Image Source: Dirck Halstead
The inner workings of politics have ceased to be inner in 2016. Social media and 24-hour cable news networks feed us more details on political campaigns than we ever knew we wanted. Via documentaries like The War Room and The Circus and fictional albeit realistic-enough TV shows including House of Cards and Veep, voters might think we know every behind-the-scenes secret about Capitol Hill. But one political profession remains shrouded in relative mystery: the "advance" team.
"The existence of this world has only been passed down through clans and cliques."
Advance people specialize in the art of stagecraft that governs every public appearance, photo op, and televised moment in politics — often referred to as "the optics" of events. "Advance men" (as they were called in the early days, when they were pretty much all men) are the protectors of a candidate's image. They travel ahead of every public appearance, set the stage for the most memorable photos with the perfect lighting and backdrops, and do their best to anticipate and prevent any potential issues. They also ensure that candidates and politicians live within a carefully curated bubble, that they never arrive anywhere that isn't perfectly prepped.
In the book Off Script: An Advance Man's Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide, advance man Josh King tells the modern history of political orchestration, from 1988 to the present. The former director of production for presidential events under Bill Clinton, King has orchestrated countless media moments for candidates and officeholders throughout the years, and his witty and remarkably bipartisan book details backstories from a dozen campaigns, both Democrat and Republican. It's packed with anecdotes from both King's career and those of his colleagues, both the triumphs and the utter failures.
Image Source: Courtesy of Bill Clinton
In a recent interview with POPSUGAR, King put it more playfully: "What advance people do for candidates is very similar to what roadies do for traveling shows or what a motion picture director does on a film set, and that is make sure that something that is designed to entertain and impress and inform comes off without a hitch." That's right: advance people are the roadies of politics.
Not surprisingly, the profession tends to attract political junkies who want to travel the world, which is precisely how King got into it. After graduating from college, he had the opportunity to take a tour of the White House — or, as he calls it, "that empty stage set," the backdrop for every presidency he'd ever known. He asked the man giving the tour, "What do you do here?" He explained that he was the director of advance for the first lady: "I travel everywhere the first lady travels and make sure everything is perfect." At that moment, King realized, this was the career for him.
To quote the movie Taken, advance people share a very particular set of skills. "You have to be intellectually curious about the country and the world around you," King said. "It's combining that with being a roadie. You have to be passionate about the issues and policies that you're dealing with but equally creative about how you present them." The realities of advance work have seeped gently into pop culture — House of Cards creator Beau Willimon is a former advance man — but until now, "the existence of this world has only been passed down through clans and cliques," King said.
King got his start working for the Democratic presidential campaign of late US Senator Paul Simon and then joined the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign after Simon's folded. He was not, however, responsible for "Dukakis and the tank," a disastrous photo op that King outlines in the first part of his book, when Dukakis was photographed in an Abrams tank looking particularly goofy in a too-large helmet. The event is so infamous that President Obama referenced it as recently as 2013 when presented with a helmet during a visit with the Navy: "You don't put stuff on your head if you're president," Obama said.
Throughout the current presidential election, Donald Trump has shattered countless precedents including the hat rule. "He's basically wearing his bumper sticker on his head," King pointed out. "But it's not about the hat. It was never about the hat. It's about the person underneath and how authentic they are. Donald Trump is pretty much the Donald Trump he presents."
With the rise of social media, the role of an advance man is drastically different from when King started in his career, partly because the orchestrated moments have less impact than the unorchestrated ones. Now, the media moments that get traction tend to be viral and fleeting: think Hillary Clinton at the subway turnstile or Marco Rubio's heeled ankle boots. As King points out in his book, advance people were once left mostly alone to execute their creative genius, but present-day politicians have more say in shaping their own images. The world of advance work is changing so rapidly, King writes, that the paperback edition of Off Script will surely need a new afterword.
Of course, one constant is the ability of a single moment to derail a campaign. Remember Mitt Romney's vocal rendering of "America the Beautiful"? Or Rubio's GOP debate gaffe when he basically repeated the same soundbite four times? That was not the screwup of an advance man. As the "moments" become harder to control, today's advance teams are more focused on weaving together a consistent, overarching narrative.
Of the many reasons to read Off Script — including King's detailed description of what it's like to ride on Air Force One — the most satisfying takeaway for politics junkies is feeling like you're in the know about this clandestine clique. You'll never watch a debate, a convention, or an episode of Veep the same way again.