Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Bashing Begins

The biggest irony about Bush’s initial flurry of three spots is that they were meant to be upbeat and celebratory. These were not the dark, ugly, Willie Horton-ish spots of the Bush Sr. era but rather were intended to evoke more “Morning in America”-style glorious, sunshiney, positive feelings. And given the mud-slinging to which most campaigns descend, this was a highly civilized, above-the-fray way to begin, which could have set the right tone for everyone. Instead, the ads offended some family members of 9/11 victims and set up a media and political firestorm.

Which led me to the question: If President Bush doesn’t know how to spend a happy thing like what appears to be the largest ad budget in presidential-campaign history—if he thinks he’s giving us positivity and instead the images in the ads inadvertently spur weepin’ and wailin’ among the electorate and give Democrats and the media an easy reason to bash him—what does that say about his judgment in spending the national budget?

Late last week, the Bush-Cheney campaign replaced two of the spots with a set of new ones. The most innocuous one is gone. “Lead,” the most let-Reagan-be-Reaganish in tone, was filmed at the White House and showed George and Laura in a cute tight shot, talking straight to the camera (unscripted!). (Interestingly, Bush’s political partner is not mentioned in any of the spots. It could have been interesting to set up cyborg Cheney separately, in a remote location, to interject in the chatter.) While “Lead” didn’t say much of anything, the Bushes both looked glowing, almost glued together.

The one initial spot that remains, “Safer, Stronger,” is the most inflammatory and offensive from the first round. It’s the one that contains the shot of flag-covered remains being removed from Ground Zero. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for Bush to use images from 9/11 in his ads. It happened on his watch, after all. But there is no such thing as a “tasteful” picture from that day. How could Bush and his advisers not understand that this is the iconography of pain, which is still traumatic three years later and so easily seen as gratuitous and exploitative? No matter how you put it, the attack on the Twin Towers can’t possibly be part of a celebratory message telling Americans how much “safer and stronger” we are now, unless you’re trying to induce a severe case of cognitive dissonance.

That’s why the initial set of ads had a schizophrenic, hardly-any-there-there quality. And in “Safer, Stronger” and also “Tested,” what didn’t come off as insensitive seemed kind of dumb: Why piss off 9/11 relatives and firefighters in one fell swoop? (“Tested,” the spot that showed shots of fake firefighters in fake gear, is now off the air. Talk about a stupid place to get cheap! Spend the money to celebrate the actual people, at least!)

The takeaway from the first round was that you can’t make feel-good ads about feel-bad years, period. So though the Bush team (led by Maverick Media’s Mark McKinnon) tried to go positive, its only alternative was to start attacking Kerry early and often. And that is exactly the direction of the two spots released Thursday, which the campaign refers to as “contrast” ads.

“100 Days” sounds almost poetic and FDR New Dealish. It reminds me of the spot the struggling Eastern Airlines issued in 1990 while trying to restore confidence. That, too, featured planes taking off, a metaphor of possibility. Here, a calm female voiceover explains that “a president sets his agenda for America in the first 100 days” as we see images of the country’s power (a military plane taking off, which makes much more sense than showing Ground Zero). She lays into Kerry, and the memorable phrases describing his offenses are “spending billions,” “weaken the Patriot Act” and “United Nations.” The spot ends with, “John Kerry, wrong on taxes, wrong on defense.”

It’s right on message, as all Bush has to campaign on is taxes and defense. But with a still-wobbly economy and employment flat, the only way to make our present circumstances seem positive is with a reverse double negative (the damage Kerry could do).

The second spot, “Forward,” has that same contrary momentum as it tries to present a clear choice: “We can go forward with confidence, resolve and hope,” the president says, “or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are not a threat.” The syntactical somersaults are amazingly deft. They suggest that “turning back” is where the Kerry camp would take us. But since Saddam Hussein did not prove to have weapons of mass destruction, whose illusions are we talking about?

Full disclosure: To show how biased my view of Bush’s ads were even before they were released, when I saw that the title of one spot was “Lead,” I thought, “Hey, he’s going to come clean about environmental issues!” (Of course, it was intended to be the active verb.)

But as it turns out, there is one great Bush ad, on the Web site, created before any of these commercials but not meant for TV. Like a cleverly updated Alice-in-the-looking-glass concept, the spot is all about tunneling into the Internet to get information on donations to Kerry from special interest groups. It’s a legitimate attack, and it’s even persuasive.

Meanwhile, this second round of spots is trickier, visually smarter and a lot more scary than the first.