Book review: Off Script by Josh King

Title: Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide

Author: Josh King

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Published: 2016

Version reviewed: Audiobook from Blackstone Audio, read by the author

Politicaldictionary.com defines an advance man as, “A staffer sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of a politician at a campaign rally, media appearance or other large event” (http://politicaldictionary.com/words/advance-man/). In Off Script, advance man Josh King takes the reader through the good, bad, and ugly of presidential advance work in what he calls the Age of Optics, from Michael Dukakis’ failed campaign in 1988 through the early days of the Trump campaign in 2015.

King started his career in advance work with the Dukakis campaign, served as Director of Production for Presidential Events in the White House Office of Communications during most of the Bill Clinton years, and created the Sirius/XM radio show Polioptics. He shares his wealth of experience and war stories in Off Script and lets readers (and voters) go behind the curtain to see how campaign events are scripted and candidate images crafted. Spoiler alert: if you think every move a candidate makes is carefully planned, you’re right. King will show you how and why those plans are made. He will also show you lots of instances when a seemingly small incident had a huge negative impact: Dukakis’ tank ride, George H. W. Bush’s encounter with a supermarket scanner, the Howard Dean scream, and John Kerry’s windsurfing–to name a few. Having followed politics since the late 80s, I’ve often found it disturbing how silly things like these could make or break a campaign for the highest office in the land. King’s book helped me understand why that happens–though I still find it disturbing.

The biggest downside of Off Script is its slow start. King spends the entire first section of the book–at least 2 or 3 hours of the audiobook, maybe more–on Dukakis’ tank ride. Yes, really. It may have been the biggest campaign failure in modern presidential history, but I’m not convinced it warrants that much page time. But if you’re interested in either politics or marketing (and sadly, they’re becoming so intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes), it’s worth persevering through the seemingly-endless tank ride. King’s book will help you understand how optics trump (no pun intended) substance in modern presidential campaigns and therefore make you a more informed–if also possibly more disillusioned–voter.

And if you’re wondering who the heck Dukakis was and what the heck he was doing in a tank, congratulations on not being older than dirt. Here’s a little history lesson, courtesy of Politico:

And here’s the infamous George H. W. Bush campaign ad that effectively ended Dukakis’ chances:

One final note: you’ve probably guessed that King is a Democrat, since he worked for Dukakis and Clinton. In the book, though, he is refreshingly unbiased. He speaks respectfully of presidents and candidates from both parties; if anything, he’s more critical of his own party’s candidates. He shows no partisan intent in Off Script–just the intent to explain and educate.

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