The secret of the presidential cue card
Editor’s Note: This story was adapted from the April 28 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
Is President Joe Biden following a script or is he just supremely prepared?
A photo of the president’s detailed note cards taken during a press conference has led his political foes to raise new questions about his age at the start of his reelection bid and to condemn what they see as an overly cozy approach from the White House press corps.
The note card captured by photojournalists on Wednesday shows a head shot of a reporter on whom Biden would call, a pronunciation guide for her name, and most controversially, seems to say what she would ask.
Los Angeles Times reporter Courtney Subramanian’s question did turn out to be on a basically similar issue to the one predicted on Biden’s card – about an apparent conflict between US efforts to slow semiconductor manufacturing in China and the trading interests of its allies. But the query did not exactly match the one Biden was apparently expecting and the LA Times said in a statement that Subramanian did not submit her question to the press office in advance, though she had been in regular contact with White House aides seeking information for her reporting.
That didn’t stop conservative media from trumpeting that a conspiracy was afoot between the president and the press, and that 80-year-old Biden was a puppet of his aides. Pundits relished using words like “crib sheet” and “cheat notes.” The controversy was especially acute because Biden has been under fire for holding fewer press conferences than his predecessors. And of course, the oldest president in history just announced a bid for a second term that would end when he is 86.
But this episode appears to be more innocent than Biden’s critics make out. While it was notable that a potential question was written on Biden’s card, every White House press office takes scrupulous care to prepare their president for news conferences. Commanders in chief typically build time in their schedule to go through potential questions before they face journalists, and every recent president has had a list of reporters on whom to call.
As part of an effort to stage manage their boss’ interactions with journalists, presidential aides sometimes try to shape the news conference with their choice of reporters. If there’s a big domestic scandal, for instance, that a president might not wish to talk about, they might pick a reporter who is mainly interested in foreign policy or the economy and is less focused on the day’s political buzz. Former President Donald Trump went through a spell of only calling upon friendly conservative outlets.
Sometimes, reporters at the White House and in agencies like the State Department and the Pentagon, tacitly cooperate with each other to try to get around such attempts at control. Or reporters might ask multiple-part questions that annoy presidents a great deal. But their interests aren’t exactly secret, especially since White House press staff talk to reporters all the time as part of their jobs. In the past, White House press secretaries often held off-camera “gaggles” in their West Wing office to gauge what might come up in the televised formal press briefing later in the day. Such events were often more useful at extracting news than the on-camera event. Perhaps that’s one reason no one holds them anymore.
In the case of Wednesday’s event, it didn’t take a public relations genius to work out what Subramanian might ask. The tensions between South Korean firms and leaders and the US over semi-conductor chips formed an important chunk of her story previewing the visit of President Yoon Suk Yeol. And the language she used in her question was similar to what she had previously written. She was doing what good reporters do, seeking to highlight a point of potential tension between Biden and his guest to try to break through choreographed shows of unity. Still, the level to which presidential press conferences are the result of behind-the-scenes planning, despite their spontaneous appearance, might surprise many Americans.
The right-wing pundits complaining about Biden’s “cheat notes” on Thursday were probably not too bothered when Trump was pictured holding notes with questions to ask and things to say to survivors and family members of victims after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in 2018. “I hear you,” read one note. It was not clear who scribbled on the card, but the then-president’s Democratic critics crowed that he had no empathy and had to be told how to act. He might just have wanted a note to remind himself exactly what he wanted to say.
Biden’s use of cue cards – one of which he keeps in his pocket to remind him of his daily schedule – has caused a flap before.
At an event last year, he was pictured with a note card with simple instructions that read in part: “YOU enter the Roosevelt Room and say hello to participants. YOU take YOUR seat. YOU give brief comments.”
Such minute-by-minute choreography is a gift to political opponents seeking to build a narrative that the gaffe-prone Biden is too old to serve or has lost some of his mental acuity. But presidents meet multiple people every day and have endless meetings. Staff seek to avoid any possibility of embarrassing moments or the chance that the commander in chief might not know exactly what’s happening next – especially in public, televised encounters. In previous administrations, for instance, senior staff and the president were provided with a schedule showing who they would meet, where they would sit at any given moment, which door they would use to exit a room and where they might encounter lurking reporters.
For a look at how the days of presidents are programmed, it’s worth checking out the fascinating contemporaneous notes of Richard Nixon’s White House days, which also include preview notes to the then-president about his schedule. In one entry, entitled the “President’s Scenario,” Nixon is briefed on a church service he will attend on March 16, 1969. It reads almost exactly like Biden’s minute-by-minute schedule.
At 10:55 a.m. Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Evans will be escorted to the East Room.
You and Dr. Evans will be escorted to the East ROOM at 11:00 a.m.
You will make brief welcoming remarks, turn the Service over to Dr. Evans and take your place in the first row with Mrs. Nixon.
Like Nixon, Biden appears to be operating on maxims variously ascribed to Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill or NCAA basketball coach John Wooden and often boiled down to the phrase: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Here’s another rule Biden, Trump and future presidents might want to follow: Make sure you keep your notes to yourself.