Friday Classic Clip: If Your Wife Were Raped And Murdered

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 21, 2014 – 12:02 am

In the summer of 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was a sure bet to become the next President of the United States.

Days after the successful Democratic National Convention that July, Dukakis led his Republican opponent, George H.W. Bush, by a whopping 17 points with just over three months to Election Day.

But in those three months, his candidacy came under siege—from his opponents, who launched the infamous “Willie Horton” ad against him—and from within, when Dukakis tried to show his military toughness by wearing a military helmet that turned him into a late night punch line.

Michael Dukakis Tank

By the time the candidates met for the second debate on October 13, 1988, Vice President Bush had opened up a six-point lead over the Massachusetts governor. Dukakis needed to seize the opportunity to help turn his candidacy around.

CNN anchor Bernard Shaw opened up the debate with an inflammatory question that many pundits thought was unfair:


“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis proceeded to deliver a wonky and emotionless answer, one that led people to conclude that he lacked the requisite fire for the presidency and, in the words of ABC’s Ted Koppel, didn’t “get it.”

Dukakis forgot that inflammatory questions about a loved one require an emotional—or at least a more human—response. He could have handled the question in one of two ways:

Approach One: “Bernard, if that happened to my wife, I would want to pull the switch on the man who did that to her myself.  But public policy shouldn’t be set from a standpoint of revenge, and here’s why…”

Approach Two: “Bernard, to invoke my wife’s safety during a presidential debate is beneath a journalist of your standing. You should know better. I’ll answer your question in general—but don’t even think about bringing my wife into this debate again. And I’d like to suggest that you don’t think about making Barbara Bush an issue in this debate either.”

According to Wikipedia, “Before the second debate, Dukakis had been suffering from the flu and spent much of the day in bed.” Perhaps his poor debate performance—like Richard Nixon’s before him—was simply an unfortunate consequence of feeling ill.

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Is Hillary Clinton “Too Old” To Become President?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 30, 2013 – 8:24 pm

Some Republicans have hatched a new plan to defeat possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — by saying she’s too old and “out of touch” for the job.

According to Saturday’s New York Times, some Republican politicians, strategists, and media figures are already trying to weaken the former Secretary of State. Here are some of their noteworthy comments:

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY): He “ridiculed the 2016 Democratic field as “a rerun of ‘The Golden Girls.’”

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA): “The reality is, when you look at the Democrats, they’ve got old, tired ideas being produced by old, tired candidates.”

Rush Limbaugh (Radio host): “Asked his audience in April whether the American people ‘want to vote for somebody, a woman, and actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?’”

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Now, I may surprise you by saying this, but questioning Hillary Clinton’s age is appropriate, and doing so isn’t necessarily sexist. (Rush Limbaugh’s quote, however, is a good example of going way over the acceptable line.)

Older men have faced identical scrutiny—in fact, Mrs. Clinton’s husband used similar attacks to win the presidency against George H.W. Bush in 1992 and to win re-election against Bob Dole in 1996. John McCain’s age was also a factor in his campaign, as was his health record (like McCain, Mrs. Clinton recently had a rather serious health scare).

If men’s age often becomes a campaign issue, it seems acceptable to make a woman’s age a campaign issue as well.


But Is It Smart?

Republicans may be able to credibly defend themselves against charges of sexism for making Mrs. Clinton’s age an issue. Nonetheless, I suspect their strategy will backfire, and probably badly. As any smart man should know, few women respond favorably to negative comments about their looks or age. And even though the attacks may be “valid,” attacks on a woman’s age have a different potency than similar attacks on men; I suspect that even many Republican-leaning independent voters will bristle at them. 

There’s a history here. Women resent men acting condescendingly toward a female candidate.



In 1984, for example, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro ripped George H.W. Bush, the incumbent Vice President, for his patronizing tone:



During a New York Senate debate, Republican candidate Rick Lazio aggressively approached Ms. Clinton’s lectern. He handed her a paper pledge to refuse any soft money to the campaign—but the move was widely seen as inappropriate and boorish. Mr. Lazio lost the once-close race by double digits.




After winning the Iowa caucus, Senator Barack Obama was widely expected to win the pivotal New Hampshire primary and cruise to an easy nomination. But after taking a gratuitous swipe at Senator Clinton’s likeability in a debate held just days before the vote, female voters handed Ms. Clinton an unexpected victory, helping to extend her campaign for months.


