As the firestorm known as Iran Contra began to ebb, a new White House director of communications joined the Reagan team to help rebuild the presidential persona and move beyond what had been a grueling and damaging scandal.
A consummate communications professional, Tom Griscom had been a reporter, Majority Leader Howard Baker’s press secretary and the head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee before landing at a prestigious D.C. public relations firm. That’s when Baker came knocking one more time.
Reagan’s new chief of staff wanted Griscom to help get the White House back on track for the president’s last year. It was a good choice. In a 1987 interview with Steve Roberts for The New York Times, Tom said of Reagan, “If you’ve got somebody that strong who can carry a message and move an issue as much as the President of the United States can, all you’re doing is working with all that he has, and the things he has done for so long.”
Tom Griscom was always a smart operator who understood Washington and the role communications play in the success and failure of political efforts — whether at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., in the Capitol or out on the campaign hustings. He also understood that the man (or woman) “in the arena” drives the message.
There have been a lot of comparisons between President Donald Trump and the “Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan, especially since the passage of the tax reform bill. The two men share a well-earned reputation for connecting with voters in ways most politicians can’t. And their economic policies reflect an understanding of the hopes and dreams of average Americans.
But in terms of communications, that’s where the similarities end.
Reagan, who had great political instincts like Trump, would never have stepped on his own message in the way this president has done over and over again with negative consequences for himself, his agenda and possibly the prospects for his party this fall.
The events last Thursday and Friday were a perfect example. First, Trump met with steel company executives Thursday morning and announced controversial steel tariffs. Big news. Just hours later, before the tariff story had barely made the cable crawl, he teased the White House press corps that something important on North Korea was coming. Bigger news. Later Thursday night, the White House shocked Washington and the world with the announcement that Trump had agreed to meet personally with the leader of North Korea. Supersized news.
Watch: Trump Signs Steel and Aluminum Tariffs
North Korea was so dominant that at 8:30 a.m. Friday, an incredibly positive February jobs report got lost somewhere north of the DMZ. Yet the jobs figure of 313,000 — almost twice what economists were expecting — is far more important to the American people and to the Trump presidency this fall than North Korea, serious as it is.
All of these issues were major news stories with the potential for positive coverage, but Trump didn’t get the credit he would have gotten if the release of these stories had been better managed. If there is such a thing as too much news, this was it.
This inability to deliver a singular message and maintain a news focus has plagued this president and his communications team since Day One, and his own popularity is paying a heavy price. With the economy roaring, jobs and wages rising, ISIS defeated and a tax reform bill passed and gaining approval, clearly his favorability numbers ought to be higher.
Not getting credit
The president has accomplished a great deal in his first year despite a rocky road and a consistently negative media narrative, and he deserves more credit than he’s getting. But as another president said, “The bucks stops here.”
Donald Trump knows how to make news and always has, but he doesn’t know how to sustain a positive issue narrative without stepping on his own message.
Tweeting isn’t the problem. Tweeting is fine if it’s on message, but tweeting rhetorical catnip to grab the morning cable shows only dilutes or even displaces what could be far more positive narratives about the progress of his presidency.
Arguably, Trump’s campaign communication style, tweets and all, helped him win a tough election, and it’s hard to argue with results. But governing is a different animal. Reagan used message to drive big ideas. Trump uses message to control the news cycle, often successfully, but equally often at the expense of his own political image and prospects.
Now the president is about to hire communications director No. 5. Gen. John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, has his work cut out for him — and hiring an experienced communications professional who thinks and executes strategically with a résumé characterized by integrity would go a long way. But only as far as the president is willing to take advice.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.