I set up President Clinton

Confessions of an advance man.

Published February 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Seen from the Ferry Terminal, San Francisco's Bay Bridge is gorgeous on a winter's day: The water reflects a luminescent sky, the fishing boats glide by and the bridge connotes strength -- a feat of thinking and doing. Last Thursday morning, nostalgic for my own days of creating political spectacles for Bill Clinton, I watched Sen. Bill Bradley's young advance team set up the press riser and the podium, placing each with precision.

They set up the shot perfectly for Bradley, who was flying in and out specifically for this photo-op; there was no fund-raiser, and no crucial meeting with party big shots. On TV screens around the state, voters were to see a majestic image of Bill Bradley, one that said: I'm honest as a fishing boat, broad and reliable as a bridge, and look, I'm in California!

If only it hadn't rained. The Bradley rally was forced inside a restaurant where cameramen took messy pictures of jumbled bodies. The result? Vice President Al Gore's Los Angeles town hall meeting that day dominated the TV news and next day's papers. Visually quite dull, especially compared to the would-have-been Bradley-Bridge shot, Gore's event was still a cleaner image. I felt sorry for the Bradley advance team. They exist to make candidates look good in the news, and Gore looked better that day only because of the weather.

I was an advance man for President Clinton in the 1996 general election. Through the summer and fall of that year I helped set up political events all over the country for the sake of making Clinton look better than Bob Dole. Local TV news is watched by 86 percent of the American public -- that's 200 million people. And pictures stay with us in a way that printed ideas or anecdotes cannot. Can you picture Teddy Roosevelt, in hat and spectacles, astride a horse in a sepia photograph? Good. Do you remember slope-shouldered Michael Dukakis riding in a tank? Good. Now, what else do you remember about them?

While speech writers weave words into a sound bite, advance teams direct events for just the right "image bite": that defining picture so compelling that TV news producers have to run it. They choose sites, design backdrops, generate crowds and -- most importantly -- place photographers in exactly the right spot. When it's done right, an advance team will turn on the television that evening and see their candidate's image framed exactly as planned. Like the Bradley-Bay Bridge shot, it should be a compelling image, emotionally rich, and representing some notion of what the candidate stands for.

The high-bar test of political advance is this: imagine that all voters are sitting in a bar watching a television set with the sound off. Would five seconds of silent footage deliver the message of the event?

Thanks for the beer, Fred. Oh look, there's that New York Knick -- Bradley. You know, the guy running for president. Yeah, he must be down at the Ferry Terminal. He seems to be doing pretty well.

Three and a half years ago, both Clinton and Dole had major image problems to deal with. I leave aside issues and substance, because I am not personally convinced those things decided that election -- and they are not at all within an advance man's purview.

Dole's image problem was his age. When he fell off that stage, during a campaign stop in California, it was an advance team's Waterloo, an image bite that said, "Dole's old."

Here's how it happened: Dole was leaning over to shake hands after a speech. There was a foot-high colonnade running along the edge of the stage. It looked sturdy, so he leaned his shin against it for support. But it tipped over and he fell because the colonnade was not nailed down -- on purpose, it turns out, because a Secret Service agent worried that a crazed audience member could use it to hoist themselves up on stage. But the advance person responsible should have anticipated Dole might lean against the colonnade when shaking hands, and he should have warned him not to.

I was in Dyersberg, Tenn., the day Dole fell, watching it on television with eight other Clinton advance people. We felt sorry for the person who let it happen. "He'll be on the next plane home," one person said.

I had one near disaster myself, in Minneapolis. I was the "crowd guy," responsible for making sure everyone in town knew Clinton was coming and using volunteer groups to drum up supporters. I had turned out 10,000 people to rallies in Cleveland, Denver and Providence, R.I., so I was already a bit cocky.

The chief advance man on the trip was Nick Friendly, a superb lead-advance and all-around good guy who had also been my lead in Cleveland. The rally had to be indoors because of the cold weather, and I wanted the Target Center, the basketball arena where the Timberwolves play. We looked at it and agreed it would take 12,000 to 15,000 people to make it look full. "No problem," I said. Nick called the White House: "Weed wants the Target Center. He says he can do it ... No, it's OK, Weed will fill it. No problem."

A few hours later, after getting some posters and flyers printed, I caught up with the rest of the team to have dinner with Ted Mondale, the son of the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, who would later become a losing primary candidate for governor of Minnesota in 1998 (he lost to Hubert Humphrey III, who later lost the election to Jesse Ventura).

When I walked in, the room was silent. Everybody stared at their plates. I was introduced to Mondale and sat down next to Nick, who said: "Ted says you'll never do it. Monday evening, we're up against a Vikings game and rush hour. He says 4,000 tops. Do you want to change the venue?"