Playing Into Clinton’s Hands

Republicans are playing a dangerous game, and I can’t help thinking that the Clinton people will welcome this attack. As the 2008 example shows, Mrs. Clinton is adept at using public sympathy for her personal political gain.

Plus, she has one convenient fact in her back pocket: She’d be 68-years-old when sworn in for her first term. Conservative hero Ronald Reagan was 69.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Presidential Debates: 8 Memorable Moments

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 2, 2012 – 6:04 am

The first presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney is scheduled for tomorrow night, which leads to a question: Do presidential debates really matter?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read numerous analyses that suggest there is scant evidence to conclude that races are won or lost based on debates alone. But what is indisputable is that presidential debates often create long-lasting images and indelible moments.

The eight clips below represent some of the most memorable debate moments from the television era, dating from 1960 – 2008.

John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon: Makeup Matters (1960)

Few can recall what Richard Nixon said in the first televised presidential debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960, but many people remember how he looked. Mr. Nixon, who refused makeup, appeared pale and sweaty. Mr. Kennedy, who wore makeup, looked poised and comfortable.

Americans who heard the debate on the radio concluded that Nixon had won; those who watched it on television sided with Kennedy.


Gerald Ford: There Is No Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe (1976)

President Gerald Ford, running for his first full term, asserted during his second debate against Governor Jimmy Carter that, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” He was wrong on the facts. When offered the chance to correct his statement by an incredulous moderator, he held his ground.

Within days, Ford aides insisted that he was only trying to avoid acknowledging the legitimacy of Soviet domination. But his comment seemed clear at the time, and the gaffe likely contributed to his loss.


Ronald Reagan: Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago? (1980)

Polls showed a close race when Governor Ronald Reagan met incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980. With just one rhetorical question, Mr. Reagan helped ensure his victory days later.


Ronald Reagan: I Won’t Exploit My Opponent’s Youth and Inexperience (1984)

When running for re-election in 1984, President Reagan was dogged with rumors of his diminishing mental capacity; some critics wondered if he was too old and tired for the job. Mr. Reagan put those rumors almost entirely to rest with one of his trademark quips; even opponent Walter Mondale seemed to recognize it was all over in that moment.


Michael Dukakis: The Rape and Murder Question (1988)

When CNN moderator Bernard Shaw asked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, Dukakis delivered an emotionless and almost inhuman answer that earned him reams of negative press.

The correct answer would have been something closer to: “Bernard, if that happened to my wife, I’d want to kill the person who did it myself. But that’s not how we should be making national policy…”


Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush: Do You Understand? (1992)

When a woman asked President Bush how the national debt affected him personally, he first checked his watch, then delivered a disconnected and unconvincing answer.

When it was Bill Clinton’s turn to answer her question, he walked toward her, asked her how it had affected her, and delivered a personal answer in which he said, “When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I know them by their names.”

The contrast between the two men rarely appeared starker.


Al Gore: The Exasperated Sighs (2000)

During the first presidential debate, Vice President Al Gore couldn’t contain his exasperation with Governor George W. Bush. During several points in the debate, Gore condescendingly sighed loudly at his opponent’s statements.

Those sighs became the lead media narrative after the debate; they were even more devastating when the networks edited the sighs together. As a result of the media criticism, Gore was gun shy during the second debate. He never found the right tone.


John McCain: That One (2008)

John McCain’s campaign was floundering when he met Senator Barack Obama for their second debate. Out of seeming frustration, Senator McCain referred to Mr. Obama as “that one.”

In a year that produced few memorable debate moments, Mr. McCain’s dismissive comment stood in marked contrast to Mr. Obama’s “cool” persona and generated more than a few “what did he just call him?” reactions.

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Why Mitt Romney’s “Etch A Sketch” Moment Matters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 22, 2012 – 7:15 pm

For the past 36 hours, the airwaves have been filled with constant re-airings of the latest gaffe from the Romney campaign – and many pundits are declaring this the worst misstep yet.

The moment occurred when one of Mitt Romney’s top advisors, Eric Fehrnstrom, was interviewed on CNN Wednesday morning. Here’s the exchange:

Question: John Fugelsang: “It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?”

Answer Eric Fehrstrom, Senior Romney Adviser: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”


I’d argue that many of the previous Romney “gaffes” were taken out of context by the media. Not this one. Mr. Fehrstrom was asked a direct question about Romney’s ideological positioning, and his answer seemed to clearly suggest that Mr. Romney would indeed move to the center.

