Thursday, January 29, 2009

A ‘Super’ Time to Choose a State Song

When Super Bowl XLIII gets underway in Tampa on Sunday, neither of the NFL teams that play their home games in New Jersey will be on the field. But one New Jerseyan who has performed for large crowds at Giants Stadium will be there at Raymond James Stadium when the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers square off to determine this season’s NFL champion.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will provide the halftime entertainment, joining the ranks of Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and other superstars who have performed at the 42 previous Super Bowls. While this provides a great opportunity for Springsteen to appear before a capacity crowd of 72,500 and a television audience of up to 100 million viewers, it also represents a plus for New Jersey because of the unique and important role that the Garden State plays in his music and his lyrics.

Springsteen is not the only New Jersey native to gain widespread fame and popularity. The state has produced a number of individuals who have achieved great success as entertainers, scholars, athletes, governmental leaders and more. What sets Springsteen apart is the fact that the others are people from New Jersey who have become successful, whereas he is successful because he is from New Jersey. Springsteen’s New Jersey roots are not just something buried in the liner notes of his albums; they are the very essence of his music.

So with Bruce (and indirectly New Jersey) in the national spotlight, what better time to revive the campaign to make a Springsteen composition the official state song? After all, New Jersey is the only state in the union without a state song. Even American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have them – and they’re not even states. Moreover, if popular, but less influential artists such as John Denver (“Rocky Mountain High” in Colorado) and the McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy” in Ohio) can have their songs affiliated with states, isn’t the Boss deserving of a similar recognition in his home state?

It’s not that people haven’t tried. Back in June of 1980, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a resolution designating “Born to Run” as the state’s official rock theme. I even wrote an op-ed for The New York Times supporting the proposal. The legislation, however, died in the State Senate.

Truth be told, “Born to Run” probably was not the best choice for a state anthem. Although it did in many ways capture the spirit of the state, it probably was unrealistic to expect the Governor and Legislature to put their official sanction on a song that included references to suicide machines, death traps and wrapping one’s legs around velvet rims.

At the time, there were only three Springsteen albums from which to choose a state song. Today he has a body of work that includes nearly 30 albums and close to 300 songs. So from this vast collection, what Springsteen composition should become New Jersey’s official song? It’s a tough call. There is no shortage of songs with references and inferences to the Garden State, but most of them, such as “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99”and “My Hometown,” paint accurate, but bleak pictures that make them unlikely candidates for any type of official state designation.

My vote is for “The Rising”. Sure it was written about 9/11, but songs often take on new meanings and grow with the times. Springsteen’s “My City in Ruins” is a case in point. Originally written about Asbury Park in 2000, the song later became more associated with New York City and the 9/11 attacks.

Since its release in 2002, “The Rising” has become a staple at Springsteen concerts with its upbeat chorus delivering a message of strength against adversity and hope and optimism for the future. Not a bad message for a state song. We’ve already seen that it works well with choral groups. Springsteen’s performance of the song at the start of the Obama inaugural concert included the backing of a 125-member female choir. The tune may not have the direct association of such popular state songs as “Oklahoma” and “Georgia,” but it does have more than a casual New Jersey connection. It made its public debut when Springsteen performed it on the Today show live from Asbury Park on July 30, 2002.

Over the years, there has been no shortage of efforts to designate a New Jersey state song. As related in Fitzgerald’s Legislative Manual, the state held a contest in 1939 that produced a recommendation that was never acted upon. In 1972, both houses of the Legislature approved Red Mascara’s “I’m From New Jersey,” but the Governor did not sign it into law. The State Arts Council conducted a competition in 1996 and ultimately submitted three songs to the Legislature for consideration, but no further action took place.

While choosing a state song has been a challenge, New Jersey has had less trouble designating items such as a state fruit (the highbush blueberry), a state bug (honey bee) and even a state dinosaur (the Hadrosaurus Foulkii). If we can do all that and more, certainly we can select a state song. It’s long past time.

