“I … had the responsibility to show resolve. I had to show the American people the resolve of a commander in chief that was going to do whatever it took to win. No yielding. No equivocation. No, you know, lawyering this thing to death, that we’re after them.”
—George W. Bush, on addressing the American people about terrorism
He [George W. Bush] stays on message, and I think that really matters more than anything else. He seemingly does not tire of saying the same thing over and over and over again. If you ask me what time it is, I’m likely to tell you about the history of timekeeping and clock making, about the manufacture of timepieces and other forms of measurement, about the kinds of regulation put in place by the government. If you ask George Bush what time it is, he’ll say, “I think Americans have the right to bear arms.”
—Former Texas Governor Ann Richards
It is one thing to have a strategy. It is quite another to convince others to follow it. There isn’t anyone in politics who doesn’t believe fiercely that their way is the right way (and sometimes the only way). Without the ability to persuade the key players—members of Congress, citizens, even reporters—that his way is the right path, the president risks being just one voice in a noisy chorus. To do that requires a clear message, great skill in delivering it, and the knack of keeping the message on track.
Presidents rarely speak directly to the American public. Prime-time television appearances, like Bush’s speech on the evening of September 11 and his State of the Union addresses, are rare. Television executives are wary of surrendering valuable prime-time slots (and prime-time advertising) for presidential puff pieces, and presidents hoard their capital with broadcasters until they need to use it.
Even more important, however, is that the president communicates indirectly, with most of the public, most of the time. Today, people get their news in a myriad of ways, from the Internet to cable news shows to the network evening newscasts. However, some get all of their news from David Letterman and Jay Leno, albeit with a whimsical spin. Some people—though a declining number—still read newspapers. In each case, editors, writers, and producers decide what’s news, how to portray it, and what people will see and hear. And, to complicate matters even more, presidents have to compete with endless distractions, from increasingly hectic work schedules to soccer schedules for the kids. What’s important is this: Strategies are worthless unless the message gets out.