Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Blagojevich Storms Media In Self-Defense Blitz
NPR.org, January 26, 2009 · Tick, tick, tick. That's the sound of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's career about to implode. The besieged Illinois governor is playing with a tricky admixture of self-importance, overexposure and downright showmanship. It may be only a matter of time. Tick, tick, tick. In Springfield on Monday, the state Senate opened an impeachment trial. (The Illinois House voted to impeach him just over two weeks ago.) The governor is accused of abusing his power by, among other charges, attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich says he is not participating in the proceedings because the rules are skewed against him. Instead, he is spending more time in prayerful meditation and hanging out with his family. Just kidding. In truth, he's going on a breakneck TV blitz: the Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, Larry King Live — all in one day! He's stretching his 15 minutes of fame into a couple of hours, minus commercial breaks. He is mounting an all-out "self-defense by public relations onslaught" strategy. When people in the public eye — politicians, actors, sports figures — get in trouble, they usually follow a pattern, says Gary Hoppenstand, who teaches popular culture at Michigan State University. "First they say they are sorry. Then they go to the public to try to gain the sympathy of their audience." Blagojevich, on the other hand, "is being very belligerent, defiant, almost to the point of absurdity," Hoppenstand says. In the past few days, Blagojevich has pointed out similarities between himself and other mistreated heroes, including Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and wrongfully accused cowboys in Hollywood movies. "He is saying that any discussion of character must be carried on in the court of public opinion," Hoppenstand says. "He is trying to bypass the political structure." The irony, Hoppenstand adds, is that Blagojevich is critical of the media for how he is portrayed, but he is using the media nevertheless. A Grandiose Tradition The relentless self-distribution by Blagojevich is the latest episode in a great American tradition — a quest for grace via limelight. Self-help meets self-hype. He's following in a long line of human time bombs — some were found guilty of crimes; others were only accused of or suspected of wrongdoing — whom a mesmerized public watches in mouth-agape disbelief. The prime example is O.J. Simpson. Tried for the 1994 murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman, Simpson was found not guilty. He set out to rehabilitate his reputation by giving interviews and writing a book. When uberhomemaker Martha Stewart was charged with insider trading, she snapped back with a full-page ad in USA Today in 2003 — and a Web site —proclaiming her innocence. Baseball demigod Roger Clemens took to the airwaves in 2008 to deny any involvement with performance-enhancing drugs. Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and others have launched self-promotional blitzes to try to burnish their tarnished images. In trying times, other politicians besides Blagojevich have gone on self-publicity tours to try to hold on to their power. Gary Hart turned to Ted Koppel and Nightline in 1987 to address charges of adultery. Bill Clinton was questioned by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes — after the Super Bowl in 1992 — about accusations of philandering. Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat who had an affair with Chandra Levy, a young Washington intern, was interviewed by Connie Chung about Levy's disappearance in 2001. Public self-defense is not exclusive to the U.S. A few years ago, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was accused of election corruption. Opponents called on her to resign. Instead, she staged a public campaign to maintain her power. From Charming To Alarming Tick, tick, tick. Now Blagojevich is all over television, saying that he considered appointing TV superstar Oprah Winfrey to fill the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. He chose former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris instead and introduced Burris at a news conference that starred — tada! — Blagojevich. Incidentally, Burris himself went on a PR trek to convince a skeptical public that he was the right man for the job. Marina Ein, a Washington-based public relations maven, has handled publicity for celebs and politicians — including Gary Condit — through the years. Asked about Blagojevich, Ein says, "I think what he ought to do is leave gracefully and write the book. He should get a power agent because he has an amazing story to tell. He has been an amazingly charismatic person." When something goes wrong in the lives of people who have outsized personalities, Ein says, "Often the same force of character that made them so charming serves in an exact way to deconstruct them."