Air war

The men who would be president launch their TV campaigns, with -- Surprise! -- lots of smiling kids in the background.

Published November 22, 1999 12:00PM (EST)

Some say the trouble really began in 1966, when a Madison Avenue ad executive by the name of Harry Treleaven moved to Texas to help a 42-year-old son of a senator run for Congress.

Treleaven (pronounced TRELL-eh-ven) had been with the J. Walter Thompson ad agency for almost 20 years, helping to sell Lark cigarettes, Ford automobiles and Singer sewing machines. But his task in Houston was more daunting: Treleaven was to sell George Herbert Walker Bush -- the losing 1964 Texas Senate candidate, a prep-school and Yale University grad whose dad had been a senator from Connecticut -- to Houston voters.

Against a popular incumbent Democrat named Rep. Frank Briscoe.

In a district that had never before elected a Republican.

Treleaven liked his chances, though, not only because he thought Bush was a better candidate, but because Bush performed better on television. Treleaven was a devotee of Marshall McLuhan's writings, especially as they pertained to politics.

As McLuhan wrote, and Treleaven memorized, politics were now about "the icon, the inclusive image. Instead of a political viewpoint or platform, the inclusive political posture or stance ... In the TV image we have the supremacy of the blurred outline ... Policies and issues are useless for election purposes, since they are too specialized and hot. The shaping of a candidate's integral image has taken the place of discussing conflicting points of view."

In a memo about the Bush-Briscoe race, Treleaven, referring to himself in the third person, wrote, "that what he saw [of Bush] he liked -- and, more importantly, he recognized that what he liked was highly promotable. Political candidates are celebrities, and today, with television taking them into everybody's home right along with Johnny Carson and Batman, they're more of a public attraction than ever ... Bush ... must be shown as a man who's working his heart out to win."

Treleaven made sure that 89 percent of Bush's budget went into advertising, and almost 60 percent of that to TV. Come Election Day 1966, Bush defeated Briscoe soundly, 58 percent to 42 percent.

Treleaven next was called to sell Richard Nixon. As documented in Joe McGinniss' superb "The Selling of the President 1968," Treleaven set about creating "a Nixon image that was entirely independent" of Nixon's beliefs. "Nixon would say his same old tiresome things but no one would have to listen," McGinniss wrote. "The words would become Muzak. Something pleasant and lulling in the background. The flashing pictures would be carefully selected to create the impression that somehow Nixon represented competence, respect for tradition, serenity, faith that the American people were better than people anywhere else, and that all these problems others shouted about meant nothing."

Or, as a Nixon staffer wrote in a Nov. 27, 1967, memo about campaign strategy, "The TV medium itself introduces an element of distortion, in terms of both its effect on the candidate and of the often subliminal ways in which the image is received. And it is inevitably going to convey a partial image -- thus ours is the task of finding how to control its use so the part that gets across is the part we want to have gotten across."

The rest, of course, is History Channel. Nixon wasn't the first presidential contender to look to Madison Avenue -- President Dwight Eisenhower kept Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn on retainer -- but as Advertising Age noted in 1994, "Nixon shaped presidential campaign advertising ... with a sense of organization that spawned the all-star ad teams used by White House wannabes since 1968."

And now, 33 years after Treleaven temporarily relocated to Houston to use the skills he'd learned selling Lark cigarettes to elect a man named Bush to Congress, Bush's son is among those hitting the airwaves with carefully crafted propaganda to sell you, dear viewers, a better brand of president.

Treleaven died of heart failure in December 1998, but his craft lives on. As proven by the ads put out in the last few weeks by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, publisher Steve Forbes, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, the unbearable lightness of being on television is more discomforting than ever before.

Here, then, is a guide to what's really being said:

Candidate: Texas Gov. George W. Bush

Name of Ad: "Every Child"

Theme: Bush loves kids. And not just little white ones!

Produced by: Maverick Media

Running on: Local TV in Iowa and New Hampshire

Style: With "Lifetime Channel" music treacling in the background, the ad shows kids of all hues in various settings intercut with Bush speaking to the camera about the importance of educating kids.

Substance: Bush makes a "solemn commitment: that every child will be educated." This will be achieved by returning power to states and school districts while also "measur[ing] results." Failed schools will be met with charter school and voucher opportunities, though the word "voucher" isn't used. Bush, hooked on Phonics, will make Head Start classrooms start teaching the program. "Every child must be educated," Bush says, "because there are no second-rate children, and no second-rate dreams."

