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Images, Presidents, and Trial Skills

Issue Number: 3
March 22nd 2012

John Baker at NITA inspired us when he said that better advocates make for a better legal system. We strive to make the system better by providing the best quality trial services anywhere. Part of being the best means constantly striving to improve and learning from every experience. This article on campaign imagery takes advantage of the election season to contemplate how communication has and has not changed in the television era. Enjoy the article, and call Mike at MGM Trial Services to present your testimony in HD.

The Presidential Image:

Winning Trials with Tippecanoe's Booze, Nixon's "Weapon," and Dukakis' Pollution

In 1964, Daniel Boorstein said, "Our national politics has become a competition for images or between images rather than between ideals." Historically, candidates are often controlled by their icons rather than the other way around. For trial attorneys seeking to win the competition between visuals in the courtroom, historical political campaigns can provide case studies in the persuasive power of images.

Tippecanoe's Booze HelpsWin the Oval Office

William Henry Harrison Campaign Poster 1840 

In 1840, Gen. William Henry Harrison ran for president against the incumbent Martin Van Buren. After winning the battle at Tippecanoe, Harrison's supporters nicknamed him "Old Tip." Democrats derided Harrison by claiming that the "geriatric" 68-year-old would be happier sitting in a log cabin drinking whiskey. Harrison embraced the image. From then on,Old Tip's campaign was dominated by log cabins.

Harrison Poster, 1840- 
The image of a log cabin 
is top and center.

The log cabin image made Harrison an everyman. A Philadelphia distiller named E.C. Booz sold whiskey in a bottle shaped like a log cabin to honor Tippecanoe. Booz's product became so

popular that his name is now synonymous with hard alcohol. Harrison won in a landslide.

Pres. Harrison's inaugural address lasted almost two hours on a rainy day in March. Maybe he was attempting to commit to his rugged log-cabin image, or maybe he just forgot his overcoat. Either way, he contracted pneumonia and died less than a month into his term. Harrison's campaign was not the last to live and die on powerful imagery.

How Television Defeated, Made,  and then Defeated Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon knew that he had to do something differently in 1968. Eight years earlier, he had lost a squeaker to Kennedy, and many people blamed television. As Joe McGinnis wrote, Nixon went looking for "men who knew television as a weapon."


The advertisements from that campaign look like short films.  Pictures of Nixon are barely visible. Instead, the spots center on

Nixon at RFK Stadium- 1969
Nixon at RFK Stadium- 1969

Nixon's voice over powerful visuals. In one, Nixon warns of the threat the country faces from those who "resort to violence" as images from Civil Rights protests and the bloodied Democratic National Convention flash on the screen. In another, Nixon honors the "youth of today" despite its "fringes" in a montage of photos of young people. It can be argued that Nixon's concern with image drove his creation of the "plumbers" in the wake of the Pentagon Papers released to the New York Times, and instigated the events that led to his resignation. As with Harrison before him, and George H.W. Bush two decades later, the images drove the candidate attempting to wield them.

Bush Wins in a Walk at the Boston Harbor  

Regan-Bush '84 Poster

In 1988, then Vice President George H.W. Bush ran a commercial filled with images of his opponent's hometown.

Boston Harbor was an environmental disaster. The Vice President's opponent, Michael Dukakis, had been elected governor by promising to clean it up, a promise he had been unable to keep. After running the ad,Bush touted himself as "the Environmental Candidate." Once elected, he did not live up to the image, and four years later, he lost the presidency. As Daniel Shea and Michael John Burton wrote in their textbook on campaigning, "In 1992, the only people who called Bush "the Environmental President" were derisive democrats."

Ronald Regan's campaign manager, Michael Deaver said, "I'm sure the purists, who want their news unfiltered and their heroes unrehearsed, gag on the word visuals, but in the television age [an event] hasn't happened, or at least it hasn't registered, if people can't see what you see." Trial professionals know this better than most. As an unblinking and accurate reminder for the jury, an image can be the most powerful tool in an advocate's arsenal.Using the lessons of history and the experienced professionals at MGM, trial lawyers can harness the same power of imagery that has created and destroyed presidents at least since Harrison caught pneumonia.

Nonprofit Profile:

National Institute for Trial Advocacy

The National Institute for Trial Advocacy has been training lawyers for 40 years, and they are nationally recognized for their work. Less well-known is NITA's work with public interest attorneys like legal services lawyers and tribal advocates. Nevertheless, Mark Caldwell of NITA describes these programs as the conscience of the organization, the "heart of what NITA is all about."

NITA Mountain ShotThe Demonstrative sat down with the executive director of NITA in his office below the craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado. John Baker took a NITA class in 1975 and has been involved in the program ever since.He and Caldwell, the Director of Public Programs Development and Resources, were eager to talk about the NITA Public Service Program.

After October of 2008, prioritizing the Public Service Program was not easy, but Caldwell was determined. "We should be doing as much public-service work as everything else because the mission is to train everyone to improve the legal system," said Caldwell.

One example is a training that NITA is doing in Annapolis, Maryland in May. The free training will be for advocates with the Maryland Foster Care Court Improvement Project. While Baker recognizes that programs like this are essential to improving the court system, he and NITA's Director of Education for Public Service and Custom Programs, Terre Rushton, know that some needs have changed.

Baker points out that giving free courses is not enough whenpublic service attorneys are unable to afford travel expenses to attend trainings. Instead of providing free classes at the headquarters in Boulder, the organization has been setting aside slots for public service attorneys at the 50 regional NITA programs throughout the nation. The model has the added benefit of increasing professional diversity.

"They all learn from one another," Baker said. "The lawyers that are in private practice or working for firms or corporations learn from the legal services lawyers, the public defenders, the prosecutors that are also attending the same programs, so it's a good mix."

Public Service Program Coordinator, Mary Commander, explained that instructors go out of their way to make sure that training for public service advocates is the same quality as for all NITA programs. "Our faculty love teaching in our public service programs because, I think, a lot of them had that as a start." Still, NITA is attempting to take the public service program a step further.

In May, NITA will launch a pilot program training Florida Legal Services attorneys to educate other advocates. Commander said that many of the trainees will be staying an extra three days to teach trial skills alongside the experienced NITA instructors. More instructors means that NITA will have a deeper impact within the program's emphases.

NITA's Public Service Programs emphasize child advocacy, legal services, domestic violence, death penalty, and tribal advocacy. Caldwell finds the tribal advocacy work the most rewarding.

Because of the shortage of trained lawyers in many of the native nations, lay advocates represent the underserved in tribal courts. "A number of our former students, because of the confidence that they've built attending the program, have gone on both to get a college degree, and I know two of them have gone on to law school," Caldwell said. He proudly noted that Chief Justice Yazzie of the Navajo Nation has lauded NITA's project for creating a stronger and more reliable tribal justice system.

Whether in Maryland, Florida, or on the Navajo Nation, NITA is doing what it can to assist public service attorneys providing the highest quality representation. As the needs of the system have shifted, so has the organization, but the basics of good advocacy are the same no matter whether a lawyer works for a Fortune 500 or has 500 felony defendants on her docket. "What they need to learn is probably the same as anyone," said John Baker. By teaching those skills, NITA hopes to improve the entire system.

Thank You For Reading!

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Mike Miller - President 

MGM Trial Services, INC. 


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