Josh King was White House director of production for presidential events from 1993 to 1997. He hosted “Polioptics: The Theater of Politics,” on SiriusXM Satellite Radio from 2011 to 2014. He is the author of OFF SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Polioptics.
Historians had their game faces on last Friday, probing for any and all clues about how the presidency would change under Donald J. Trump. They seemed to have missed a big one on the West Front of the US Capitol, hanging right beneath the new president’s nose.
Protruding 18 inches from the presidential lectern, known around the White House as “the blue goose,” a lone microphone sat suspended, ever so slightly off-center, arched on a long, flexible arm an inch or two from Trump’s tongue. It heralded a new era of voice amplification for the leader of the free world. The ungainly, somewhat jury-rigged assemblage was no accident.
Even before aides removed an opaque tarpaulin shielding the speaking surface from forecasted showers, I expected a “January surprise” from the president’s advance team. Starting with his June 15th, 2015 campaign announcement at Trump Tower and continuing through hundreds of rallies leading to his election, the president-to-be had a strong predilection, like stage performers of his ilk, for microphones so proximate to his mouth that they could readily absorb his spit.
On Inauguration Day, another transition was complete. The trusty, time-honored two-mic rig of Shure SM57s on the presidential lectern was out. The Long Neck Era had begun.
Trump wouldn’t risk faulty sound on the biggest day of his life
On the biggest day of his life, Trump wouldn’t risk faulty sound projection. I saw it happen once, in person, at Hofstra University at his first debate with Hillary Clinton. He refused to repeat that debacle. Seated near the back of the hall in Hempstead, New York on September 26th, I tweeted within the first few minutes that the GOP nominee was suffering from a vocal disadvantage.
Looking at a split-screen of the two candidates that night, the mouth of Secretary Clinton, who stands at 5 feet, 5 inches, was much closer to the mic than that of Mr. Trump. At 6 feet, 3 inches, Trump genuflected toward his mic with every rebuttal. The contortion was so pronounced that Alec Baldwin made it a staple of his debate parody on Saturday Night Live.
The Hofstra hubbub, spawning a Twitter hashtag #MicrophoneGate, was broadly chronicled in media reports and sent a testy Trump into the spin room. “They gave me a defective mic,” the candidate complained. “Did you notice that? My mic was defective within the room.”
Without expounding on what caused the apparent snafu, imperceptible to 84 million viewers watching at home, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) issued a terse statement that “there were issues regarding Donald Trump’s audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall.” Trump’s team could take solace that at least one conspiracy theory echoed of truth.
The second debate on October 9th in St. Louis featured a town hall format in which both candidates used wireless handheld mics, the electrified baton clutched in Trump’s fist keeping him in his comfort zone. At the final debate in Las Vegas on October 20th, another two-podium affair, the CPD narrowed Trump’s mic-to-mouth distance deficit to zero. With the device at lip level, Trump’s every utterance echoed emphatically through UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.
Lesson learned. Should Trump ascend to the Oval Office, the traditional chasm between the presidential mouth and microphone would be bridged. A meeting at Trump Tower during the transition was scheduled to address this specific point. The inaugural address would resound.
His lips almost kissed the mic
When Trump, in his signature contralto, told the throng on the Washington Mall that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he wanted to ensure that his audience, however many people that was, enjoyed the full range of his vocal stylings. With his lips almost kissing the mic, unlike at Hofstra, the rangy inflection of the president’s words reverberated, as did his trademark sniffle, the reflex action of a performer inhaling quickly to ready his next line.
In his long career speaking onstage, Trump has learned to seduce a crowd like a skilled chanteuse. His interstitial asides, sandwiching his main points with wispy repetition, are kin to the staccato tales told between songs by any marquee act at the Copa Room at the Sands.
Finding new vocal range through advances in electrified sound, crooners of the early 20th century, like Al Bowlly and Gene Austin, were equally intimate with the microphone, as were divas like Annette Hanshaw and Mildred Bailey. The novel technology allowed entertainers, conditioned to belting out melodies, to almost whisper their lyrics and yet still command a room.
Trump has learned to seduce a crowd like a skilled chanteuse
Trump’s unique and, to some, mesmerizing warble, descended from the same heritage. It comports well with Webster’s definition of the word croon: “to hum or sing in a low, soft voice.”