Subliminal: Plenty of minority children shown, including a black boy standing on a street corner amid urban blight. When charter schools and vouchers are discussed, a white woman is shown teaching a black boy.

Of note: The tag line -- "George W. Bush, a fresh start" -- drives home the feminine-hygiene-product feel of the effort, which is clearly targeted at women.

Candidate: Bush

Name of Ad: "Successful Leader"

Theme: Sound bites from Fox News Channel, video from Children's Television Workshop

Produced by: Maverick Media

Running on: Local TV in Iowa and New Hampshire

Style: With an odd juxtaposing of conservative street-cred narration and images of "compassionate" squishiness (as well as that damn "Romper Room" music again!), this ad heralds Bush's inevitability while simultaneously attempting to reassure conservatives that that's a good thing. In a perfect symbol of Bush's campaign, the GOP message -- tax cuts, tort reform, etc. -- is almost hidden amid half a dozen shots of Bush hugging and smiling with little kids. One black-and-white shot with grown-ups is included to show that Bush can do the grown-up work when he needs to, though he prefers the Colorforms fun.

Substance: Calling Bush "the Republican Party's best hope to win the White House," an announcer highlights Bush's gubernatorial record: "the two largest tax cuts in Texas history," lower state spending, local control of public schools, reduced welfare rolls, fewer "junk lawsuits" and a 38 percent reduction in juvenile crime.

Subliminal: In just 30 seconds, Bush shakes a hand, gives a hug, waves to the crowd, pats a back, gives another handshake, smirks, pats another back and hugs his wife.

Of note: "A fresh start for America" takes on a new meaning when it's said over the closing shot of Bush lovingly embracing his wife. (And especially when combined with a clip from his Spanish radio ad, which says, "George W. Bush is a family man.")

Candidate: Bush

Name of Ad: "Hopeful"

Theme: I'm going to try to keep everything nice.

Produced by: Maverick Media

Running on: Local TV in Iowa and New Hampshire

Style: The ad features Bush, in a purplish shirt, talking to the camera about his "hopeful" message while intercut with sporadic shots of a random babe, some folks at a table and Bush at a state fair hugging his wife.

Substance: Bush blames America's "cynicism" on "broken promises" and the disappointing behavior of unnamed elected officials. He also faults negative campaigning, specifically "mud throwing and name calling." Bush says that "Americans are sick of that kind of campaigning," favoring instead hearing "what's on people's minds and where the candidates' hearts are." Bush promises to run a "hopeful and optimistic and very positive" race.

Subliminal: As Doonesbury has pointed out, Bush is decrying negative campaigning while taking a veiled slap at President Clinton's Lewinsky-related antics. The ad can also be seen as a preemptive answer to the anticipated negative ads against him by Steve Forbes -- who saturated the airwaves in '96 with ads slamming presumptive nominee Bob Dole -- as well as in response to the myriad media inquiries about Bush's personal life and possible past drug use.

Of note: The most notorious "broken promise" of a politician in the last 20 years was when Bush's father said, "Read my lips, no new taxes."

Candidate: Steve Forbes

Name of Ad: "Bio"

Theme: Steve Forbes is an accomplished guy with a wife and kids and everything. And he knew Reagan!

Produced by: Eisner/Johnson Political Consultancy

Running on: National cable, local markets in Iowa and New Hampshire

Style: Forbes is portrayed as mighty, as background music swells behind him -- as if you're being introduced to Forbes for the first time (which is the case, sadly, for a majority of the electorate). Hoping for a tabula rasa, the ad tries to sell Forbes as a man's man, family man and entrepreneur who just happened to find himself on top of the world. Tellingly, Forbes is not so much as once shown actually speaking.

Substance: An announcer calls Forbes "a champion of economic growth and a visionary," "a conservative with innovative ideas and practical solutions" and "a man with character and direction." Forbes' managing of the successful Forbes magazine -- as well as his "vast knowledge of America's role in an ever-changing global economy" -- is cited as an example of what he could do for this country. Forbes' call for a flat tax in '96 is represented by a picture of him on the cover of Newsweek, and the flat tax itself is described as "his call for reduced government and increased opportunity for all Americans." The most outlandish claim comes when Forbes tries to shore up his foreign-policy credentials by asserting that his leadership of Radio Free Europe "helped play a role in the fall of communism."

