Speaking to a packed house Tuesday night in the Marvin Center Amphitheatre, a former director of production for the White House recalled photos and images that had the power to ruin politicians and shake the nation.
Joshua King served in the White House from 1993 to 1997, and told the audience Tuesday he sought to blend characters, props and emotions to create appealing images and manipulate how the American people viewed the president.
“Even news stories can be all about the visual we created,” he said, recalling the power of one good photo.
As the director of production, King managed events domestically and abroad and helped modernize the White House projections of the president’s message.
Before going to the White House, he worked in presidential campaigns and has since carved a niche for himself, commenting on media coverage of presidential candidates and the White House for The Washington Post and other magazines and newspapers.
King began his presentation – titled “Polioptics” – by explaining what the word means and how it can affect political careers and history.
“Marry politics with optics, and what do you get? Polioptics,” he said. “This is a talk on images. I’m here to tell you a story on bits of history – [with] mostly images, not words.”
Through a series of slides and video clips, King encouraged his audience to consider bias through images, not words. Politics, he explained, is linked to brand marketing and everything seen on a screen is planned – there is no spontaneity, he said – turning every screen into a canvas for politicians to spread their message.
“Words can kill in polioptics,” King said, using George W. Bush’s televised speech on Iraq in front of a “mission accomplished” banner as an example. “As brilliant as a speech may be, sight may dwarf the text.”
Another infamous gaffe was during the 1988 presidential campaign when Michael Dukakis posed in a military tank, trying to show his toughness on defense issues.
“How is a crowd raised? What is the backdrop? This shit just doesn’t happen. And when it backfires, it can be historically embarrassing,” King said, showing the tank picture, which turned into a fiasco for the Dukakis campaign.
Years on the political scene have turned King into a self-proclaimed “dinosaur,” with, as he put it, “loads of experience,” though he was “born when only two newspapers even mattered.”
King’s tenure at the White House began when Bill Clinton was meeting Pope John Paul II, and King’s predecessor, seeking an aesthetically sound snapshot of the two leaders, pulled a Vatican secretary out of the camera’s way. That move led to the end of the man’s job, and the beginning of King’s.
King also spoke about visuals altering the course of history, using the 2008 election as an example. Throughout the campaign season, he said, the Internet “became a movie theater for Mitt Romney and [Barack] Obama,” and digital videos followed the campaign trail, forever changing election politics.
In 2008, Obama and Hillary Clinton revolutionized presidential candidacy announcements by streaming videos from the comfort of their own living rooms.
“Digital videos made all the difference in the 2008 election,” King said.
Perhaps John McCain’s biggest visual campaigning error, King said, was making a speech in front of a green screen. This made him look physically green, a major drawback for an elderly candidate with a need to project an image of healthiness.
Images can bring about the downfall of campaigns and politicians, but even when they aid in embarrassing gaffes, they are vital to our society, King said.
“Without images, we are blind to atrocities. With them, we are aware,” King added. “May the most powerful image win – like it or not, polioptics is here to stay.”