White House Message Meetings

I am reading David Kuo’s book, Tempting Faith. It is an entertaining read. Kuo is up and down like a dunny seat – running from radicalisation to depression to radicalisation again and then back to depression – but he is a good writer. It is also rare in that it is one of the first-person insider books to come out of the Administration. Paul O’Neill’s book was written by Ron Suskind and was disembodied for it. Kuo writes in his book of the “message meetings”;

… but before I 1 could she 2 whispered, “Well, you are sitting in the most important meeting the White House holds.”

“What is it?” I asked quietly.

“It is the ‘message meeting’. Every decision is based on the message. Watch, you’ll see.”

There has been some reporting on message meetings. In the run up to the Iraq War, Australian and British aides consulted in Washington, DC so that all three leaders would be ‘on message’. It has also been reported that every Wednesday in DC, aides from representatives, thinktanks, and conservative writers, such as Robert Novak, would meet to ensure they were all ‘on message’.

David Kuo describes the White House message meetings in detail. This is the first time I have seen the Administration’s media management in detail;

“‘Message’ as it was called in White House parlance, was all about the White House’s public face. The White House was intent on driving the news. It wanted to dictate what everyone was talking about an in what terms.

If the White House wanted to focus on education, for instance, the day’s first events might be at a suburban school to highlight how students’ test scores have improved because of a focus on basics like writing or arithmetic. The president might sit down with the students and help them with their classwork.

By doing this, the White House tried to ensure that news coverage would be not only about education in general but about teaching fundamentals in particular.

The White House communications shop would email a synopsis of the event to media outlets, along with a small fact sheet. They would also send talking points to friendly pundits, policy makers, lobbyists, and congressmen and their staffers, so thet they would be saying the right things in the right way if they were interviewed.

None of this is really new knowledge. The talking points being spread and disseminated widely had been known for a while. The difference is the White House’s ability to incorporate some many influential media makers and speakers into this program – including the Prime Minister of Australia.

Kuo continues;

The message meeting was aimed at co-ordinating all of this, and the main tool was a five-week strategic calendar.

Part of the Administration’s inability to respond to catastrophe may have been structural due to the rigidity of the message calendar. 911 and Katrina were big issues for them and their response was pretty woeful in the early stages. By katrina they had largely lost the American population, and 911 required several days before the White House knew how to respond in a meaningful way in the media. This highly procedural and structural manner of the White House’s manner may well have been a reason behind their inability to govern in the face of disaster.

Each page showed a week running Sunday through Saturday, with each day’s public events laid out. There could be as many as seven or eight events per day though typically there were three to five. Eachh day, one event was usually highlighted and coordinated with the ‘message of the day’, which was shown in a special box. One week, for instance, might include two days devoted to the economy, one day on homeland security, another on energy, and one on education.

This proactive media strategy was ingenious – unless it was derailed by something unexpected such as Senator Jefford’s defection (Kuo is detailing his presence in the meeting in 2000). When those things occurred, the debate was between those who believed the message of the day still trump something happening on the outside and those who believed the message needed to be scrapped and outside issues addressed.

That is significant; and may point to an arrogance in the belief of being able to control the media despite outside news or media happenings intruding on the news cycle.

One senior West Wing friend said to me early on that it was ‘policy for the media, not media on the policy.’ In many areas – particularly in domestic policy – this White House didn’t exist to advance a certain philosophicl agenda. It existed to advance a positive public perception of the president and itself.

It wasn’t putting the cart before the horse, it was making sure the cart and horse were under television lights, gleaming, happy, and smiling.

In Suskind’s book detailing O’Neill’s experiences in the Administration, O’Neill professed horror at the policy formulating process. In previous Administrations that O’Neill had served in, the normal process was to create public policy, then determine how to sell it politically. O’Neill told Suskind that the Bush Administration did it the other way around, making policy fit the electoral sell. This may also be the influence of the ‘message meeting’ in that even public policy has to fit the message.

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17 years ago

Kuo was interviewed on Newshour the US Public Broadcasting Service channel (SBS wed 25). As a committed christian and the number two in the Office of Faith Based & Community Initiatives his idealism that the Bush White House meant what it said or ‘stayed on message’ took a real nose dive. Large amounts of money were allocated but Kuo said none was ever spent and the whole thing was a complete facade. It would be revealing to see if similar facades operate out of Howard’s Canberra.