With the Tuesday summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un just around the corner, a flurry of planning, negotiating, strategizing and perhaps even a bit of finger-crossing is underway.
The stakes are enormously high, and yet the risks – and opportunities – are even higher. President Trump is likely eager to put his “Art of the Deal” skills to the test on the global stage.
While there are plenty of differences between President Trump and President Reagan, both came to the White House with a background in entertainment, which serves as a surprising advantage.
Critics mocked President Reagan for his past career in the movies and on TV. Many asked: How can an actor be president?
In typical Ronald Reagan fashion, with an impish smile, the man known as the Great Communicator replied without hesitation: “I don’t know how you can be president and not be an actor.” He didn’t mean that he was just playing the role of president. He meant that he understood that style and presentation are essential elements any president must pay attention to in modern times– and can even help set the stage for substantive success.
For an example of this, look at the moment President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time. Reagan walked out on a cold day in Geneva in coat and tie, without a heavy wool overcoat, hat and scarf, as Gorbachev did.
President Reagan looked robust, vibrant and eagerly youthful, even though he was two decades older than his Soviet counterpart. As they posed for photos, Reagan was tall and confident, towering over a cautious-looking Gorbachev. Visually, the upper hand already belonged to the U.S. president – and the summit hadn’t even officially begun.
Optics and staging are imperative in conveying the message, and in framing the messenger to appear strong and in command. As the substantive issues of policy and security for the upcoming summit are being carefully considered and crafted, no doubt thought is also being given to that first photo op. The handshake, the eye contact, the backdrop and the significance of the location are all important.
The Reagan presidency took the art of stagecraft to a whole new level, ensuring every event was perfectly planned and impeccably implemented to keep President Reagan’s image in strict alignment, and to consistently reinforce the president’s messages and priorities.
Every Reagan event was polished and patriotic, upbeat and focused on the experience of attendees. Great care was taken to find the best TV angles to generate positive impressions for those watching at home.
President Reagan spoke directly to people and included everyone in his vision. As a result, there were many memorable iconic images that are forever attached to his legacy – the meeting with Gorbachev being one. The policy was essential, but the visuals were also vital in ingraining those moments in our minds and in history.
We know Donald Trump is a showman – he spent 14 seasons as the star of “The Apprentice” reality TV show before he ran for president.
Showing his theatrical skills, Trump dramatically rode down an escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president. He entered the Republican National Convention with a backlit shadow worthy of a top concert or championship boxing match. In both instances, the tone was set and the staging created memorable moments forever imprinted in the minds of those who witnessed them.
While I doubt there will be showmanship on that level at the summit with Kim Jong Un, I am confident great thought is being given to that initial first impression and image – and will be carefully crafted in a way to benefit our president and give him an upper hand before the first handshake even takes place.
Of course, history will record the substance of the meeting – what was discussed, decided and agreed upon. There will be much speculation about what will result subsequently. These details will be essential in the pursuit of President Trump’s goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But the initial analysis of the success of the summit will likely be much more about the style than the substance. The first rendering of judgment will be captured in a single still photo and in the images we see on TV, not in an extensive policy briefing.
President Trump would be wise to study the example of another great entertainer, Ronald Reagan, who successfully navigated the stage of global diplomacy. Not bad for a former actor. Certainly worthy of an encore!