6 Media Training Tips for Former Presidents
Before one of them goes on a book tour to pitch a tome designed to fix their legacy, rewrite history or make themselves feel better, I respectfully suggest our former presidents commit to memory the following guidelines for media interviews:
1. If you are not good at broadcast interviews, don't do them.
2. Remember your mother's advice that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.
3. You still represent the country, so always be gracious.
4. Don't speak ill of the dead.
5. First, do no harm. Secret Service can't deflect cringe questions, so dodge those verbal bullets carefully, not engaging in anything that will cause you, your party or the country unneccessary angst.
6. Take the time to prepare for the interview, including studying the anchor points you want to convey and the sound bites you wouldn't mind splashed across the media and the blogosphere.
Based on my recent viewing, former President Bill Clinton definitely got this message. It is no surprise, as communications always has been his forte. But an earlier former president, Jimmy Carter, clearly did not and has stumbled badly recently during what appears to be a book tour to promote his White House Diary.
An example was his exchange with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes recently where she read a passage to him from his book in which he castigates the late Senator Ted Kennedy for his role in blocking health care reform. He laughed when Stahl read the passage that described Kennedy's "irresponsible, abusive attitude" and then added, "It was his fault. Ted Kennedy killed the bill. He did not want to see me having a major success in that realm of American life."
Whenever someone has to restate a quote they made on camera, you know they didn’t prepare well. Former President Carter's interview with Brian Williams on MSNBC last week is a case in point. Williams showed him a photo of the living former presidents, in which Carter was off to the right of the camera, separate from the others. He asked him, "Do you feel listened to, that you received your due or do you feel apart from the crowd?"
Carter's response was, "I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents, partly because of the activism and injection of working of the Carter Center into international affairs and, in some cases, domestics affairs such as energy conservation and the environment. The Carter Center, under my leadership, is filling a vacuum in the world."
Later in the day, Carter issued this statement: "What I meant was for 27 years the Carter Center has provided me with superior opportunities to do good."
If he had read the tips above, he would have said that in the first place, much like former President Clinton did in a September 23 interview with Katie Couric about his Global Summit. He focused mainly on the issues his group addresses and rattled off statistics of the accomplishments to date -- something that would have helped Carter make his point much less contentiously and more credibly.
Clinton definitely knows how to dodge the cringe questions and remain gracious. In answer to Katie Couric's question whether things in this country would be different if Hillary Clinton had been elected, he quietly and soberly responded: "It is impossible to know. Both the president and Congress have done a better job than they have gotten credit for."
Demonstrating his prowess at sound-bites and analogies, Clinton's response to the question about whether the upcoming midterm elections will be a bloodbath for Democrats, Clinton said first that "it depends whether it will be a choice or a referendum. If it is a referendum, I think we will do quite well." He then went on to say, "This is crazy. They had eight long years to dig this hole. The Democrats had 21 months to dig out of their hole."
And if you wonder how the former presidents Bush are adhering to the rules above, I'd say they definitely are. At least in recent months (actually at least the past year for President George H. W. Bush), they have not done any broadcast interviews, possibly because they don't see the upside or recognize it is not their best medium. The only recent broadcast example I could find for the younger former President Bush was the public service announcement he and former President Clinton did this past March to ask Americans to continue to help the people of Haiti.
Yes, even former Presidents need to prepare well for interviews lest their efforts to set the record straight to solidify a positive legacy backfire into the stuff of SNL skits and ridicule.