Geithner’s Guru

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

The rehabilitation of Timothy Geithner continued apace last week, a development that provoked smiles of satisfaction and sighs of relief inside the White House in roughly equal measure. For any Treasury secretary, there are two constituencies that matter: the markets and the media, both of which had brutally panned Geithner’s performance out of the gate. But then the secretary released the administration’s plan to drain the toxic assets drowning the country’s banks, and the Dow promptly spiked. And he followed that with a full-blown media relaunch—first a rare Sunday-show doubleheader on March 29, then an even rarer Brian-Katie-Charlie network-news trifecta on April 1 from London, where the secretary was accompanying President Obama at the G-20 meeting—that had a similarly salutary effect on his own stock, as he displayed a degree of clarity and self-assurance that had been notably lacking before.

No doubt experience in front of the cameras, a place Geithner had spent precious little time prior to his elevation by Obama, accounts for much of his improvement. But not all of it. Indeed, many Democratic insiders point to another factor behind Geithner’s marked betterment in the public-presentation department: the Sheehan effect.

The Sheehan effect refers to Michael Sheehan, the media-training guru who has served as the speech coach at every Democratic convention since 1988, laboring in a windowless room beneath the stage to tune up speakers before their podium turns, and has worked on countless campaigns. Among Sheehan’s most prominent clients have been Bill and Hillary Clinton, and also the current president—whom Sheehan prepped for his star-making 2004 convention keynote and last year’s nomination acceptance as well as his televised debates with John McCain. (At one point Sheehan told Obama that their goal was to make McCain come across like Mr. Wilson from “Dennis the Menace.”)

Sheehan’s reputation is so stellar that even his competitors can’t help but sing his praises. “Mike has an intuitive feel for the performer and for the performance on television,” says David Dreyer, a Democratic consultant who worked in the communications shop of the Clinton White House and then in the Treasury, as an adviser to Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. “He has a glandular understanding of words, how they sound and what they mean, and teaches people, very effectively, how to deliver the words so that their bodies, their voices, and their overall appearances are emotionally consonant with the medium and the message. He has an unmistakable gift for wringing better performances out of his speakers, no matter how shy or introspective or simply not cut out for the public role they may be.”

All of which—particularly that last sentence—makes Sheehan an ideal match for Geithner, whose raw performance skills are, shall we say, not exactly Obamaesque. That Sheehan was put on the case is no great surprise: His relationship with Obama is terrific, and he’s close to the president’s senior adviser, David Axelrod. Sheehan, not surprisingly, doesn’t like to talk about his clients or his methods—which include, according to someone who’s seen him work up close, “a seven-word sentence (an exercise to get trainees to say it seven times, emphasizing each word) to demonstrate how intonation and emphasis affect meaning, and using the ‘Wimbledon analogy’ to stop the most common form of Teleprompter error (the tendency to move the head from screen to screen)”—in detail. But the fruits of his efforts are already apparent.

“The words haven’t changed much since his confirmation,” observes Dreyer of Geithner, “but he sounds and looks more confident. The climate is getting better—meaning he has a program, Obama’s steadfast support, and somewhat steadier markets—and these give him a bit of wind at his back.” Indeed, beyond his plan for the banks actually working, what Geithner could use most right now is a bit of gravitas-generating gray hair. Not the kind of thing that Sheehan can provide, but that a few more months in the Washington snake pit almost inevitably will.

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Geithner’s Guru