Leadership by Presentation: The Town Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, Proved the Maxim: Live by PR, Die by PR

By Greenfield, Meg | Newsweek, March 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Leadership by Presentation: The Town Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, Proved the Maxim: Live by PR, Die by PR


Greenfield, Meg, Newsweek


The town meeting in Columbus, Ohio

proved the maxim: lived by PR, die by PR

So far as I can remember, the displacement of the

serious business of American government by a kind of

shallow pageantry began with the announcement of

Richard Nixon's cabinet choices after the election of

1968. It was the first time the staging techniques and format

of the Academy Awards--or was it the Miss America contest?--seemed

to me to have taken their place in our government's way of

presenting itself to the people. But, of course, not the last. Back

then, Nixon staged a gala and summoned each nominee, with some

flowery description and the assertion that each was a man "with an

extra dimension," which, as I recall, the president-elect would then

identify. And now here was another! What suspense! Who would it

be and what would his extra dimension be?

It all seems almost touchingly naive and unsophisticated now, so

far have we come in the stagecraft of governing, if governing can be

said to be what results from all these tableaux and stunts. By Jimmy

Carter's day we were into so much symbolic activity--the overnight

stays with average householders, complete with presidential

bedmaking; the ostentatiously sported cardigan sweater meant to

keep an energy-conserving, low-thermostat chief executive warm--that

Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" added a department of symbolism to

the government. In the Reagan years, Mike Deaver, with his set

themes of the day, reached new heights of seamless visual projection.

These image projections by then had come somehow to be seen as

synonymous with the act of governing itself, as distinct from merely

being adjuncts or backdrop. And so we were about to arrive at the age

of presentation as leadership.

I knew that we had arrived at that place when I realized that the

phenomenon no longer seemed in any respect even remarkable to me,

let alone unfortunate. I simply assumed it. What's more, although the

going wisdom is that, what with the lawsuit-ization of our national

life, we have all become amateur lawyers, I don't think that's right. I

think we have all become something else: amateur political stagers

and self-styled public-relations gurus,

people who seem to grade their leaders less by what they do than

by how well they "handle" it or "bring it off. "

Watching the so-called Columbus "town meeting" on television

brought this home to me, at least about myself. As the heckling got

noisier and the participants, secretaries Cohen and Albright and

national-security adviser Berger, looked more and more as if they

were about to be hanged and the meeting itself began to come

unglued, I found myself thinking, not what is the issue at stake here,

but who advanced this thing, anyway? Now, you need to understand

that I have never "advanced" anything

in my life and neither have the many, many

people I encountered in the next several days

who wanted to talk about little else. Why

were the three speakers just stuck out there

without props, looking exposed and trapped

on those chairs? Why had the sponsors not

planned the thing better, if they planned it at

all? Who thought of the format? …

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