Visual beats verbal every time.
Which could be one of the reasons House Republicans are struggling to gain traction in the quarrel over renewing a payroll tax for 160 million Americans.
In 1984, CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl set out to do a serious story about how President Reagan manipulated television to his political advantage. The audio track of Stahl's piece hammered hard. It highlighted his budget cuts for elder-care and public housing. Stahl pointed out that the president went dark and was nowhere to be seen after a bombing killed troops in Beirut.
But the video said something else.
Viewers of Stahl's piece saw the president cutting ribbons, hobnobbing with senior citizens, chatting up inner-city kids, playing football with Secret Service agents, saluting uniformed military personnel and speaking in front of flowing American flags.
Hedrick Smith related this tale in his tour-de-force book "The Power Game," which provides an inside glance at how Washington really works. Stahl told Smith "it was the single toughest piece I had ever done on Reagan."
Stahl's phone rang as soon as the story aired.. A White House official was on the line. Stahl braced for a tongue-lashing that never came. Instead, the aide applauded Stahl on her story.
"They didn't even hear what you said," the official said. "Don't you know that the pictures are overriding your message because they conflict with your message?"
The official then told Stahl the last thing she'd want to hear.
"It was a four-and-a-half minute free ad for the Ronald Reagan campaign," the official said.
Since Monday, House Republicans have excoriated the Senate to "come back from its vacation."
The House left Washington last Friday afternoon as the Senate toiled late that night. It crafted a two-month extension of the payroll tax break. The Senate approved the package Saturday by a vote of 89-10 and left.
The two-month renewal didn't sit well with House Republicans. When the House fled Friday, no one was sure when it might return. But leaders recalled House members Monday night. House Republicans immediately turned up the volume on the Senate as they pushed for a year-long extension of the payroll tax cut rather than the interim deal.
"Don't vacation until you finish your job," lectured Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX). "We Republicans are willing to work through the holidays to get the job done."
"The Senate has an obligation to stand with us and follow the Constitutional duty to go to conference and resolve differences," said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA).
"Let's stay here, do work and have the Senate do work, too," suggested Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).
"Let's send a message. Come back to Washington," admonished Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH).
The problem is that the House and Senate approved different bills. So when the House met Tuesday, one matter on the docket was an initiative to "go to conference" on the payroll tax issue.
It's typical for the House and Senate to OK different versions of legislation. There are only two ways to iron out those differences. One option is "Ping-Pong" where the bodies volley tweaked renditions of the bill back and forth until they align. The alternative is for the House and Senate to convene a "conference committee." A conference committee is like a KitchenAid blender for legislation. Both bodies appoint "conferees" who mix the versions of the bills into a final, unified product. The House and Senate must then approve the revamped measure before it can go to the president for his signature.
Last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) brokered the two-month extension with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). After consultation with McConnell, Reid essentially closed the Senate for the year, believing the House would have no problem accepting the Senate-passed bill in a game of Congressional Ping-Pong. But it didn't work out that way. On Tuesday, Republicans launched a "recall the Senate campaign" and appointed a group of eight conferees to a phantom conference committee.
This is where the visual starts to meet the verbal.
More than 100 House Republicans assumed their places on risers behind House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol Tuesday. It was a well-executed piece of political stagecraft. In media linguistics, positioning such a large contingent of rank-and-file Republicans behind the speaker exuded strength in numbers and party unity. That's where Boehner introduced the eight conferees who he hoped would negotiate with the Senate.
"It's now up to the president show real leadership. He said he won't leave town til this bill is done," said Boehner. "The next step is clear. President Obama needs to call on Democrats to go back into session."
Less than two hours later, the House took its final vote of the day. Perhaps of the year.
And then jailbreak.
Pandemonium reigned as lawmakers raced from the House chamber toward the exits.
Waves of lawmakers spilled down the House steps into cars parked on the plaza. Young Congressional aides piloted many of the vehicles, ready to whisk the departing House members to Reagan National Airport across the river in Virginia. But they weren't going anywhere soon. A Washington version of "Carmageddon" hit as hundreds of vehicles were jammed in a bottleneck, blocking the driveway leading to Independence Avenue.
