Bob McDonnell, Human Wallpaper & the Stagecraft of the Response to the State of the Union

Bob McDonnellAs I watch the response to the State of the Union address, I cannot help but notice that Virginia's new governor, Bob McDonnell, in his response to the President's speech, has continued the George W. Bush PR stagecraft in setting the scene for his remarks. Like tokens, he has four supporters strategically positioned behind him to fit in the television screen: an African American woman, a white male soldier, an Asian man, and a young woman.

And, "of course," the Virginia statehouse is packed with supporters who applaud at his every applause line, almost on cue.

I've seen this before. In speech after speech, President George W. Bush's handlers ensured that he spoke primarily to friendly, cheering audiences, with people standing behind him. Get it? Standing behind him. It's great stagecraft, but it's stagecraft just the same, and while both parties do it from time to time for events, it seems misleading in some instances, and unfitting for the State of the Union address.

It's not that there is not racial or gender diversity within the ranks of both parties. There is, although not to the same degree. Of course, it was plain from the video of the actual Members of Congress in the Capitol, that the elected quarters of the respondents are largely older white guys. Not that I have anything against older white guys -- my dad was one of them. It's just that the diversity behind McDonnell isn't actually representative of the party.

I guess what really bothers me is how misleading this "human wallpaper" is. The most egregious example -- leaving aside actual campaign appearances versus governing situations -- was during Hurricane Katrina. You probably recall that after the disaster struck, Americans from all over the country volunteered to help, driving and flying in from every state. At one point, President George W. Bush and his stage-crafters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stopped 50 firefighters from traveling to New Orleans to help people in need so they could appear in his photo op.  (The story was first reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, which noted: "As specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.")  I remember my shock and anger that he would use these first responders as props, when they were urgently needed to help save people from drowning or dying in the aftermath of the levees breaking.

While it's not the same, tonight's response brought back those memories of image versus substance, and the idea that reality can be papered over with photos that distort the truth on the ground. The notion is disturbing that firefighters or minorities or insert-your-target-audience-here just serve as props for politicians. The fact that such imagery works is because a picture is worth a thousand words.

In some ways, it's a small thing compared to the challenges our country faces, but in some ways it's representative of a bigger thing: It's a kind of lie, and certainly a propaganda technique.

It's true that presidents of both parties have traditionally given their remarks with the leaders of the Senate and House seated behind them. Sometimes that has meant applause from behind and at other times it has meant cold silence, depending on which party had a majority in each house of Congress. I'm not lamenting that  President Obama could not  choose who sat behind him at his annual address. I would lament it if this solemn occasion required by the Constitution were turned into just another campaign event through such machinations.

While there is no constitutional requirement of a response from the political minority, it has become a modern TV news tradition. But now, the minority has chosen to make it into just another campaign event, complete with human wallpaper, and that deserves to be called out.


Lisa Graves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is President of the Board of the Center for Media and Democracy and President of True North Research. She is a well-known researcher, writer, and public speaker. Her research and analysis have been cited by every major paper in the country and featured in critically acclaimed books and documentaries, including Ava Du Vernay’s award-winning film, “The 13th,” Bill Moyers’s “United States of ALEC,” and Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously.”



Lisa, you might want to learn some facts before you make a fool of yourself.

Dear Winston: I stand by my observations and critique. The fact that the people chosen work for the Governor or were delighted to sit behind him doesn't change the fact that they were part of the stagecraft of the event. It is distinct from the firefighters kept from the call of duty by President Bush's FEMA stage managers, because at least the group behind Governor McDonnell were willing helpmates to the choregraphy. And, as I made clear in my article, it's not that McDonnell doesn't have any diversity among his supporters. It's clearly a PR tactic though, intended to broadcast a broader diversity as well as a uniformity of support in response to the State of the Union address. So, while I take you at your word that you are concerned, I don't have any qualms about calling out this sort of ostentatious tokenism for what it is.

The white woman in the shot is Janet Polarek, secretary of the commonwealth. Above her is Jim Cheng, secretary of commerce and trade. The soldier is Staff Sargeant Robert Tenpenny, who served with the governor’s daughter Jeanine McDonnell in Iraq. Above him is Lisa Hick-Thomas, secretary of administration. They are members of his cabinet. Your attempts to trash him over this are pathetic. They make you sound like a racist and ignorant partisan who ignores the fact that many important speeches are conducted by governors and presidents with their cabinet surrounding them.

Dear AKW: Thank you for your note, but your insults belong to you. I don't accept them. They are completely false and baseless. Also, I said quite clearly that they were his supporters. But the fact that they are his supporters or that some of them are in his cabinet does not mean that they were not also used as props by the visual planners of the press event. It is unfortunate that you choose to spend your energies attacking the messenger rather than considering whether you have been manipulated by the very sort of stagecraft I fairly and honestly pointed out. As for the substance of his comments, I found them to be disingenous. And, I found his decision to pack the hall with supporters rather than have an audience, like Congress, that is filled with both supporters and opponents to be a sign of great weakness. It's easy to sing to the choir and, with the help of cameras, convey the false impression that everyone agrees with you. It's just the kind of manipulation that Bush and Cheney really specialized in through the kind of events they orchestrated over and over again. It's called propaganda. And, I feel sorry for you that you are unwilling or unable to recognize it. Thank you for sending along the names of the people who were chosen and agreed to be the human backdrop to the governor's little press conference. I'm sure it was an honor for them to be part of this nationally televised event and that they were proud to stand behind their governor. That's one of the allures of power. But, that doesn't make it not PR or proganda to try to convey the false impression of uniformity of support for everything the governor said and the equally false impression of widespread and substantial diversity. The wide camera angle pictures of Congress during the State of the Union, and of the nominating conventions, demonstrates that the latter impression is far from reality. And, the actual political divide as was fairly shown in the State of the Union demonstrates that the former impression the response attempted to created was also false. It was a nice looking show, though, and much better than last year's response. But it was theatre.

