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The Bully Pulpit

  • In modern era, communicating effectively through mass media has become critically important skill for presidents
  • Teddy Roosevelt spoke of presidency as "bully pulpit"
  • Franklin Roosevelt used radio to communicate directly to American people
  • Ronald Reagan mastered use of TV images to reinforce his message
On 30 March, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot as he walked from Washington, DC's Hilton Hotel to his waiting car. Several reporters and photographers were on hand to witness John Hinckley fire the bullets that punctured the lung of the president and wounded a police officer, a Secret Service agent, and White House Press Secretary James Brady.

The tragedy left multiple legacies. Would-be assassin Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, leading to a widespread re-evaluation of the insanity defense. Press Secretary Brady suffered permanent brain damage; he subsequently led a campaign to stiffen the nation's gun control laws. President Reagan quickly recovered; his resilience and his plucky explanation to his wife Nancy—"Honey, I forgot to duck"—further endeared the popular president to the American public.

On a different note, the incident served as a macabre reminder that the American public rarely saw the president when he was not in transit. Walking to his car, exiting Air Force One, stepping out of the presidential helicopter, or most famously and elegantly, cantering up the press lines on his favorite horse while vacationing at his California ranch, Ronald Reagan almost always presented himself to the press while in motion.

Nor was this an accident. President Reagan's mobility was part of a clever strategy for managing the difficult press relations that had dogged less skilled presidents. Always more of a visionary than a policy wonk and better at articulating the broad philosophical objectives than the details of any particular program or plan, Reagan avoided press encounters that could not be controlled. Press conferences, for example, were risky; at a podium, an unanswered question suggested evasiveness or even ignorance. But in motion, Reagan could control the duration of the interview; he could choose which questions to ignore and which to embrace. A failure to respond could be blamed on the schedule or—better yet—on the deafening whirr of the helicopter blades. During his eight years in the White House, Reagan held an average of seven press conferences a year. By comparison, Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter (often criticized for being too immersed in the details), held about 22 per year.12

Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to recognize that the emerging national press was a two-headed beast. A hostile press could undermine a president and his agenda. But if a president could cultivate that press and learn how to use it to his advantage, the presidency could be a "bully pulpit," an unmatched podium from which to shape and direct public opinion.

Roosevelt was good at working the press. Colorful and charismatic, he turned the growing national media into his own public relations tool. But Reagan was even better. Like Roosevelt, he possessed the personality to charm even his critics, but he was also assisted by a media relations staff that revolutionized the press relations of the executive branch.

Reagan's media advisors began by recognizing the changing nature of television news. (CNN, the nation's first 24-hour all-news cable network, was launched in 1980, the same year Reagan was elected.) Within this changing news environment, only a heavily repeated message had any chance of sticking. Therefore, they scheduled multiple mini-speeches and photo ops around any given issue. The message was constant, but the background images changed, ensuring that the event and the message made a memorable daily appearance on the news.

Reagan's media team also mastered the use of the intentional leak. Intelligence reports were leaked to the press if they supported administration foreign policy objectives. For example, "secret" reports of Soviet and Cuban assistance to Latin American revolutionaries were systematically leaked to reporters in order to prepare the American public for Reagan's announcement of military aid to the right-wing government of El Salvador.

And when there was a danger that the press could not be adequately managed, it was excluded. When United States troops invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, toppling the country's leftist military government, the press was not allowed to accompany American forces. Instead, they were provided with daily briefings and Army film and photos to make their reports.

Ultimately, the Iran-Contra Affair proved too large a story for even a media-savvy and popular president to contain. The press, which had been effectively managed or perhaps even manipulated during Reagan's first term, grew more aggressive. But future presidents had learned several valuable lessons. As Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's Press Secretary noted: "There are a lot of people going to school on this administration."13

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