Grant D’Avino sought to learn more about political image-making from Joshua King, former Director of Production for Presidential Events during the Clinton administration.
Self-proclaimed political dinosaur Joshua King gave attendees of Wednesday night’s lecture a glimpse into the murky waters of modern political image-making. He endeavored to help deconstruct the images of politicians seen in media every day.
King began with a concept he terms “polioptics,” the intersection of image and politics. Claiming that humans get about 80% of their sensory information visually, he pointed out that skillfully a manipulated image can make or break an election, if not a politician’s career. King then made a patriotic romp through America’s polioptic history. He traced some of the iconic moments of Americana, all made eternal through image: Washington crossing the Delaware, the American flag being hoisted atop Iwo Jima, and the March on Washington.
King then walked us through his time working in the Clinton White House. Every day, King fought to control the image on the front page of the New York Times. And believe it or not, he often succeeded. He treated the audience to his pencil on graph paper sketches, used to plan for presidential events. The president’s very move was meticulously choreographed, taking into account the precise position of photographers, onlookers and security personnel. One sketch seemed to be little more than a parking lot and softball field covered in hand-drawn arrows. King told the audience how he had asked a few unassuming softball players if they would mind then-Governor Clinton watching them play. Candidate Clinton’s team manufactured uniforms and tickets, and recruited a crowd of 3,000 for what was little more than an afternoon game of softball. Clinton threw out the first pitch and watched the game as one of the crowd. King claims that the image of Clinton as one of the guys helped his image more than the speech he was meant to give ever could have, “Sight will usually dwarf what’s written.”
Next up, we talked fonts. Candidate Obama’s use of Gotham, a bold sans serif typeface originally designed for GQ, his impeccable speeches delivered with the aid of a teleprompter, and the continuity of his visual message were all keys to his success. Of course the Obama campaign’s unprecedented internet presence transitioned nicely into King’s discussion of the way digital media is changing polioptics.
The newspapers King worked so hard to court during his tenure in the White House have become increasingly irrelevant. King himself refers to them as “the now fading business model of ink on crushed trees.” The White House now has its own Flickr photostream and YouTube channel. A screenshot of the White House’s 1996 homepage elicited a “that’s cute” from the girl seated next to your correspondent, and King said “It’s like looking at something designed by Alexander Graham Bell.” The text heavy page draws a stark contrast to the swanky new website of the Obama administration. King ended his lectures with a take-no-prisoners word on polioptics: “May the most powerful image win. Like it or not, polioptics is here to stay.”