News photographers snapped photos and cameramen from NBC and FOX captured video of the mass exodus.
Inside the Capitol, there was a lot of prattle about Congress needing to stay. But the verbal couldn't compete with the visual of this escape.
On Wednesday morning, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) organized a made-for-TV tableau with the conferees sitting around a gigantic conference table. The scene showed the conferees were at the Capitol working as Christmas crept closer. They were waiting for Reid to recall the Senate and appoint conferees to resolve the impasse.
"Republican negotiators are here, ready to work with our counterparts in the Senate to resolve differences," Boehner said.
As Republicans spoke about Jeffersonian conference committees and a sense of duty to toil through the holidays, another visual soundbyte unfolded in the House chamber.
The House was scheduled to meet for just a few minutes in what's called a "pro forma" session. By design, the House conducts no business during a pro forma session. It simply gavels in, has a prayer, recites the pledge, takes care of minor clerical matters and adjourns. It's routine for the House and Senate to conduct such abbreviated meetings to comply with the Constitution.
Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) drew the honor of presiding over the House Wednesday. And as soon as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) finished the Pledge of Allegiance, Fitzpatrick terminated the meeting at the three minute mark.
"The House stands adjourned until 10 am Friday," Fitzpatrick said.
As the Pennsylvania Republican rapped the gavel, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was already in full-throated protest.
"Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!," bellowed Hoyer as he tried to call up the Senate's payroll tax bill for debate.
Fitzpatrick ignored him, sauntering off the dais and disappearing into the Speaker's Lobby nearby.
The House of Representatives controls the cameras and microphones inside the House chamber. The House was out as soon as Fitzpatrick hit the gavel. When the House completes its business for the day, the institution usually shuts off the cameras and kills the mics immediately.
But not Wednesday.
Instead, the cameras remained on for a moment. They revealed a wide shot of the rostrum and showed Fitzpatrick exiting the chamber. Meantime, Hoyer was nowhere to be seen. But the Maryland Democrat's microphone remained on. Hoyer immediately began a play-by-play commentary worthy of Bob Costas, narrating Fitzpatrick's hasty retreat.
"As you walk off the platform! You're walking off the platform! You're walking away just as so many Republicans have walked away from middle class taxpayers and the unemployed!" thundered Hoyer.
The House then unceremoniously killed the cameras and mics.
After all, the House was no longer in session and that's how it's supposed to work. It's rare for the House to ever recognize any lawmaker to speak during a pro forma session.
But it didn't matter. Hoyer secured a video soundbyte - of Republicans walking away...and shutting down the TV cameras - even as the GOP tried to exude an image of their members imploring irresponsible Democrats to come to the table and negotiate.
Fitzpatrick's "walkout" melded with the video narrative of House members rushing for the doors. It also meshed with a moniker Hoyer cast on the GOP Tuesday.
"This is the walk away caucus with the walk away leadership," Hoyer declared. Hoyer then described various instances where he believed Republicans "walked away" from efforts to avert a government shutdown and avoid a federal default.
Shortly after Wednesday's brief House session, Hoyer and Van Hollen called an impromptu press conference by the Will Rogers Statue near the House chamber. CNN's Lisa Desjardins asked if both the GOP's photo op and the Democrats' floor stunt was a "dog and pony show."
"Dog and pony show?" Hoyer scoffed. "This is democracy."
Speaking of canines, perhaps it was only appropriate that after President Obama placed a courtesy call to both Boehner and Reid Wednesday, he ventured to a PetSmart in Alexandria, VA. The president purchased a $24 rubber chew toy for the family dog, Bo.
Of course, the video and news pictures showed Mr. Obama walking Bo through the aisles on a leash and wishing cashiers a Merry Christmas.
The president and his dog emerged as the White House's visual image of the day.
And just like Reagan in Lesley Stahl's piece 27 years ago, visual trumps verbal every time.