Given that Mr. Romney’s professed commitment to conservative values is already viewed with deep suspicion by many conservative voters, few gaffes could hurt him more. His own top aide suggested that he would be ideologically malleable, confirming for many voters what they already suspected: that he is a shape-shifter who will say whatever it takes to win. Fellow Republicans Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich quickly seized on the gaffe, bringing Etch a Sketches to public events.

This image, created by Zuma Press, Newscom, and TPM, will likely haunt Mr. Romney for months

The imagery of an “Etch a Sketch” will follow Mr. Romney for the rest of his campaign. Will it doom his candidacy? I wouldn’t go that far. But when candidates reinforce the worst fears about themselves with a gaffe that turns them into a caricature, it’s near-impossible to reverse the narrative.

Just how potent is the Etch a Sketch image? Consider these four losing candidates for office who became their own worst enemies:

In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis confirmed fears about his strength as a leader when this image of him riding in a tank was released during the campaign. He lost a 17-point lead with three months to go and was defeated by George H.W. Bush.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was viewed by many Americans as “out of touch” when running for a second term, due to his own personal wealth and his ineffectual handling of the economy. So when he went to a grocery store and appeared to express amazement at a bar code scanner that had been out for years, it confirmed the “out of touch” meme. (Bush aides insist that he was actually not amazed by the scanner, saying he was indeed aware of the technology. Nonetheless, the image took hold.)

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore was tagged with the image of being a serial exaggerator. He confirmed that perception when he seemed to suggest that he had created the Internet:

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry was widely seen as a “flip flopper.” So when he explained a vote on a wartime funding bill by proclaiming that, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," he gave his Republican opponents a perfect opening to attack his changing positions.

All four of the above examples lasted mere moments, but each came to symbolize an entire candidacy. Mitt Romney’s “Etch a Sketch” moment now joins those historical moments, and Mr. Fehrnstrom’s gaffe will likely be remembered for decades to come.

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Body Language Isn’t Equal: Cultural Differences Matter

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 15, 2011 – 6:32 am

While visiting Australia in 1992, President George H.W. Bush tried to give the peace sign to a group of protesting farmers. But his palms were inward — not outward — when he flashed the “V” sign, and the natives were terribly insulted. In their culture, that sign means “fuck you.”

Cultural differences in body language matter, and it’s important for communicators to understand precisely what their actions are saying to their audiences.

I recently stumbled onto the results of a fascinating body language study, published by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), that shows how these differences play out in real life:

Is this boy showing the peace sign or using a vulgar expression?

“Want to know how a Japanese person is feeling? Pay attention to the tone of his voice, not his face….A new study examines how Dutch and Japanese people assess others’ emotions and finds that Dutch people pay attention to the facial expression more than Japanese people do.

For the study, [Akihiro Tanaka of Waseda Institute for Advanced Study in Japan] and colleagues made a video of actors saying a phrase with a neutral meaning—’Is that so?’—two ways: angrily and happily. This was done in both Japanese and Dutch. Then they edited the videos so that they also had recordings of someone saying the phrase angrily but with a happy face, and happily with an angry face. Volunteers watched the videos in their native language and in the other language and were asked whether the person was happy or angry. They found that Japanese participants paid attention to the voice more than Dutch people did—even when they were instructed to judge the emotion by the faces and to ignore the voice.

Tanaka speculates, ‘I think Japanese people tend to hide their negative emotions by smiling, but it’s more difficult to hide negative emotions in the voice.’ Therefore, Japanese people may be used to listening for emotional cues. This could lead to confusion when a Dutch person, who is used to the voice and the face matching, talks with a Japanese person; they may see a smiling face and think everything is fine, while failing to notice the upset tone in the voice.”

You can see the full APS press release here.


Much of the media training advice on this blog – particularly regarding body language – applies most directly to spokespersons in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the majority of Europe. Parts of Central and South America adhere to some similar body language rules as well, but Arab and Asian cultures tend to be quite different.

In Asian cultures, for example, maintaining direct eye contact could be perceived as aggressive and rude, not attentive and polite.

Knowing the cultural communication differences is critical for effective cross-cultural communications. I’ll post new studies I find along the way, and invite you to share links with me for other relevant articles. 

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Male Senator Mocks Woman’s Body, Falls Into Gender Trap

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2011 – 8:02 pm

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) fell into a predictable gender trap earlier today when he slammed the body of a female competitor for his Senate seat.

Here’s the background: In 1982, long before he became a U.S. Senator, Mr. Brown posed nude for Cosmopolitan Magazine. During a Democratic primary debate earlier this week, Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren was asked how she paid for college, given that Mr. Brown stripped to pay his tuition.

