Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Warming Up To Kerry

The past weeks have been filled with disastrous (and shocking) news from Iraq and upsetting findings from the 9/11 commission, all preceded by a press conference in which our wartime president displayed a level of inarticulateness that would get an agency exec fired off the account. Nevertheless, the Bush campaign managed not only to weather it but to raise doubts about John Kerry’s ideology and credibility.

How? By battering Kerry (the candidate who actually, like, fought in a war) with effective negative ads charging the Democrat contender with waffling and failing to support our troops. Polls show the ads worked. And as unfair as some of the charges may have been, Kerry didn’t exactly help himself with the way he reacted in his various TV appearances. When he wasn’t giving Gore-like lectures, he was fighting with Charlie Gibson. You know your campaign is in trouble if you’re snarling on Good Morning America.

Even the Kerry faithful were beginning to question whether he could mount the challenge needed to counter the Bush machine. So Kerry’s new $25 million campaign, featuring biographical spots that define who he is and what kind of president he wants to be, obviously come at the right time; plus, they’re exactly what any political consultant would prescribe.

The spots, “Lifetime” and “Heart,” are similar, opening with black-and-white pictures of Kerry’s parents, followed by stirring footage of him in Vietnam and sound bites from his daughter, wife and fellow Vietnam veterans. They ring with words like “decisions,” “service” and “strength.” They’re dead-on strategically and make perfect scheduling sense (hey, we’ve got till September to warm him up and give him a personality!). What troubles me is that they are so old-fashioned and by-the-book—they look as though they were designed frame-by-frame based on focus groups of over-40s.

But I guess that’s why political consultants, especially Democratic ones, don’t much like ad guys. (And generally, the best ad guys have been Republicans.) The average consultant’s creative ideas are about as outrageous as the humor in The Wall Street Journal’s “Salt and Pepper” cartoon. At the same time, admittedly, now is not the time for edgy or risky.

Each spot begins with photos of Kerry’s father, a dapper guy in uniform, and the fact that John Kerry was born in an Army hospital in Colorado while his father was in the Air Corps. That’s something I didn’t know. Clearly, the intention is to show service is in his DNA, but the problem is that it seems to underscore the similarity, not the difference, between Kerry’s and Bush’s backgrounds: Just as Bush claims he’s a good ole boy (who happened to go to Exeter, Yale and Harvard, and summered in the family compound in Maine), Kerry is trying to show he’s not all patrician.

In each ad, there’s also a frame of Kerry’s mom (“Mother was a community leader,” the type announces), and as if we didn’t get the service idea yet, Kerry adds, “Both of my parents taught me about public service.” In “Lifetime,” what he says next is admirably phrased and cleverly placed: “I enlisted because I believed in service to country. I thought it was important if you had a lot of privileges as I had had, to go to a great university like Yale, to give something back to your country.”

No outright attacks, no character assassination, but take that, George W.! Two swipes in one! Because Kerry is surprisingly honest in using the word “privileged” in terms of going to Yale. That attacks the perception of him as a snooty Easterner head-on—he appreciated being able to study at a great university and actually thought he owed the country something as a result. It also provides a nice segue into coverage of his decorated-war-hero status.

Next, Kerry’s daughter, Vanessa, appears, framed and lit like an angel, and also talks about service. His wife is given a quick sound bite (you can barely make out the Mozambique accent, and maybe that’s why it’s so brief) to say he’s “hopeful” and “generous of heart.” He comes back to say, “We’re a country of optimists … and we just need to believe in ourselves again.”

It’s sturdy, it’s standard, but it works. That’s the case with “Heart” as well. It more dramatically flouts his combat medals (“He earned a silver star, a bronze star and three Purple Hearts”), so even if you dispute whether one of the Purple Hearts was deserved, that’s still a lot of medals. Plus, you’ve got a Special Forces veteran saying Kerry saved his life by pulling him out of a river. (Although the guy is so deadpan and earnest, and what he says is so dramatic, that it comes off almost as parody.) But the spot mainly attempts to set up Kerry’s centrist views, mentioning his trip to Vietnam with John McCain and that he “broke with his own party to support a balanced budget.”

The capper is that “in the 1990s, he cast a decisive vote that created 20 million new jobs.” It’s probably a good idea to talk about jobs, but mentioning this bill from the Clinton age seems like a very Al Gore thing to do.

With this huge buy in 19 states and on cable, the spots might get repetitive and annoying, since the two are very similar. But they’re a good start in showing Kerry as a doer instead of plain dour.