Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Jack Potter became our post master general in June. Four short months later, the country was gripped by a major Cipro-scoring, latex-glove-wearing, mail-shunning-and-chucking national panic over anthrax. Potter was interviewed on the CBS Early Show, and after a tough round of questions, Jane Clayson asked whether he could assure the country that the mail was safe. He said no. Unlike Harry, Jack Potter has no magical powers.

He answered honestly, and I respected him for it. Over Hallo ween, comics joked about the new scary costume: a postal worker. Cartoonists drew dogs whimpering in fear of the mailman. Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service had created a new big-budget campaign for Express and Priority mail. Showing that the USPS is “everywhere,” it featured photos of big blue mail boxes sitting conveniently in the darnedest places: in the middle of a lettuce field, next to a fisherman in a stream and just outside your hotel-room door (now interpreted as the “terror right outside your door”). The campaign was scrapped entirely.

Less than a month later, although “scant traces” of anthrax are still turning up in Washington, D.C., and the source has yet to be found, the mail is delivered faithfully every day, and our preoccupations have turned to getting The Bin out of Afghan istan. And although I feel for the postal-service employees and mail carriers who have to function in conditions we still don’t have the proper information about, I wasn’t in the mood for another heart-thumping, throat-lumpening patriotic commercial.

That was until I heard “Let,” the first word of Carly Simon’s reworking of her 1988 hit song “Let the River Run” for the USPS. Postmaster Potter himself called Simon to ask her to do it, and she donated her time.

To say that the music rocks is an understatement—it knocked me out of my seat, it’s so buoyant, transporting and soaring. The sepia-toned images are cut to match Carly’s big voice and rousing lyrics perfectly. And the type on the screen moves with the lyrics and the pictures, and adds depth to both.

“We are mothers and fathers,” it begins. Later, it invokes the famous credo, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night,” adding, “nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged.” And with the “nation challenged” line, we hear Simon singing “trembling, shaking.” Because of the amazing convergence of the three elements (lyrics, pictures, type), I already had shivers. And after “will stay us from the swift completion of our annointed rounds,” one more word of type appears: “Ever.”

The spot goes to color after that and speeds up, showing images of postal workers moving forward, and these shots are also cut precisely to the triumph of the beat.

Obviously, the song itself is filled with power and emotion. It’s uplifting, but not in a creepy, lugubrious, “walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain,” telethonic way. It’s exactly the right kind of emotion for what we face, with lines like, “Let the dreamers wake the nations.”

Coming around again to the song, this time, Carly Simon adds a swell of humanity and emotion in the sing ing that’s palpable. Perhaps the context applied to the Oscar-winning song has made a difference. For the release of Working Girl, the thrust was Melanie Griffith getting out of Staten Island and striving to make her mark on Wall Street. This, by enormous contrast, is about our country’s collective safety and future.

With all the talk of rivers running, the footage in the last half of the spot becomes a metaphor for the country’s waterways, with mail moving everywhere. It also could summon images of the human circulation system: flowing healthfully, delivering clean, fresh blood to all the organs, the absolute antidote to anthrax shutting down the body.

In the end, to boost the morale of the 800,000 postal employees along with the rest of us, Jack Potter fashioned the ultimate response