Subliminal: Number of photos/mentions of Ronald Reagan: 4. Number of photos/mentions of Forbes' gay father from whom he inherited all his wealth: 0.

Of note: Shot of headline reading "Forbes stunner in Arizona" -- a reference to his 1996 victory in the state over Bob Dole. Forbes largely achieved this by saturating the Arizona airwaves with negative ads about Dole, for which he's earned enduring animosity from the Republican establishment, leading to an ad by ...

Candidate: George W. Bush -- though via a group of establishment moderate GOPers called The Republican Leadership Council.

Name of Ad: "Warning"

Theme: Note to Forbes -- You'd best not go negative on Bush, bitch.

Produced by: Larry Weitzner of Jamestown Associates

Running on: Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., TV

Style: Camera pulls in on face of middle-aged woman who scolds Forbes for going negative in '96. Bad Forbes! Glasses perched on her nose, powder-blue Patagonia-esque fleece jacket worn over her white turtleneck, sitting in the backyard of her suburban home, the woman is Republican Everywoman.

Substance: The woman says she "kind of liked" Forbes when he ran in '96 until he "spent all his money tearing down his opponents" thus "hurt[ing] the Republican Party." She says she hears Forbes is planning another assault this time, which -- if true -- is "just going to help the Democrats." She concludes, "If you can't say anything nice -- don't say anything at all."

Subliminal: We're friends of W, and we want to win. Don't fuck with us, Stevie.

Of note: A majority of the RLC's advisory board has endorsed Bush, and many are actively raising cash for the man who -- they hope -- will bring them back to power.

Candidate: Steve Forbes

Name of Ad: "Social Security"

Theme: I'm Steve Forbes, and I've got some ideas about this Social Security thing.

Produced by: Eisner/Johnson Political Consultancy

Running on: National cable, local TV in Iowa and New Hampshire

Style: Shot in grainy black and white to best represent what we'll charitably refer to as Forbes' "old-school" style, Forbes (without sports jacket) sits at a lunch counter rapping with a cross-section of voters, including one African-American man.

Substance: Forbes proposes removing taxes and penalties on Social Security and offers "a choice" for younger voters, introducing "a new system where most of your Social Security taxes will be deposited directly into your own private account."

Subliminal: Gen-X chic -- ad cuts to attractive young 30-ish woman nodding in agreement when Forbes starts chatting about younger voters.
Of note: Despite the RLC's odd scolding ad, Forbes has been all about substance -- so far. Another ad, quite similar to "Social Security," is up and running on the subject of taxes.

Candidate: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Name of Ad: "Ready to Lead"

Theme: John McCain is a war hero and special-interests-battlin' maverick. And did I mention that he's a war hero?

Produced by: Stevens Reed Curcio

Running on: TV in Boston, New Hampshire and South Carolina

Style: Ad uses powerful black-and-white footage of young flyboy McCain being carried off by angry Vietnamese mob, suffering in the POW camp and limping off a plane upon his return to the United States. Switches to color film for more recent shots of McCain as congressman and senator, as well as video from his announcement speech.

Substance: Heavy on bio, short on policy, as summed up in the ad's tag line: "John McCain. Character. Courage." More than half of the ad tells McCain's heroic saga from Vietnam. There's more detail about that particular horror than about any issue. Issues are treated in the vaguest terms. McCain makes a fairly naked appeal to veteran voters ("never forgetting those heroes with whom he served") and is described as "taking on the establishment, and defying special interests," which he will presumably continue as president since he's "ready to lead America into the new century. His mission: to fundamentally reform government." Number of mentions of campaign-finance reform or tobacco reform: 0. Contains clip of McCain saying, "I swear to you, that from my first day in office until the last breath I draw, I will do everything in my power to make you proud of your government."

Subliminal: Includes footage of McCain and Ronald Reagan walking around at the White House. Chiron comes up at three different times reading: DEFYING SPECIAL INTERESTS, MORE EXPERIENCE and MORE COURAGE.

