Related News

Home » Feature

White House backdrop a fine art

CHOREOGRAPHYING a US president's public appearances and statements from the White House is tricky. Different venues send different messages. Mark S. Smith reports.

When President Barack Obama addressed America from the Oval Office for the first time, Americans knew in an instant the Gulf oil spill had become a full-blown crisis.

His speech during television's prime-time period, in a setting that bespeaks the power of the presidency, telegraphed a vital message: The spill is huge, but I'm on it.

The president's house is filled with iconic backdrops - the gilt-trimmed East Room, the verdant Rose Garden, the stately Grand Foyer, to name just a few - and Obama has employed them all carefully to communicate with a public that still is making up its mind about how he is doing in his job.

Choosing among these settings is an art, as much as a science. Each venue has its aesthetic, as well as political, pros and cons.

To those who manage the optics of presidential appearances, the White House is a mansion with a message.

"Every room within the White House tells a story," says Daniella Gibbs Leger, who directs the choices for Obama. "We've used pretty much every nook and cranny. It's all wonderful. It's all rich in history. It all looks great."

Take the East Room, the mansion's largest, where Abigail Adams hung her wash, Abraham Lincoln's body lay in state and cellist Pablo Casals played for the Kennedys. Most Americans know it for state dinners, bill signings and news conferences.

"It's really the most formal you can get, particularly if you're doing a nighttime news conference," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University and author of the book "Managing the President's Message: The White House Communications Operation." "That's what I think of as the political high-wire act."

Obama's first such news conference, in February 2009, drew an estimated 49 million viewers. "When you do that, you don't want to waste their time," says Kumar. "You're there to tell them something important, and you're going to use all the trappings of the presidency to do it."

Yet after an initial flurry, Obama - like other recent presidents - has mostly shunned prime time in the East Room. Former President George H.W. Bush found the formality oppressive and held just two such news conferences, preferring to pop into the press briefing room for a seemingly spontaneous chat. His son, Obama's predecessor, did likewise.

"It's a much more intimate setting," says Scott Sforza, who directed White House event-staging under the younger Bush. "He enjoyed the back and forth, and in most other locations you can't be as close to the press as in the briefing room."

The East Room was the setting for the very first news conference, held by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. But modern presidents also have held them in the Rose Garden and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door in the White House complex.

Nowadays, the Rose Garden is an all-purpose locale. Obama has used it to issue proclamations, offer reaction to world events and hold receptions. His predecessor gave war updates and pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys there. Both would step into the garden from the adjacent Oval Office to describe talks with foreign leaders.

"It does give the message to people that an important meeting has just taken place, and now you're going to see the results," Sforza says.

Coveted destination

Some presidents spent too much time there. Gerald Ford, unsuccessfully seeking re-election in 1976, pursued a so-called "Rose Garden strategy" in which he stressed his leadership and avoided the voters until October, just weeks before the election. The Rose Garden holds a bitter memory for Bill Clinton: He appeared there, head bowed, after the House impeached him.

As for the Oval Office, it remains a coveted destination for foreign leaders, who sit opposite the president in front of its famous fireplace. Other meetings, public and private, take place there, with lawmakers, generals and captains of industry.

As a speech venue, however, the Oval Office can seem too stilted. Despite juggling two wars, a deep recession and a huge policy fight over health care, Obama so far has given his only prime-time speech there about the oil spill.

Recent presidents have turned to other venues for matters of war and peace. Obama announced his Afghanistan troop surge at the US Military Academy at West Point. Bush spoke on his Iraq surge from the White House library.

And for his post-September 11, 2001, speech on the invasion of Afghanistan, Bush chose the Treaty Room, on the White House's second floor, because its windows gave a view of the bustling traffic on Constitution Avenue. The visual cue: America is far from hunkered down.

"Presidents often are not comfortable seated in the Oval Office. They tend to look stiff," Kumar says.

Surprisingly often, the choice of setting comes down to logistics.

If a big audience is expected, that pretty much dictates the East Room, the Rose Garden or, for the biggest crowds, the large South Lawn.

Timing is a consideration. Using the Grand Foyer blocks White House tours, so events there often are held late in the day.

Sometimes, the goal is a visual change of pace in an era of nonstop news coverage.

Other times, the goal is minimizing setup time for lights and cameras. For brief remarks, one top venue is a lectern on the South grounds, between the Oval Office and the Marine One helicopter waiting to take Obama out of town. On occasion, location is dictated by what the president wants to avoid: questions.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend