State of the State: A colorful way with words helps politicians craft image in this sound bite age
Gov. Rod Blagojevich comes off as a regular guy. He had trouble in school. He’s comfortable making fun of himself.
He’s also comfortable making fun of others. Blagojevich said in early October that Steve Bartman, the notorious Chicago Cubs fan who interfered with a foul ball bound for Cubs left fielder Moises Alou’s glove, wouldn’t get a pardon if he committed a crime.
Perhaps, Blagojevich said, Bartman could get witness protection.
It’s difficult for a skeptical public to divide a pol’s natural tendencies from actions taken for political gain. What is clear, though, is that comments such as this — assuming they resonate in the media, and they usually do — help establish the governor’s link to the public.
The Democrat rode a populist wave to the Executive Mansion last year. And he has not discontinued the practice of juxtaposing himself with unpopular people and images.
During last year’s campaign, he portrayed himself as the candidate of reform and renewal — the antithesis of then-retiring GOP Gov. George Ryan, whose political career was floundering in negative press. Last spring, Blagojevich perpetuated his status as an outsider by routinely holding press conferences in his home town of Chicago to criticize the “insiders” at the Capitol.
“He does try to speak like an ordinary human being, but it’s always at the expense of someone else. And that catches up with you after a while,” says Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. “You can’t dump on everybody. Surely somebody around here has to be good.”
Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk, who, together with Communications Director Cheryle Jackson, is responsible for managing the governor’s image, says the governor is just being himself.
“He doesn’t go to the Cubs games because he wants to be seen going to the Cubs games,” Tusk says. “He goes to the Cubs games because he’s a Cubs fan. And when [reporters] asked him about Steve Bartman and he jokingly said, ‘If he ever commits a crime, he’s not getting a pardon from this governor,’ he spoke as a Cubs fan.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine that aspects of the governor’s speech aren’t part of a strategy to manipulate his public personality. It’s hard to imagine the governor isn’t preoccupied with providing the media with an adequate supply of sound bites when his public statements often are littered with such terms as “reform” and “progressive.”
It's hard to imagine the governor isn't preoccupied with providing the media with an adequate supply of sound bites when his public statements often are littered with such terms as "reform" and "progressive."
Leading politicians work hard to mold their public images. George W. Bush, for instance, actively distanced himself from his Ivy League education and his family’s East Coast connections during his 2000 presidential run. Instead, Bush sought to portray himself as a Texas good ol’ boy.
Politicians study public sentiment and attempt to fashion their images in a favorable light. This is nothing new.
Nevertheless, the motives behind certain of Blagojevich’s public tendencies are mysterious. The most peculiar is his habit of making self-deprecating remarks. And the most prominent instance of that occurred last summer when the governor discussed constitutional concerns relative to legislation.
Blagojevich, a lawyer, repeatedly said he earned a “C” in constitutional law during law school, and indicated he seldom visited the law library.
So is the governor dumbing down his credentials to be more attractive? Tusk says, “We’re probably not that savvy.”
Indeed, the governor clearly loves engaging in conversation. Consider the exchange in early October when Ryan was in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize. A reporter asked Blagojevich: “What are your thoughts about George Ryan and the Nobel Prize? Is he deserving of that? I know you don’t vote, but what are your thoughts?”
Blagojevich hesitated, then asked, “Who’s he running against?”“The Pope,” another reporter said.“I don’t have a vote in that,” the governor responded. “I’d be more inclined to support the Pope. But those are for reasons other than what the right thing to do is. I’m just probably hedging my bets about, you know, the hereafter. So, I’m for the Pope.”
Campaigning, of course, is a natural extension of active conversation.“He obviously likes to campaign,” says former GOP Gov. Jim Thompson, who, like Blagojevich, has a gregarious personality. “And, as I’ve always said, campaigning doesn’t stop when the election is over. You campaign everyday with somebody, whether it’s the legislature, the public, the press, the [interest] groups. And you must to be an effective political leader.”
Blagojevich does just that. As part of his effort to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permit Illinois to purchase prescription drugs from Canada, Blagojevich flew to New York in late October and held a press conference with that city’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Such moves fuel speculation that Blagojevich is governing with an eye toward winning federal office. The State Journal-Register, Springfield’s daily newspaper, covered the event on its front page — with a story dispatched by The New York Times. Tusk says the governor used the only power he has to try to persuade the feds. “Sometimes it takes the bully pulpit to get things done,” he says.Effective communication, in the modern age, necessarily involves the use of the media.
“We do bus tours,” Tusk says. “But even if you hit 14 counties in three days, you’re still meeting a couple thousand people at most. So the only way to communicate with the people is through the media.”
But to reach the public through the media, pols must crunch their message. That means compromising on detail.Dawn Clark Netsch, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University School of Law and former Democratic state comptroller, says this is unfortunate for the public because most policy issues are not conducive to short sound bites. Still, she notes it’s tough for politicians to get media attention. News writers want controversy, and television outlets have precious little time to offer.
Data collected by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and the Alliance for Better Campaigns shows Chicago television stations WLS, WBBM, WMAQ, WFLD and WGN collectively devoted a mere 23 hours, 11 minutes and 36 seconds to coverage of election stories in the month leading up to the November election last year.
“You can’t be completely condemning of the politicians for wanting to try to find a way to tantalize the issue that they are talking about,” Netsch says. “But it does tend to reduce it to simplistic terms much too often.”This can lead to entertainment over substance.
Former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat, notes that when Bob Dole challenged President Bill Clinton in 1996, one of the most widely reported events of the race was Dole falling off a stage at a California campaign stop. This tabloid-style practice concerns Simon. In his latest book, Our Culture of Pandering, he faults leaders of major public institutions for avoiding unpopular decisions and taking the path of least resistance on tough policy issues.
He says the public must demand more substance from the media and public officials. “Don’t go to a physician who tells you just what you want to hear,” he says. “Don’t go to a candidate who tells you just what you want to hear.”
The art of speech
Gov. Rod Blagojevich has a colorful way with words, and an opinion on most anything. Here are some classics.
An emaciated sot, an enervated glutton and an overindulgent whore-master. They never enjoy the things that they indulge in. Instead, those things should be rewards.
Blagojevich in February paraphrasing a passage from Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son to exemplify the “painful process” of resolving the budget deficit.
The most important thing for me is to stay married. And we have another child on the way and college in the future, so we’re not going to do that. It almost sounds gimmicky.
Blagojevich in February on whether he would take a pay cut to save the state money.
One thing’s clear. Those who passed away and didn’t take their vacation surely missed an opportunity.
Blagojevich in March on state workers who took cash for accrued vacation time — as opposed to the time off from work — then died.
I went to law school at a place called Pepperdine. Malibu, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A lot of surfing and movie stars and all the rest. I barely knew where that law library was. So, you’re asking me a constitutional law question. In fact, I got a “C” in constitutional law and I was lucky to get that.
Blagojevich in June on constitutional concerns about certain legislation.
Vacations are a good thing. You should take ’em. It’s a good way to recharge your batteries and energize yourself and get refocused and work harder when you get back, kind of collect your thoughts. It’s a good thing.
Blagojevich in March on whether he would permit his communications director to enjoy all the vacation time allotted to her.
It’s the sort of thing where you take five steps forward then take two steps backwards, then you take two steps forward and three steps backward and four steps forward and two steps backward. If you do the math, we’re making progress.
Blagojevich on Memorial Day describing budget negotiations after meeting with legislative leaders. The governor is correct: The sequence results in four steps forward.
Aaron Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illinois Issues, December 2003