When you’re a performer, you stick with what works, and the institution of the presidency must conform. The White House Communications Agency, or WHCA, the multifaceted military unit originally formed in 1942 as the White House Signal Detachment under FDR oversees, among other things, a flock of full-sized and downsized blue goose lecterns and the microphones that go with them. Their mission is to make sure the president is heard without fail.
In the six-day-old Trump era, to the chagrin of some veteran audio purists and aestheticians, the single mic clipped to the tip of a spindly, outstretched gooseneck will now rule the roost.
The variation is a departure from decades of precedent. At first, four Shure SM57s were mounted on Nixon’s podium, then three on Reagan’s, and finally two for George H.W. Bush. The apparatus did the trick, simply and elegantly, to deliver the president’s words to global news organizations and assembled live audiences. At President Obama’s January 10th farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, the tradition endured, seemingly ready for his successor.
The two-mic blue goose setup for the legendary SM57 — which, Shure boasts, “has an extremely effective cardioid pickup pattern that isolates the main sound source while minimizing background noise” — has been the presidential standard since I arrived at the White House in 1993 to serve as President Clinton’s director of production for presidential events.
In the long-standing WHCA configuration, the job of one of the mics is to feed clean, crackle-free sound to the media covering an event. The other mic is routed into a venue’s loudspeakers. And both units back up each other in the event that one of the microphones fails in its mission. That convention has remained in place, with one notable exception, ever since.
As the Long Neck Era begins, the men and women of WHCA are outfitting their gear to match the president’s preference. In addition to the West Front of the Capitol on Friday afternoon, the goose-necked Goose was seen in use on Friday night at National Building Museum, Saturday afternoon at the Central Intelligence Agency, and Sunday in the East Room of the White House.
Trump’s 15-minute meandering monologue at Langley, in particular, will endure in perpetuity as his first official presidential serenade, enshrining the long neck as the new normal. Watching video of that event, and others, I experienced a brief flashback to my time in the White House.
At the start of Bill Clinton’s second term, I made a study of the blue goose and its bouquet of SM57s. I recalled the tabloid chuckles when Queen Elizabeth was veiled behind them at a 1991 state visit with President Bush. And looking at news photos of Clinton, the tubular SM57s and their bulbous windscreens shrouded Clinton’s upper torso.
A condenser mic, employing new technology, mounted on a straw-thin gooseneck, would almost disappear before assembled lenses and yield more flattering imagery. Or so I thought.
More importantly, after witnessing hundreds of Clinton speeches over five years in the White House, his gravelly, allergy-addled drawl might be salved from closer proximity to the mic. I sought to seize the sound advantage that Donald Trump would discover 20 years later.
The WHCA team, warders of audio doctrine going back to FDR, was none too pleased with my request. Like today, high-level meetings were held to debate the pros and cons. Professionals that they are, WHCA built a prototype blue goose with a 16-inch condenser mic for a tryout. I thought it looked great, but left my job at the White House in December 1997 before it was deployed for the first time. I looked forward to watching it in action as a private citizen.
President Clinton tried a large microphone. It didn’t go well
The day came a month later on January 26th, 1998. It was scheduled to be a routine event in the Roosevelt Room, situated in the middle of the West Wing, in which the administration would promote its second term education agenda in advance of the next day’s State of the Union address. The event’s setup, too, was routine, like scores before it, with the blue goose and its new microphone positioned beneath Tade Styka’s Rough Rider portrait of Teddy Roosevelt.
The president’s remarks lasted about seven minutes, the first six and a half of which were on-message, sounding pure, crisp, and clear. The new mic was performing its duties with aplomb.
But in the final 30 seconds, the president said, famously, “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Framing those remarks, Clinton wagged his finger toward the camera at the back of the room and rapped it twice on the blue goose for emphasis.
The sensitive new mic, in its debut appearance, recorded the repeated impacts of Clinton’s finger on the lectern, creating a jarring Foley effect that added theatrical drama to one of the American presidency’s most inglorious soundbites. After that day 19 years ago, the slender, long neck presidential microphone, pronounced as a failure on its first outing, was never seen again.
Never seen again, that is, until this week, when a thicker long neck returned to service.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post on Saturday entitled, “Get ready for a four-year-long pageant,” Harvard University political theorist Danielle Allen observed that “Trump has seen that in our televisual age politics is importantly a matter of performance.”
Like it or not, our new president has elevated “matters of performance” to the level of obsession, riding it triumphantly into the Oval Office. He learned early and well that, in such matters, success depends not only on how you look on-screen, but how you sound through the mic.