Thursday, April 07, 2005

Politics, Television and Reality
Politics, Television and Reality

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - - Michael Sheehan is standing in front of a packed room of Harvard students looking into a video camera.

On a TV off to the side, we see the live picture of Michael Sheehan.

"Don't look at the TV; look at me," Sheehan tells the students. "When I get a good, neutral expression on my face, I will freeze the picture."

We all look at him. He arranges his face until he has a nice, neutral, perfectly acceptable expression on his face. He looks neither happy nor sad.

He freezes the picture.

Then we look at the TV screen. There is a shocking difference.

Even though Sheehan looked fine in person, he looks very glum, even angry on TV. How can this be? Can TV alter reality?

Go ask Howard Dean about his scream.

Sheehan, a Yale School of Drama graduate, now charges up to $15,000 per day (the Harvard students, who may run for public office some day, were getting Sheehan's advice for free) to teach politicians and corporate big shots how to use TV to their advantage, instead of letting TV alter their reality.

He is very, very good at what he does. But like all great teachers, great students bring out his best. The year was 1996 and incumbent President Bill Clinton was prepping for his first presidential debate with Republican candidate Bob Dole. This is from my book on that year's campaign, called "Show Time. " The setting is the Chautauqua Institution, a 750-acre retreat in the countryside about 60 miles southwest of Buffalo:

Michael Sheehan crouched by the videotape machine, making small notes on a pad. Bill Clinton stood on the stage, behind the lectern, beneath blazing lights, answering questions. Sometimes Sheehan noted on his pad when the president had made a good comment or a bad one, but he often made notes merely about Clinton's gestures or the expression on Clinton's face, whether his lip curled or his forehead crinkled. Or simply how Clinton stood.

George Stephanopoulos joined Sheehan at the tape machine, watching Clinton on the monitor rather than watching the live Clinton who was standing just a few yards away. How it looked on TV is what mattered, not what it looked like in real life.

Sometimes, Clinton would come down from the lectern and stand over Stephanopoulos and Sheehan and say, "Show me."

And Sheehan would roll back the tape and say, "Be careful of your reaction at the end" or "That looks good, keep that." And Clinton would nod and make a mental note.

At the second debate, which would be a town-meeting format, Clinton would be able to move around on the set a lot and Sheehan carefully prepped Clinton to move toward Dole because he knew Dole would find it disconcerting, even threatening. "I wanted Dole to hear the pitter-patter of his feet," Sheehan told me later. But for the first debate, the two would remain relatively stationary. Or at least that's how Bob Dole viewed it.

To Sheehan, TV presentations were almost always about movement. The movement was not always obvious to the participants, but it could have a huge effect on the viewer. "We scripted Clinton's moves in all the right places," Sheehan said. "We told him how to perch behind the lectern and how to use reaction shots."

"When he goes negative on you," Sheehan told Clinton, "have no reaction at all. None."

"Don't worry," a Clinton aide interrupted. "They can't use reaction shots. Both sides have agreed." Heads nodded around the room.

"You're all nuts!" Sheehan shouted. "And I'm going to quit if we don't practice for reaction shots right now!"

His fellow preppers were shocked. Sheehan was a mild-mannered, entertaining person. He didn't shout. But he was shouting now. After they calmed Sheehan down, Clinton practiced some reaction shots for him. "You listen to Dole with a cocked ear when he attacks you," Sheehan said. "When you are attacked, just jot it down. To react to the attack is to reinforce the attack."

And even though the two were not supposed to move about the stage, Sheehan worked out with Clinton exactly when he was to step inside the lectern and when to step outside the lectern at the first debate.

But didn't this all get very complicated? I asked Sheehan afterwards. Clinton had to worry about what he was saying, what Dole was saying, what his facial expressions should be, how to move, how to gesture. Wasn't that an awful lot to absorb?

"That's why we went through it so much," Sheehan said. "It was an organized, coherent, rational process."

Later, Sheehan said that Clinton was like an "improvisational actor," which is an actor who immerses himself in his role, becomes his role. "You feel the part, and you see what comes out," Sheehan said.

Some people thought Clinton was such a success on the campaign trail because he was a "natural" or "born" campaigner. But Sheehan knew how hard Clinton worked at it.

"For me," Sheehan once told me "working with Clinton is like Kazan getting to work with Brando."

Sheehan finished with the Harvard kids and prepared to fly back to Washington. The 2008 presidential election is not very far away and potential candidates are already calling him.

originally published April 06, 2005