The resignation this week of Julia Pierson, the director of the U.S. Secret Service, was inevitable for all the wrong reasons.
It’s certainly puzzling and distressing that a man armed with a knife could get deep into the White House, arguably the most fiercely protected location on the planet, and almost gain access to the President’s private residence before being apprehended and subdued.
The intrusion could easily have been catastrophic, and it appears that virtually every protocol failed miserably. Not incidentally, there have been other Secret Service failures during Ms. Pierson’s tenure. None of that is good.
It may well be that Ms. Pierson is indeed the wrong person to oversee the Secret Service. Maybe she doesn’t have the vision to lead that agency, and she understandably lost the confidence of the President. But that’s not why she lost her job. Ms. Pierson’s ouster was the result of the confluence of two factors completely unrelated to the security of the President and his family.
The first of these is that Ms. Pierson’s testimony might well be the worst performance by a politico on television since Richard Nixon’s sweaty lipped, shifty eyed performance in the 1960 debate against John F. Kennedy cost him the presidency.
Unlike Nixon in that debate though, these days even the most novice politician knows only too well that one’s appearance, attitude and other elements of visual storytelling have as much or more impact than the substance of what is being said.
So how did Ms. Pierson fail so miserably when it came time for her close up? Her general body language was defensive and her forearms held the table in front of her as if she were literally bracing for physical blows. Her facial expressions were tight and concealing, which underlined her stonewalling remarks. She responded to questions like a beat cop filling out reports rather than like the person running the organization charged with protecting the President of the United States. In short, the optics were just plain awful.
It’s hard to imagine that she would not have rehearsed for what she must have known would be a widely viewed potential skewering. It’s even harder to imagine she would not have consulted with media experts about how to frame her testimony. And if she did, well….
The other factor that led to her ouster was more nefarious. Members of congress cut short a congressional recess to stage this televised lynching. They didn’t cut short a recess to address world hunger, or the crisis in the Middle East, or even the Ebola problem now threatening to enter the U.S. (memo to the director of the CDC: start prepping for your congressional hearing). No, they cut short their vacations because they smelled blood in the water.
By crucifying Ms. Pierson on television, congress members on both sides of the aisle could look tough and righteous to their constituents without having to take any real stand. And unlike Ms. Pierson, they understand the importance of putting on a good show.
Ironically, if during the hearings Ms. Pierson had manifested the same passionate outrage about recent events as the congressional panel, or if she possessed even half their media savvy, she might still be in her job today.