Newsweek’s National News editor, Jon Meacham (who went on to become Editor) called me up to his office one day in 1998 and asked me if I could diagram President Clinton’s study for a story they were doing on Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The study was the little room off the Oval Office where Clinton “wasn’t” having “sexual relations with that woman.” I said, “I’ll give it a shot,” which was what I always said when I had no idea if I could pull something off.
I quickly discovered that this tiny room was one of the most private bits of real estate on the planet. I couldn’t find a single diagram of it anywhere, not from the White House, not from any books about the building and not even from the Library of Congress (they had helped me out before with an interior diagram of an ancient mosque in the Middle East I needed to go with a massacre story). Most diagrams of the West Wing just indicated a huge empty white space that somehow contained the presidential potty, dining room, pantry and study.
And even if I had been able to find a diagram of the room’s location and size I still had no idea what was in it, assuming that every new administration moved in their own stuff. I needed to speak with someone who knew those rooms intimately, who had actually been in them.
So Jon suggested I call his friend George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s former White House Communications Director and Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy who had left the White House shortly after Clinton’s second term began under not-so-pleasant circumstances. He was now teaching right up the road from us at Columbia University.
I called and explained to George what I wanted and he said to come on up. When I got to his office he spotted me in the doorway and held up a finger for me to wait a second while he wrapped up a phone call to a U.S. Senator. (I had no idea which one, but he kept saying “Senator.” I was impressed.) When he hung up he signaled me in and said, “Now what is it that you want?”
Once he understood George enthusiastically scootched his chair up to mine so that our knees were touching, my large sketch pad resting between us (although the dramatic tilt of the sketchpad highlighted the fact that my knees were considerably higher than his).
The first question I decided to ask him threw him off guard, but he lit up with a smile and it broke the tension between us. I asked,
“Can you set me up on a date with Dee Dee Meyers?”
Dee Dee was Clinton’s press secretary and a good friend of George’s whom I secretly had a crush on (I mean, check out those shoes!). He laughed and broke it to me easy: sorry, but she’s taken. We quickly got down to business and George did his best to describe and sketch out the rooms, but it was hopeless. He was getting frustrated at his inability to draw, and I was getting frustrated looking at the drawing upside down.
Then, George had a brilliant idea. Pantomime! He went over and stood in the doorway of his office, faced me and said, “Okay, see if you can follow this. I’m standing in the doorway that leads out the Oval Office into the back rooms.” He then walks into his office and says, “I’m stepping into a hallway. It’s about 15 feet long.” He quickly turns to his right. “I’m now looking into the bathroom. It’s about yay big” and he holds out his arms. “There’s a sink on the left, a toilet on the right.” He turns. “I am now walking down the hallway and passing Clinton’s campaign button collection on either side of me.”
That’s when I smiled. First of all, this was working! I was getting what he was trying to do and sketching madly, but mostly I was amused at George’s mechanical movements as he strutted down the imaginary hallway robotically moving his arms to indicate Clinton’s button collection.
“I am turning to my left.” (I could obviously see him do this, but I enjoyed how he was describing his every move. He was so in to it!). “It’s the door to the study” (here we go!). “The room is so big by so big.” He points as he says, “There’s a writing desk on my left with a small TV set on it, a credenza with family photos on it along the back wall and a rocking chair next to that. On my right is Clinton’s golf club collection leaning against the wall.”
It was just what I needed. After he finished his incredibly successful visualization we really had something we could work with and we quickly fine-tuned the details of the sketch. (Although I forgot to ask some things. You’ll notice on the sketch that I scribbled “Window, one or two. Confirm.” You’ll also notice that George’s (Steph’s) office is indicated on the far left and that the dimensions were expanded a bit later in the final graphic.)
Here’s the sketch made in George’s office at Columbia University and the images that follow show the evolution of the graphic once I returned to the office.
We had little pads at Newsweek that allowed us to sketch rough layouts quickly. Here I went for the diagonal look to give the graphic more energy on the page. I didn’t have enough detail to zoom in on the study, so I kept the image simple and broad. The little boxes with Xs indicated where the photos would go of various people who occupied offices.
I then colored it up a bit, keeping it monochromatic since I didn’t know much about the actual color of things. Besides, a whole lot of color can distract from the message.
A sketch I made of what the audience looked like from our perspective: everyone sitting forward, but looking to my upper left at the Twitter feed as we spoke.
It’s disconcerting to speak on a panel to hundreds of people at the South by Southwest conference in Austin and have almost NO ONE looking at or listening to you!. You theatrically pound the table, wave your arms and throw your best intonation at them, but to no avail! And those who are occasionally looking at you are doing so with a clear look of feigned interest, the same sort of dull, sightless look that frequent flyers give to flight attendants as they demonstrate the use the oxygen mask.
So what’s going on here? Why did all these people come to see us just to ignore us? Are we boring them? No, but the audience has been offered a better, more irresistible experience that they can’t ignore. Behind us, on a screen the size of a brownstone, is a visual display of brain candy, some Prezi magic that’s streaming tweets from the audience, a cacophony of highlights, commentary, analysis, jokes and criticism. It was like streaming heroin, and everyone had become addicted and were loath to turn away. They were like rubberneckers driving by a car accident who are praying that they don’t see a dead body (or slamming tweet), while praying that they do. Even EYE wanted to be looking back at the feed instead of listening to us!
Why would they listen to real voices drone on when the really good stuff is being digitally filtered for them. It’s the difference between reading a press release and a news article that puts it all into perspective. We’ve grown up in a sound-bite culture driven by television news shows that do things like condense 45-minute interviews with a U.S. President loaded with content down to, ‘Americans demand jobs!.” (Okay, I concede the sound-bite quote was awesome whenever George Bushisms, like: ”Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”) In a hurried society, sound-bites of information without context are the new norm.
- One was doing the listening, translating and interpreting what was being said. This takes the skill of a seasoned United Nations translator or a graphics recorder, those people who draw speeches on huge boards in real time, like my friend Sunni Brown (I hope you went to her wonderful SketchCamp yesterday!). You have to somehow listen to what’s being said while, AT THE SAME TIME, translating what has already been said into another language (verbal or visual).
- The rest were mostly ignoring us and reading the Twitter feed.
Hundreds of people came to hear us. That’s my wife, Dorsey, in green, and Charlie’s wife, Elena, next to her. Even THEY were watching the Twitter feed. Dorsey tried to make me feel better by saying it was a horrible distraction (that I think, like everyone, she loved to read it!)
But you know what, we didn’t mind…
I anthropomorphize objects, usually at the object’s request. These are hand dryers I see at the gym that were just begging (literally, they were asking me) for bodies.
Click to enlarge.