“I kept my clothes on,” Ms. Warren quipped, to the delight of the audience. (Video here, about 15:15 in).

Scott Brown posing nude for Cosmo in 1982

During a radio interview earlier today, Sen. Brown responded:

Hosts: “Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren’s comment about how she didn’t take her clothes off?”

Scott Brown, laughing: “Thank God.”


With that broadside, Mr. Brown stepped into a gender minefield that threatens to alienate many female voters. To be sure, Ms. Warren’s swipe was unnecessary and gratuitous – and the question itself was sophomoric. But regardless of whether or not Ms. Warren opened the door to Mr. Brown’s response (she did), the political price will be paid almost solely by Mr. Brown.

The list of male politicians who lost support by mistreating a female competitor is long. Here are three examples:

1. Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama (2008): After winning the Iowa caucus, Senator Barack Obama was widely expected to win the pivotal New Hampshire primary and cruise to an easy nomination. But after taking a gratuitous swipe at Senator Clinton’s likeability in a debate held just days before the vote, female voters handed Ms. Clinton an unexpected victory, helping to extend her campaign for months.   

2. Hillary Clinton vs. Rick Lazio (2000): During a New York Senate debate, Republican candidate Rick Lazio aggressively approached Ms. Clinton’s lectern. He handed her a paper pledge to refuse any soft money to the campaign – but the move was widely seen as inappropriate and boorish. Mr. Lazio lost the once-close race by double digits.

Rick Lazio approaches Hillary Clinton

3. Geraldine Ferraro vs. George H.W. Bush (1984): During the Vice Presidential debate, Vice President Bush took a patronizing tone with Rep. Ferraro when discussing foreign policy. Ms. Ferraro used her razor sharp tongue to let him know she didn’t appreciate it, earning her the applause of the audience and him the enmity of many opinion writers. In the end, it didn’t matter – Mr. Bush was part of a winning ticket that won 49 states.

To paraphrase Aerosmith, you don’t want to close your eyes, don’t want to fall asleep, cause you’d miss me baby, and you don’t want to miss a thing. Like me on Facebook so you don’t miss a thing! I’m at

Related: Don’t Hire Women: They Get Pregnant and Leave

Related: Battered Women, a Tasteless Ad, and a Clueless Apology

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Friday’s Classic Clip: George H.W. Bush Vs. Dan Rather (1988)

Written by Brad Phillips on July 8, 2011 – 6:38 am

On January 25, 1988, CBS News Anchor Dan Rather interviewed Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was then running for the presidency. You can learn a good lesson from Mr. Bush’s handling of that unexpected ambush interview.

Mr. Bush was under the impression he would be the subject of a “candidate profile,” but Mr. Rather chose to press Bush on his role in the Iran-Contra scandal instead.

What followed was a remarkably heated interview, one that has rarely been seen in presidential politics since. 

Mr. Bush did a good job of pushing back against the storyline, making clear to the audience that Mr. Rather broke his agreement. And since Bush was widely viewed as a “wimp,” his aggressive tone worked to his advantage. Peevish answers rarely work – but they did for Mr. Bush.

Ted Koppel, my former boss and the long-time host of ABC News’ Nightline, has an interesting idea about these types of interviews. He says an audience’s allegiance is to the interviewer, not the person being interviewed – at least at the beginning. But if the viewer perceives the interviewer as being unfair, impolite, or flat out rude, the interviewer will lose his audience and sympathy will shift to the person being interviewed.

Mr. Bush banked on that dynamic, and he got calmer as Rather got more aggressive – exactly the right thing to do in this case.

As a result, Bush was widely seen as the winner of the debate. As the New York Times wrote the next day:

“Mr. Bush seemed to stun the anchor in a reference to a September walkout by Mr. Rather that left CBS broadcasting a blank signal.

‘It’s not fair to judge my career by a rehash on Iran,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?’”


That Mr. Rather ended the interview abruptly only led to further accusations of bias and disrespect for the office of the Vice Presidency. (In a strange twist, he was forced out of CBS for running an incorrect story in 2004 about Mr. Bush’s son, George W. Bush.) As for Bush, he defeated Michael Dukakis in an electoral landslide, becoming the nation’s 41st president.

Do you have a favorite “classic clip?” Please leave a link to your favorite media disaster or infamous media moment in the comments section below for consideration as a future Friday Classic Clip.

Related: “You Are Stuck On Stupid” (Friday Classic Clip)

Related: The Five Worst Media Disasters of June

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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