As Bruce would say, “You can’t start a fire without a spark,” and what better spark to get the ball rolling than a Super Bowl Sunday that puts the Boss in the spotlight.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

How Should Barack Obama Handle the Media?

On the heels of his successful campaign and historic election, Barack Obama would not appear to be a man in need of advice on dealing with the news media. Ever since he emerged on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he has enjoyed largely favorable, positive press coverage. In fact, his treatment by the news media was so flattering and so complimentary that his rivals in the primary and general elections frequently voiced complaints. Nevertheless, the dynamics are likely to change. As the nation’s 44th president, Obama will be judged by how he governs, instead of how he performs on the campaign trail.

During my career, I have had the opportunity to offer media advice to several individuals making the transition from candidate to officeholder, albeit at the state and local levels. But if Barack Obama were to seek my advice, here are ten recommendations I would offer to guide his media operations:

1. The best thing you can do to garner positive press is to run your administration well. Legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley once said that good government is good politics. But good government also is good press. When things were going well during the primary and election campaigns, good press followed. Running an effective and efficient administration may not automatically generate good press, but the converse certainly is true. An Administration that makes mistakes, raises ethical and legal questions and creates controversy is likely to be an Administration with bad press.

2. Make sure your administration speaks with one voice. One of the difficulties involved with moving up to higher office is learning to control the many agencies and workers that come with the new job. Suddenly, there are people with important responsibilities whom you may not know well – or at all. Also, you no longer are in a situation in which the entire team is focused on getting you elected. There will be people with their own agendas and priorities – and they may not always be consistent with yours.

3. Respect the press. Never forget that reporters are professionals with a job to do, even if that means asking questions and raising issues you would rather not address. Do not take it personally or hold grudges. Avoid governing as if the press is out to get you. Stick to your agenda and stay on message. That is how you got to the Oval Office and that is how you can succeed there.

4. Be open, accessible and honest. Almost every public official makes these promises, but few keep them. A policy of true transparency will go a long way toward building and maintaining a good working relationship with the press.

5. Apply the adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” to your media policies. Do not limit your interviews to news organizations that tend to agree with your ideology. If you want to win over those who have not supported you in the past, you need to make your case in the newspapers, websites and television stations they rely upon for news.

6. Remain aware of the changing media landscape. Today, we get our news and information from a wide variety of sources – and many of them are not traditional news entities. During the campaign, the Obama team was adept at bypassing the traditional media and going directly to the people through email, YouTube and even online video games. Continued use of new media will pay dividends in the today’s tech-savvy world.

7. Make reporters’ jobs easier. Know their deadlines and when it is best to issue a news release or hold a news conference. Remember that if you leak a story to one news organization, you are likely to make enemies with its competitors. Anticipate what reporters will need so you can have answers and information ready to help them meet deadlines.

8. Continue to make good use of “soft news”. Stories about Michelle, the kids, the search for a family dog, and moving your mother-in-law into the White House all help to create a warm and authentic feeling about the nation's chief executive, something that has been missing for quite a while.

9. Conversely, remember that using your family to score political points works two ways. They are now fair game for the press, so do not cry foul if the media starts asking questions about your family members and their activities.

10. Keep the press busy with a full schedule of news conferences and public events. The press needs a steady flow of news. The more news the Obama Administration creates, the less time reporters have to dig up dirt and produce negative stories.

One final thought based upon my years of work on the communication staffs of several public officials:

Above all, listen to the advice of your own press staff. Your staffers may not always have all of the answers, but public officials have gotten themselves into a myriad of problems that could have been avoided had they heeded the advice of the individuals they hired to handle the media. Believe me, I know.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Are State of the State Speeches Obsolete?

Today’s State of the State of speech has me wondering what function these types of events serve in the 21st Century -- not just New Jersey’s annual State of the State address, but the countless “State of…” speeches that are given all over the country at this time of year by Governors, Mayors, County Executives, even the President.

