earlier times podium messaging was such an afterthought that host hotels could
get away with using it for a free plug like Waldorf Astoria. Now, even with billion-dollar
budgets for paid campaign advertising, candidates seem more determined than ever
to leverage their lecterns.
When June’s employment figures were announced, for example, the first reaction
from candidates came not from their lips but from their podium signs. Mr. Obama,
addressing an audience in Ohio, stood at a podium on which was written: Betting
on America. Mr. Romney, who spoke while on vacation in New Hampshire, had the
foresight to bring along the lectern sign: Putting Jobs First.
I looked at news photos going back 75 years and found little evidence of messages
on podiums in presidential campaigns until Obama-McCain in 2008. The Obama forces
used variations of Change We Can Believe In, while the McCain camp favored Country
In the ’12 campaign, neither candidate would dare speak with his podium
bare. Mr. Romney started out in December with the lectern message: Believe In
America. Then, at a drywall factory in Ohio he stood behind the placard, Obama
Isn’t Working. By April, as his primary wins piled up, Mr. Romney’s
podium message read: A Better America Begins Tonight. In smaller communities
he went with the sign: Every Town Counts.
A sitting president has the option of using the presidential seal on the podium,
or replacing it with a campaign message. The Obama team tried the single word
Forward as its podium slogan, but recently Vice President Joe Biden has been
using a lectern sign that says, Strengthening the Middle Class. The beauty of
these podium signs is that they almost always appear in video clips and still
photos taken at the events. No matter how aggressively editors slice and dice
the footage, the candidate’s core message remains plastered right there
on the podium.
Some podium-watching pundits said Mr. Obama’s staff went a bit too far
after the 2008 election by creating the never-before-seen sign: Office of the
President Elect. It prompted The Weekly Standard to write that Mr. Obama had
violated “18 USC Sec. 713,” which has something to do with defacing
a presidential seal.
One problem with podium signs is that their messages live on in photos long
after a campaign has been dismantled. In one lingering shot taken the night of
the Florida primary, Newt Gingrich stands at a lectern on which a quickie sign
has been posted: 46 States to Go. Then, too, podium signage occasionally has
a mind of its own. In 2010 President Obama was delivering a speech at a women’s
conference when the presidential seal fell off the lectern and clanked onto the
platform. Laughing, the President assured the crowd, “That’s all
right, all of you know who I am.”
What’s next in podium technology? Perhaps campaigns will turn to portable
digital displays that can be easily fastened to a lectern, allowing aides to
key in messages that change as the candidate speaks. Audiences would then be
treated to the same inane process that cable channels favor – restating
what was said a minute or two earlier as a bullet point, such as, Romney: I’ll
Repeal Obamacare on Day One.
In the broader sense, lectern messaging is just another reflection of nonstop
efforts to squeeze promotion into every campaign cranny.
Pitch lines are tweeted, emailed and posted on Facebook at a frenetic pace.
This messaging overdose creates an information blur, which in turn creates the
need for more messaging.
As with all sloganeering, podium placards add little to campaigns other than
superficiality. Believe in America has about as much political meaning as, say,
I Like Ike.
Of course, having discovered the value of such messages, why should a campaign
limit its options? Maybe the most honest podium placard for both candidates would
simply be: This Space For Rent.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was first published by The New York Times.