John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Why Silence can be Golden

Posted on June 24, 2008

This originally appeared in The Ripon Society Magazine in December of 2007

The longest political campaign in history is just now closing in on its official start.  All the Presidential wannabes are furiously trying to get their message out.  They are investing in all forms of media, not certain which one will break through. 

In a campaign atmosphere like this, it may seem ridiculous to preach to the candidates the virtues of virtual silence.  But in this era of the 24-hour cable news cycle, at times, keeping quiet can be an effective strategy.

Theodore Roosevelt once quoted an old Native American saying when talking about his strategy for dealing with Central and South America:  “Speak softly but carry a big stick.”  The modern day equivalent is “speak often and to the biggest audiences.”  But does that strategy always work?  Does it always help to always be in the media spotlight?

I argue that in these times of dripping voter cynicism, letting your opponent stew in the media glare can often be an advantage.  This is especially true when your competition is busy slitting their own throats.  As Napoleon once said, never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Quite often, those in office (and those running for office) seem to be auditioning for the job of pundit rather than public servant.  But there is a big difference between pundit and politician.  Being a pundit means saying whatever you want about any situation.  Being a politician means measuring your words carefully so they have the intended impact on the right audience.

One job fits well in the 24 hour cable news cycle, because there is always a new crisis right around the corner to talk about.  The other job fits uneasily in the spin cycle, because if a politician isn’t careful, the story can get away from them, and they can go from the person spinning the news to the person being spun by the news.

It was my working assumption in the 2006 election that the party who would last be in the spotlight would lose the election.  That assumption proved to be correct, as the Mark Foley scandal shined the light on an ailing Republican Majority, and prevented the GOP from putting the spotlight squarely on the Democrats.

From my experience on the Hill, I observed many instances where overexposure meant political death and where strategic silence proved to be the right strategy.

Newt Gingrich was a perfect example of overexposure, when he swept into power after the 1994 elections.  He thought he could use his newfound fame to drive change.  So he commenced to turn the daily Speaker’s huddle with reporters into a media event.  But with television cameras catching Newt’s every word, the event became a circus, and he quickly had to turn the reigns of the daily briefing to his number two, Dick Armey.

The overexposure of Newt hit its apex when he went to a Sperling breakfast and complained that the President made him walk off the back of Air Force One, after a long trip to the Middle East.  The New York Post ran a front page caricature of Newt, with the headline “Crybaby”.  Newt would never be the same again.

Newt’s continuing troubles with the media caused consternation and frustration among his colleagues, especially his leadership colleagues, so much so that they entertained the idea of toppling him.  The plan backfired when they couldn’t agree on who would replace him.

I was working for Tom DeLay at the time.  He ordered me to keep quiet in the aftermath of the so-called coup.  His silence (and my silence) stretched for a week, as press reports leaked out about the efforts of Dick Armey, Bill Paxon, DeLay and John Boehner to conspire with angry freshman conservatives, who were tired of Newt’s erratic leadership. 

DeLay refused to publicly comment to the media, building up speculation that his future as the Whip was in danger.  DeLay kept his public silence until explaining first to his colleagues in a dramatic conference meeting about his role in the coup.  His public silence only helped him with his colleagues, and as the media acknowledged afterwards, he was the only conspirator to actually survive the coup effort stronger than he was going into it.

Denny Hastert learned well the lessons of overexposure.  When he was sworn in as Speaker, he promised “regular order,” messaging designed to provoke yawns with the national media.  He decided not to do regular briefings with the media, leaving that task to his lieutenants. 

In his first budget showdown with President Clinton, at his direction, I played down expectations of fireworks, explaining to The New York Times, that Hastert “dared to be dull.”  He cultivated the image as a listener more than a Speaker, and showed that he was more of a workhorse than a show horse.  He called the Senate a “bunch of prancing ponies who want to be President,” but largely kept the spotlight off of himself and made stars of his colleagues.  That strategy worked.  He left Congress as the longest-serving Republican Speaker in the history of the House.

Press Secretaries have a natural instinct to want to get their bosses in the news, and many politicians measure their self-worth with the number of press clippings they get.  But the smart leaders see the game of politics much as a card player sees the game of poker.  Keeping your cards close to your chest allows for maximum flexibility.  Showing all your cards gives your opponent the advantage.

The media’s job is to expose the politicians’ hand, and once they see the cards, they focus exclusively on their weakest ones.  And in this era of blog-world and the 24-hour news cycle, the relentless pressure to find the weak cards only increases the more the candidate becomes the pundit. 

Message discipline means keeping the media focused on the high cards.  Feeding the beast means giving the media dirt on the opponents’ weakest cards.  And the best way to win the game is to resist the temptation to become a media pundit.

Calvin Coolidge was the first to make his silence a virtue.  It will be hard for any modern candidate to replicate Silent Cal’s parsimony with words.               

But sometimes the less said, the better.                                                              

John Feehery is a former congressional aide.  He is also the founder and president of The Feehery Group, a boutique advocacy firm that focuses on communications and government affairs strategy

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