More often than not, the key elements of a “State of…” speech already are known before the event takes place. Decision-makers have been briefed and information has been leaked to reporters whose news reports have made the information available to the public at-large. Although not every detail of every program is known ahead of time, there generally is an absence of suspense, save for counting the number of times the speech is interrupted by applause.

Rather than serving as the primary means of announcing new information to lawmakers and the citizenry, these speeches have become elaborate and sophisticated events. Here in New Jersey, for example, a committee of legislators escorts the Governor into the Assembly Chambers, where the Speaker and the Senate President conduct the formal proceedings of the Joint Legislative session. State Police troopers stand at attention on either side of the podium, and distinguished guests fill the chambers, as well as the Assembly Gallery.

But is all the fanfare still needed today?

From a legal standpoint, New Jersey’s State Constitution requires the Governor to communicate “the condition of the state” to the Legislature when the annual Legislative session begins in January, but it does not say how this is to be done. He or she could probably could just send an email to the state’s 120 legislators and fulfill the Constitutional requirement.

Another option would be to record the speech as a simple video message, accompanied by links to pages with specific details on initiatives, programs and other items included in the annual report. Governor Corzine recently used a video message to outline the state’s response to the economic crisis. And how often did we see presidential candidates incorporate video appeals into their campaigns over the past year or two? In fact, the Obama transition team is still emailing video messages about the President-elect and his plans.

At first glance, the idea of dispensing with the formalities of a live speech may be difficult to comprehend. But we live in a world defined by change. The Christian Science Monitor, a journalistic mainstay for 100 years, has eliminated its print edition and now is published entirely online. The New York Times has begun placing display ads on its front page. We now even have devices that make it possible to pause live TV.

But despite all of the technology available to us today, America is not yet ready to delegate speech-making to television studios and soundstages. As a nation, we continue to value spectacle and pageantry. For example, even though the vast majority of us experience events such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl via TV, would the telecasts of these contests have the same appeal if they took place in empty arenas? And why else would millions of people be making plans to travel to Washington, D.C., next week so they can say they were there when the United States inaugurated its first African-American president?

The roots of America’s infatuation with spectacle and pageantry date back to the 1800s. Before the advent of mass media, there were few if any other options for those who wished to actively engage in the political process.

“Much of political life was necessarily acted out in the streets,” historian Michael McGerr wrote in The Decline of Popular Politics. “However undemocratic the results, American politics from roughly the (eighteen) ‘thirties to the ‘nineties demanded the legitimacy conferred by all classes of the people through parades and rallies and huge turnouts.”

Today there are numerous options that allow us to take part in the political process, among them websites, blogs, cable television and YouTube. Perhaps these options will lead us to a time when traditional State of the State and State of the Unions speeches are things of the past.

But we are not yet there.

As former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, “Speeches are not significant because we have the technological ability to make them heard by every member of our huge nation simultaneously. Speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history. For two hundred years, from ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ they have been not only the way we measure public men, they have been how we tell each other who we are.”

And this is precisely why a few hundred people, myself included, are converging at the New Jersey State House today to see and hear Governor Corzine’s 2009 State of the State address, rather than to watch it on NJN or on the web in the comfort of our homes or offices.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Obama’s First 100 Days

I will be taking part in a panel discussion about start of the Obama Administration. The session takes place Saturday, January 17, at the State House Annex, starting at 11 a.m.

Titled What’s Next for America: Barack Obama’s First 100 Days in Office, the discussion also will include Hillard Pouncy, a Visiting Lecturer of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and Gary Woodward and David Blake, both professors at The College of New Jersey. The event is part of the Second Annual Trenton Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. READ MORE

Also on the horizon, the New Jersey Political Science Association will conduct its annual meeting on Friday, February 27, at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University. I will be one several speakers on the panel discussing New Jersey’s 2009 campaign for Governor.