bush sought to develop a leadership approach that suited his own skills, preferences, and agenda. Ultimately, journalists gave little credit to Bush for adopting a more open and informal relationship with the media. They were more inclined to criticize his leadership for failing to recognize the overriding importance of public relations to the modern presidency.
For this article, I interviewed a number of President Bush's White House staff who worked on press relations, communications strategy, and speechwriting. They described Bush's media relations approach and evaluated their own successes and failures. For the most part, these Bush White House insiders praised the president as more committed to substance than symbolism yet concluded that the administration's goals suffered from a failure of effective media and public relations. By downplaying the public presidency, they argued, Bush undermined his efforts to achieve certain policy goals and reelection.
The retrospective assessments of Bush's communications advisers lend credibility to the thesis that in the modern era, a president who downplays the public presidency risks undermining his leadership potential. Bush failed to recognize that the ceremonial and symbolic aspects of the office play a crucial role in any modern president's quest to achieve substantive goals.
Bush's Media Strategy
During the Reagan years, journalists became used to what many referred to as "media manipulation" by the White House. The Reagan White House made no secret of its desire to manage media coverage and justified the effort as necessary to achieving the administration's policy objectives. The press spokesman Larry Speakes even so boldly kept a sign on his desk that read: "You don't tell us how to stage the news, we won't tell you how to cover it."(1) Speakes even confessed that at times he had made up presidential quotations to fill the void when Reagan had actually said nothing.
Marlin Fitzwater had served as Vice President Bush's press secretary during most of the Reagan years and then as presidential spokesman beginning in 1987. He had a good understanding of the different styles of both presidents. He said that Bush wanted to approach media relations very differently from the Reagan years and "to grant maximum exposure to the press."(2)
In four years, Bush gave 280 press conferences, far more than his predecessor had given in either term in office. Bush gave up the reliance on elaborate White House East Room press conferences in favor of less-formal afternoon conversations with reporters in the briefing room. This approach suited the man who was good at one-on-one exchanges, but not very convincing in elaborate, highly staged presentations.(3)
In part because of reporters' sensitivity to media manipulation after eight years of the Reagan presidency, Bush gave less emphasis than his predecessor to public relations stunts. There were some such events as the president declaring his dislike of broccoli followed by the Broccoli Manufacturers of America dumping a semitruck full of the product on the lawn of the White House. For the most part, Bush's strategy was to show that he was open, accessible, and not especially enamored of public relations gimmickry.
Bush's approach also meant the downgrading of the White House Office of Communications (WHOC), the office that had been the nexus of Reagan's public relations machine. …