The Age of Optics, from Clinton to Trump
Armed with a menagerie of images and videos that make people stop, think and reflect, the man who helped shape the unique brand of Bill Clinton's political stagecraft brings audiences on a multi-media guided tour through the Age of Optics, ultimately leading to the election of Donald Trump. The stops on King's tour will be immediately familiar to many: Dukakis and the tank, Bush and the supermarket scanner, the Dean Scream, "Mission Accomplished" on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. But the real stories King shares behind those moments and images, and how the media fed them to the public, help to explain why, when Donald Trump descended his escalator to launch his campaign, the clock began to tick on his ascendancy to the White House. King's talk pulls back the curtain on Campaign 2016 and lays out a road map for candidates in 2020 and beyond who aspire to the highest office in the land.
In his fourth-grade halloween celebration in elementary school in Newton, Mass., Josh King came to class dressed as Patrick Henry. “‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ was more memorable than ‘trick or treat’,” he said.
Josh graduated from Swarthmore College in 1987 and moved to Washington, D.C. to work on the presidential campaign of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon. He became director of scheduling and advance for Simon’s New Hampshire primary campaign because, he says, “as a New England kid, I knew the difference between Interstate 89, which led to Dartmouth, and Interstate 93, which led to Dixville Notch.” When Simon’s campaign folded, Josh joined the the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign and advanced his first political events west of the Connecticut River. He was not responsible for “Dukakis in the tank,” but he did chronicle the debacle in a 2013 article in POLITICO magazine.
After Dukakis’s defeat at the hands of George H.W. Bush, Josh moved to the Caribbean, marketing the then-nascent technology of cellular phones in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. He worked for a startup called Boatphone, which was spreading throughout the Eastern Caribbean. When Hurricane Hugo hit the island in September, 1989, he used one of the few operating phones in the BVI to give CBS Radio a first-person account of the havoc wrought by the storm. Recounting the images of uprooted palm trees blowing across crumbling roads in nearly 150-mph gusts, a CBS producer told him he didn’t have to worry about being compared to Dan Rather.
Josh returned to political stagecraft in 1991, working on the presidential campaign of Sen. Bob Kerrey then joining Governor Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992. It was working across the U.S. in the summer and fall during Clinton’s campaign against President Bush and H. Ross Perot that tagged Josh as a big event guy with an eye for the visual. When Clinton became the 42nd President of the United States, Josh served in the White House as one of the president’s schedulers before being appointed director of production for presidential events in 1993. His unofficial tally of places visited during the Clinton Years: 48 states (sorry, Mississippi and Nebraska) and 40 countries around the world.
Josh left the White House in late 1997 to produce a pilot for Lifetime Television called West Wing that he created with writing partner Robert Wells. The pilot was shot in Toronto in 1998 starring Annbeth Gish as a Deputy White House Press Secretary and Marcia Cross as her network correspondent nemesis. Screened only by network suits, focus group participants and a few proud parents, the episode never aired, losing a testing bake-off to Any Day Now, which starred Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussant and enjoyed an 88-episode run on Lifetime from 1998 to 2002. When Aaron Sorkin’s masterful The West Wing debuted on NBC in the 1999 fall season, Lifetime’s attempted entry into Washington-based television drama quickly became a forgotten footnote. A single writing credit on NBC’s American Dreams is the lone vestige of a short-lived Hollywood career.
Josh’s writing on political stagecraft has appeared in POLITICO magazine, Men’s Vogue, Variety, the Washington Post and Brill’s Content. He has appeared on the BBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, National Public Radio and XM Sirius Satellite Radio. He outlined the Polioptocs lecture in the summer of 2009 and continues to offer it occasionally as a hobby. Josh’s book, a survey of what he calls “The Age of Optics” entitled Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle and Political Suicide (St. Martin Press, April 2016), is a serious meditation on the intersection of how candidates tell their stories and how the media covers them.