Of note: This is actually "Ready to Lead II" -- the original ad had to be re-edited so that footage of McCain walking through Arlington National Cemetery -- where his father and grandfather are buried -- could be removed. The Army had complained that such footage amounted to McCain's using federal property for a political purpose. Also: Both photos on the cover of his bestselling book, "Faith of My Fathers," appear in the ad. So at the very least, might be good for sales.

Candidate: George W. Bush

Name of Ad: "Dangerous World"

Theme: This is a mad, mad world and we need W. (and, presumably, his dad's team of foreign-policy advisors) to protect us.

Produced by: Maverick Media

Running on: TV in South Carolina -- the location of myriad veterans

Style: Using fairly disturbing footage ` la "The Day After," the ad cuts back and forth from a little girl wandering through a ghost town, to Bush speaking to the camera, to missiles being fired. At the end of the ad, a soldier's arm appears from off screen and holds the girl's hand.
Substance: The United States needs a "foreign policy with a touch of iron, driven by American interests and American values," Bush says. Arguing that "we live in a world of terror, madmen and missiles," Bush promises to "rebuild our military," which he claims "is challenged by aging weapons and low morale." By building missile defense systems, Bush says he will defend the United States and its allies "against blackmail."

Subliminal: Soldier's face is never shown. Thus, the only male face to appear is the strong, confident, smirkless one of the governor.

Of note: Tries to neutralize one of the strengths of his strongest opponent, former POW McCain, as well as erase the perceived weakness that Bush is soft on foreign policy.

Candidate: Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley

Name of Ad: "Crystal City Bio"

Theme: Bill Bradley is a basketball star, an effective senator and a life-saver.

Produced by: A special team of ad executives calling themselves "The Crystal Team," after Bradley's hometown of Crystal City, Mo.

Running on: New Hampshire and Iowa TV

Style: Black-and-white photos accompany Bradley's impressive C.V. -- "basketball hero, an Olympic gold medalist, a Rhodes scholar and a U.S. senator from New Jersey for 18 years." Then the ad offers "60-Minutes"-like close head shots of testimony from two senators. Then a woman claims, "Thanks to Sen. Bradley, my daughter is alive today." On screen come the words: "It can happen."

Substance: Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., credits Bradley with the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., talks up Bradley's speech on the Senate floor after the Rodney King beating, when Bradley used two pencils to hit the lectern 56 times. "The Senate was hushed as the sound of those pencils echoed through us," Kerrey says. Then a woman named Maureen Drumm seemingly claims that a Bradley amendment mandating 48-hour hospital stays for mothers and their newborns saved her child's life.

Subliminal: "It" can happen. What's "it"? I'm not quite sure, though I think it has something to do with the idea that Bradley is the messiah.

Of note: Though Bradley's legislation indubitably saved lives, Drumm's claim is based on her feeling that had Bradley's bill not passed she wouldn't have even gotten pregnant a third time. The Bradley folks are offended by the media's investigation into the totally specious claim. They say all that matters is "that's how Maureen Drumm feels." I personally feel that Winona Ryder is an idiot for not wanting to date me, but that doesn't make it so.

Candidate: Bill Bradley

Name of Ad: "A Different Campaign"

Theme: Bradley is different from all the rest of 'em, not least of which because he has substance.

Produced by: The Crystal Team

Running on: Iowa and New Hampshire TV

Style: Bradley being Bradley. Head shot of candidate speaking to camera earnestly, intelligently and more than a little sanctimoniously.

Substance: Bradley, offering "more than sound bites and photo ops," says that he wants to run a different kind of campaign. He'll focus on "issues, ones that concern you," and will "spell ... out in detail" what he thinks about the matter and what he plans to do if elected. "Sometimes you'll agree with me, sometimes you won't," he says, "but at least you'll know exactly where I stand."

Subliminal: Unlike any of the other ads on TV (including Bradley's own biographical one), the ad is as un-slick as it gets in political advertising. The medium is the message.

Of note: Now the "It" in "It can happen" is identified -- it's "A Different Campaign" that can happen. Which is true in some ways, and totally bogus in others.

Candidate: Vice President Al Gore

Name of Ad: "Nuclear Test Ban"

Theme: The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that the Republicans shot down on Oct. 13 is important. I know what I'm talking about here. Put me in charge and I'll get the sucker passed.

