Sat | Dec 3, 2016

A presidential dressing down

Published:Saturday | November 1, 2014 | 12:00 AM

One of the axioms of public relations is to 'never draw attention to bad news by attempting to rebut it'. The Telegraph says, "One of the things that used to be drummed into baby novelists was this ancient publishing principle: Never respond. When people are rude about you in print, never write a letter of complaint."

These days, even a letter of complaint is not enough and, in Trinidad, where I have been spending some time, a situation has arisen between a female comedian and the first lady, which has led to a legal letter being sent which seeks to prevent the comedian from making jokes about the first lady's attire. I understand, as much as any other public person, how these things can hurt, but other presidents, notably in the United States where there are plenty of them, have managed these concerns differently.

An anecdote about President Harry Truman recounts that when the president picked up his Washington Post early on December 6, 1950 to read a review of his daughter Margaret Truman's singing performance, he was livid. Though conceding that Ms Truman was "extremely attractive", Paul Hume, the Post's music critic, stated bluntly that "Miss Truman cannot sing very well" and "has not improved" over the years.

thinly veiled threat

The president wrote the following letter to the 34-year-old Hume, whom he compared to the columnist Westbrook Pegler ("a rat", in Truman's view). "Mr Hume: I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an 'eight-ulcer man on four-ulcer pay'. It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppycock as was in the back section of the paper you work for, it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day, I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below! Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry. H.S.T."

When President Eisenhower was asked what he thought was the major contribution of his vice-president, Richard Nixon, to his administration, Eisenhower replied, "If you give me a week, I might think of one." When the rebel Sandanistas guerrillas fired on a press helicopter, President Reagan quipped, "There's some good in everyone."

The classic response to any criticism has been the letter by German composer Max Reger to a newspaper critic who had been particularly hard on Reger's work: "Sir: I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. Shortly it will be behind me."

What history shows is that complaints, legal letters and threats hardly ever work. You might stop someone from talking about one particular thing - your clothes, for instance - but it does not stop them from dissecting everything else. In a couple of recent cases, the people spoke up on behalf of what they thought was right.

A report on a Tonight Show episode stated, "Last night, Jimmy Fallon made a joke that totally bombed. During his monologue, Fallon ruminated on the possible gender of Chelsea Clinton's baby. 'If it's a girl, it will get some of Chelsea's old hand-me-downs. And if it's a boy, it will get some of Hillary's.' The audience did not find this funny. There were a few tiny giggles. But mostly boos."]

'pist'-poor joke

In New Zealand, a café named Scorch-O-Rama came in for some heat from its patrons because of a grisly Oscar Pistorius joke it had printed on its receipts. It read, "Oscar Pistorius was super keen to get a new bathroom door, but his girlfriend was dead against it." Female patrons especially were rightly "pist" off.

What the first lady wore was especially important in two events in American history. After her husband, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, First Lady Jackie Kennedy adamantly refused to change her bloodstained dress for the swearing in of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. "No," she said passionately, "let them see what they've done." "They" never got the opportunity. The White House photographer, thinking the sight of the bloodstained dress would be too shocking, staged his picture to hide the stains.

In 1988, when Barbara Bush was on the campaign trail with her husband George, a photographer asked "the woman in the red dress" to get out of the picture. Mrs Bush was not yet well known or the "household face" she later became. She said, "I looked down at my clothes and realised he was talking to me."

My advice to the Trinidad and Tobago president and his first lady, the only person who should look down at your clothes is you, and if you're happy with what you see, leave it; if not, get out of the picture. There are so many thin-skinned people in the world today, you would think it is contagious. The last thing you want to do is catch the disease.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the only person who found it hard to complain was the man who bought a "penis enlarger" online and was sent a magnifying glass.