A History of the Presidency - New uses of the media

One of the first to use talk television was George H. W. Bush when he was vice president. With unusual skill Bill Clinton took advantage of his articulateness to go one-on-one with ordinary citizens at "town meetings." During his first campaign in 1992, Clinton's playing of a saxophone on a late-night television show appeared to make a favorable impression on many voters by thus dramatizing the message that he belonged to a new generation prepared to innovate. Others were aghast and insisted that such a performance was undignified—not recalling that President Truman once played the piano in the White House with Lauren Bacall, a famous actress, sitting on the lid displaying her shapely legs. In recent campaigns, candidates, especially from the major parties, have arranged to meet so-called focus groups to probe and keep in touch with public opinion. And the constant polling of the citizenry on questions large and small has raised "public opinion" to new heights of importance, even as it appears to diminish the function of the president as "leader." Modern press secretaries have become skilled in massaging the president's words to give them the best possible slant for public consumption. The press secretary is now known informally and critically as "the spinmeister"—the master interpreter.

Most Americans may be only dimly aware that before each press conference presidents are exposed to "dry runs" at which they and their staff collectively attempt to anticipate the issues on the minds and tongues of the media questioners. At these sessions the president and his people fashion answers they deem appropriate—including humorous sallies—hoping thereby to furnish the public with a clarifying or, from time to time, an obfuscating proposition. Where presidents seek to manipulate the media to their advantage, the media representatives strive constantly to draw "a story" out of the chief executive's words. The growth of "24/7" news distribution—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—has made the thirst for breaking news unquenchable.

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