Dear Ms. Graves: OK, Gov. McConnell's use of a racially mixed group as a background is mere tokenism by a white male who is guilty. I'm much obliged to you for going to Hell and getting these talking points from Howie Zinn, who is leaning over one of the Devil's sulfur pits, squawking them at the hapless Democrats who believed them on earth, and found out where they led afterwards....What is Gov. McConnell to do? Just have white folks staring adoringly at him? That would really prove he's a racist, as if being a Republican wasn't enough proof for the ochlocrats who are your usual customers. As for packing the galleries, perhaps you missed the shot of The One blasting the Supreme Court with his rhetorical artillery, to a standing ovation from the Democratic zanies surrounding the Justices. That's the way to whip the Wise Latina into line! Denounce her as a rogue on national television, being sure that even she will not sass back in the face of Democratic handclaps. That's showing us the leadership skills that have made The One's health care plan a sure bet to be passed intact with a 59-41 Democrat margin in the Senate and a 256-178 margin in the House! That's the sort of talk to persuade the independents who voted for Scott Brown that they are racist dummies who need to vote correctly in order not to be called racists! Please, keep at these philippics. No talent behind them, but they serve the useful purpose of keeping the ochlocrats reading them anesthetized into thinking that everything's all right, stay the course, ram the iceberg and sink it. They also serve a vital need for amusement for us on the Right in these grim days as the unemployment rate continues to rise, for all the loot The One shovels into the SEIU maw. Whaddaya make of the polls showing Feingold running behind Tommy Thompson in your state? Care to make any bets on what the unemployment rate will be on 25 January 2011? Sincerely yours, Gregory Koster

Dear Mr. Koster: With all due respect, your diatribe is wrong on virtually every point, starting with the fact that the guv's name is McDonnell. And, it goes down hill from there. Talk about empty rhetoric! You unwisely impute ill motives to those who disagree with you. Take the Brown election. I've never said or suggested the view you imply. I think the Democratic candidate ran a poor campaign in countless respects and Brown ran a strong one that made the most of her failings as well as the discontent. It's plain to any rational observer that there is real discontent on the right and there is real discontent among progressives. Have there been racial overtones to some of the rhetoric on the right, at the top and bottom--plainly; but you create a straw man argument when you suggest that those who disagree with you simply stereotype you as a "racist" "dummie." Those are your words, not mine. You own them. I reject them. I do believe that many good people who are upset and worried about our economy are being duped into believing that had the presidential election gone the other way unemployment would be lower and the economy would be humming along. There's zero evidence to support that. The collapse of the economy occurred on Bush's watch and was due in large part to the kind of deregulation, the market knows best delirium that members of both parties to different degrees supported. And the bailout of Wall Street, rather than helping Main Street was the Bush WH response in 2008. Those are the facts. It's not pretty and it doesn't solve the problem. And, Obama's policies haven't solved all these problems he inherited. And, we've been very critical of Geithner's approach and have recommended alternatives that would focus more on rebuilding the economy and putting back common sense rules to prevent the kind of Wall Street gambling that tanked the economy. I've never suggested stay the course, but why let such facts get in the way of your story. And, as I say to my friends who suddenly decided to protest deficits and taxes last April, when they were paying their 2008 tax bill under the tax code defended by the Bush administration, where were you in April or any other month of 2001 to 2008 when the budget surplus Bush inherited was being transformed into a trillion dollar deficit? Before Fox News decided to push this issue in the new administration, having largely looked away when their guy was in the White House. I think people of good will, from all political perspectives, ought to be wary when the corporate media makes it its mission to prey on people's fears and manipulate them with misinformation and half-truths. But that's a conversation for another day. And, it's probably not a conversation with you because your mind is plainly closed. Good luck with that.

<blockquote>"That's the way to whip the Wise Latina into line! Denounce her as a rogue on national television, being sure that even she will not sass back in the face of Democratic handclaps."</blockquote> Huh? In what way did Obama denounce Sotomayor as a rogue? She was one of the four justices who dissented from that decision. Also, thank you for giving me a new word to look up, namely "ochlocrat." It's a beauty; even spell check doesn't recognize it. Could I offer some advice, though? Ostentatiously dragging in a word that so many people have to look up and that turns out to refer to government by the mob, while writing in your general rhetorical style, makes you look like a wannabe elitist. Just sayin'.

I was de-constructing the carefully chosen "props" during his speech and kept waiting for the pundits to shine a light on it during the Pundit Hour. The show I watched PBS never did. A media Literacy approach to watching TV can easily spot the harmful and deceptive manipulation of images. He looked like a Ken doll. A carefully chosen Ken Doll. too funny.