Had hubris not gotten the better of me, I might have said yes. Here a political scion of the state was giving me fair warning -- I was courting disaster, 4,000 people in that arena would have been laughable. But I had seen how many people the president could turn out when properly publicized. And I immediately decided that I did not like this stranger. He had the same handsome lack of charisma of his father, and seemed even more dour. So I insisted I could fill the Target Center. And I spent a worried, sleepless week rallying unions and universities to get out the word and generate a buzz about the president coming to town.

Crowd estimates were as high as 14,000. I handed every member of the crowd a large poster that said "Clinton-Gore: You Betcha!" around a silhouette of Minnesota (Friendly's idea), and a group of women did something wonderful. They ripped out the Minnesota on their posters and put their faces in the hole: They wore my posters. Above their heads it said, "Clinton-Gore," and under their chins it said, "You Betcha!" The idea caught on, and soon lots of people in the crowd wore the posters on their faces. The image bite on television and in the papers was: Minnesotans love Clinton -- and, yes, look how many turned out to greet him.

Nick Friendly congratulated me heartily, and I believe that his good words about me put me on the roster of advance people qualified to do international advance during Clinton's second term. I saw Ted Mondale at the rally, but he didn't say anything to me.

One-time successes and failures don't necessarily add up to too much. What's important is a barrage of fine-tuned image bites consistent enough to sway the way people think about a candidate. The populist crowd rallies we staged went a long way to reinforcing the sense that Clinton had a broad base of popularity.

Dole's fall didn't hurt him as much as the consistently boring advancing of his rallies. Most pictures of Dole events had him on stage with about a dozen old white people. Any cameraman will tell you that faces make memorable television, and Dole's pictures left the impression that he had only one constituency.

His advance team was uncreative about backdrops, and even less creative with crowd shots. They handed out little yellow circles that said "15%," the size of his proposed tax cut. But while 15 percent is a good statistic for print reporters, on television it is a dead symbol. With no context or meaning, it's purely a distraction.

Hey Fred, there's Dole. Why is he in an empty warehouse? What does 15 percent mean, anyway?

Advance teams have responsibilities beyond the image bite: they are the liaison to local politicians, unions and civic groups, whom they must appease when they are in town for the five or so days before the candidate shows up. They must run the logistics of rallies, such as security, refreshments, entertainment and toilets. These last items are incredibly important if your candidate is chronically late -- like Clinton.

Once, in Maine, I got word that he was two hours late to an evening rally that had drawn a large number of families with children. I went to my rental car, got out a box of what we call "chum" -- presidential M&Ms, little postcards of Socks the cat, Clinton key chains, etc. -- and started handing them out to 5-year-olds. That kept most kids from complaining and most families from leaving.

Advance teams must also deal responsibly with protesters. Our tactic was a classic counter-protester tool, which we called the "goon squad." At that same rally in Maine, a group of 20 Dole supporters with signs appeared in the bleachers behind the press riser. They started chanting, yelling and exhausting themselves well before the press arrived from the airport with the president. When I got word that he was close to arriving, I assembled the goons, a group of 40 locals -- mostly beefy union men. Under strict instructions not to engage the protesters directly, the goon squad surrounded them with larger signs and louder voices. The president and the press showed up, and the press never saw the protest going on right behind them.

I was often asked what the Clintons were like in these situations. I guided them through events during that campaign and also subsequent trips to Africa, China, the Philippines, Russia and Argentina. The answer is simple: They are professionals. There is no time in these moments -- just before they step into the public eye as president and first lady of the United States -- for small talk. They listen to you, they ask logistical questions if they have them, they thank you; and then, now that your job is done, they go onstage to do theirs.

Helping out the administration's traveling staff, more often than not, means appeasing their whims and being the first person on hand to blame when they're mad. Their schedule is grueling. They work as hard as the president, but they don't get the comfy seats on the plane and they are always tired. I have been yelled at for not putting oranges in the traveling staff office -- even though I put out bananas, pears and apples. I once saw a colleague take a verbal beating from a young female staffer because the staff lavatory was 100 yards away from the staff room, though he was in no way responsible for the building's architecture.

For all these chores, during a campaign, the image bite is the most important advance responsibility. You can piss off a member of the traveling staff and survive. You cannot blow an image bite for the candidate. Image bites win elections.

With varying degrees of experience in their advance teams, Bradley, Bush, Gore and McCain now strive to present themselves through TV and print images to the vast number of voters who will cast ballots on March 7 -- Titanic Tuesday. Now that the New Hampshire primary has put a real race in the nation's hands, it's up to each advance team to set up a candidate's money shots -- or watch him take a dive.

By William Speed Weed

William Speed Weed is a freelance writer and radio producer living in San Francisco.

MORE FROM William Speed Weed

Related Topics ------------------------------------------