Produced by: Century Media Group -- but supposedly written by Gore himself

Running on: Iowa and New Hampshire TV

Style: Intercut with shots of Gore talking right to the camera: images of JFK, headlines about CTBT rejection, nuclear missile being fired, photos of Gore with Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz. Gore calmly delivers his lines in what is, for him, decent delivery -- neither too wooden nor too cloying.

Substance: Both "Democrats and Republicans have made nuclear arms control a national priority," Gore says, but "now the Republican Senate has rejected" the CTBT, which was "signed by 154 nations" and supported by "former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter administrations." Gore asks for the viewer's support, as well as a mandate "to send this treaty back to the Senate" when he's elected. Because "if you agree, we can change this mistake and once again lead the world toward peace."

Subliminal: Photo of Gore in between Gorby and Shultz -- as well as the claim that "I've worked on this for 20 years" -- implies Gore's experience. The shots of JFK remind people of Democrats' better days, as well as the fact that Gore -- while not quite JFK in style -- is also young and handsome. And the issue itself reminds voters of how scared we all were during the nuclear arms race. "Unless we get this one right, nothing else matters," Gore says.

Of note: Gore heralds former President George Bush for having "stopped all U.S. testing" -- but not by name, crediting instead "the last Republican president."

Candidate: Gore

Name of Ad: "Children"

Theme: Health care for every kid

Produced by: Century Media

Running on: Iowa and New Hampshire TV

Style: A jacketless Gore talks to the camera amid splices of shots of kids, mommies, daddies and hospitals.

Substance: Gore, the second-highest officeholder in the nation since January 1993, calls it "just unconscionable" that "at a time when we have the strongest economy in history" the United States has "millions and millions of children who have no health-care coverage at all." Gore sets "affordable, high-quality health care for every child in America" as a priority, only after which can the United States then "go down the road toward coverage for every single American."

Subliminal: Images of white kids and a closing shot of a white family resting in their living room make it seem like a Band-Aid commercial, because it's targeted at the women's vote Gore so desperately needs.

Of note: Completely and utterly stolen from the Bradley campaign. Including the outrage at the current administration's apathy on the issue. Which sounds a little strange coming from Gore.

Candidate: Gore

Name of Ad: "Bio"

Theme: There's a lot you don't know about our vice president. He was a cool young idealist, for one. And, er, he still is.

Produced by: Century Media

Running on: Iowa and New Hampshire TV

Style: Black-and-white footage of young Gore with senator dad; shots of Gore in uniform in 'Nam, headlines from Gore's newspaper days ("Haddox Indicted for Bribery.") Then BAM! Headlines of Watergate, images of the Kent State shootings, riots -- Gore is called to service! Shots of young Gore/old Gore. "The young man who decided to fight for principle is still leading the way," the narrator says.

Substance: The ad attempts to paint Gore as someone decidedly not a creature of Washington, a man disillusioned by politics, especially since his father lost his Senate race in '70 "because of his support of civil rights and gun control." (The claim is only partly true, since Gore Sr. was also defeated because he was an opponent of the Vietnam War as well as perceived as being out of touch with Tennessee.) The ad says that Gore returned from 'Nam "doubting politics could make a difference" and thus he "worked as a reporter exposing corruption." (That wasn't officially Gore's "beat" at the Tennessean, but it is based on one key investigation Gore broke.) The ad also mentions that Gore "studied religion at Vanderbilt" -- which is true, though he never earned the degree, and he also studied law at Vanderbilt but somehow that part ended up on the cutting room floor. "Al Gore was only 28, but he'd seen a lot about what could go wrong in America -- and decided to fight back," the ad says, heralding Gore's leadership on the environment and his opposition to the Reagan budget cuts in 1981. Seven years of being veep is compressed into one tie-breaking Senate vote on gun control. Gore's "cause" is clumsily listed as "working families," better health care and education, and cheaper prescription drugs.

Subliminal: Slams on Bradley include the call for a prescription drug benefit -- Gore will soon slam Bradley for having been a tool of the pharmaceutical industry during his three terms in the Senate. And, of course, there's the claim that Gore "stood against the tide opposing the Reagan budget cuts in health, education and help for the poor" -- cuts Bradley voted for.

Of note: Not one single photo -- or mention -- of this guy you may have heard of: President Clinton.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore Bill Clinton Democratic Party George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.