The Tuesday Team: The Inside Story of the Admen Who Got Reagan Re-elected in ’84

How we faced the most high-stakes pitch of our careers

Mike Deaver had an idea.

Instead of making commercials and a convention film with the political professionals, he wanted to see what Madison Avenue could do taking on Ronald Reagan's re-election.

Not that the political pros had been slouches in 1980. That 1980 advertising had to depend, though, on media tonnage to overcome what it lacked in ideas and production. It played like one long product demo; i.e., Ronald Reagan truly served eight years as governor of California. Its success was gauged by focus groups that drove the content of political advertising then if not now. By the end of October, the people around tables chomping on sandwiches were not talking about George Gipp or the host of General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days, but someone who had indeed prepped seriously to be president.

This time, Mike Deaver wanted advertising worthy of what he saw as the triumphant Ronald Reagan years. Both he and Nancy Reagan, The New York Times reported, thought the 1980 commercials were "static and uninteresting." In the winter of 1984, he also remained wary of the Senate and House GOP defeats of the previous election and the daily attacks in free and paid media during Democratic primary campaigning.

He knew, too, that he was only deputy chief of staff and would need to pitch the team and their work to the chief of staff, James Baker, and the Reagans themselves.

His first hire was Phil Dusenberry of BBDO, agency for GE, Pepsi-Cola and Dodge. Phil had both Madison Avenue and Hollywood creds, as he ran the agency's creative department and, in his spare time, had produced and worked on the Malamud/Redford baseball movie The Natural, which was about to debut. Phil was assigned the convention film, a now-necessary form thanks to President Carter's Georgia compatriot Gerald Rafshoon, who introduced Coca-Cola sensibilities to nominating gatherings and succeeded in moving even the sleepiest of delegates and television networks.

"They got Coke," Deaver figured, "we got Pepsi and Dusenberry."

The author with President Reagan, 1984.

He then offered the task of running the advertising to Jerry Della Femina, founder of Della Femina Travisano & Partners and author of what one reviewer called the Ball Four of advertising books, From Those Wonderful People Who Brought You Pearl Harbor. The title was grabbed from a faux line Jerry once suggested in a meeting at the Ted Bates agency for new client Panasonic, whose parent company was Matsushita. 

Jerry—whose agency was known for irreverence, an understanding of contemporary consumers and a "working-class" Brooklyn wit—accepted. He told Deaver: "When I was a boy I asked my father, 'What's the difference between Republicans and Democrats?' He said: 'Democrats are for poor people like us. Republicans are for the rich.' I answered, 'I want to be rich so I'm a Republican.' "

Deaver explained to the press that Della Femina's "lack of experience in campaign advertising was an asset rather than a liability."

A very short-term asset, it turns out, as a week later Deaver asked Della Femina to come down to D.C. and told him, "Someone in the administration didn't want you." No reason given. "I was just told I was no longer being considered," Jerry says. "Later I heard rumors that someone in the ad biz had gotten an old interview I did with OUI magazine to Nancy Reagan. The article talked of drug use and 'sex contests' as an ongoing part of ad agencies, including my own. If I had known it at the time, I would have defended myself. I thought the article a hatchet job and sued them right after it ran in 1981."

Jerry went back to New York "sad and disappointed." And quizzical: Deaver ended the exit interview by asking Jerry to name his replacement. Jerry told him to get Jim Travis, the head of Della Femina Travisano's West Coast office, rather than go through interviewing more agencies. Travis wasn't a writer or producer or researcher, but if the title had existed then, it would have fit Travis: showrunner.

Deaver and Travis named it the Tuesday Team after the day of the week most people go to the polls. (One member of the team later suggested that the only way to win Washington D.C.'s electoral votes was to put up billboards all around town saying "Don't forget to vote next Wednesday.")

Travis started to build the team with account man Walter A. Carey from New York's Leber Katz Partners to run the business side of the agency. Carey recalls being offered free space in the new Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, but thought it a little showy. Instead he booked almost windowless donated offices in Rockefeller Center, entrance on the Avenue of the Americas, or Sixth Avenue, as it was referred to by the establishment wing of the GOP.

Travis and Carey then drafted writer Jim Weller (about to do Joe Isuzu, the triplicitous car salesman) and art director Ron Travisano (who had worked with Jerry Della Femina since the mid-'60s and begun a move to commercial film direction). They got Hal Riney from Ogilvy & Mather on the West Coast. Riney, a legend in San Francisco, had only recently gained national recognition in the ad business as the writer and the voice for the Gallo Wine film fests. They then signed Sig Rogich of R&R Partners in Nevada ("What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas") at the recommendation of Senator Laxalt, the legislator closest personally to the president.

Travis filled out the initial Tuesday Team roster with one volunteer: me.

Mike Deaver, Jim Lake and Jim Travis, Washington D.C., 1984

Travis and Carey cut a reel of commercials from the group. Meow Mix, Gallo Tawny Port, several beer brands, Crocker Bank, Barneys New York, Pan Am. It finished with the closest thing the group had to a political message: an attack ad to leave them laughing by MCI on its bully competitor, the former monopolist AT&T.

They took the reel down to Deaver and ran it in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, a shade august but the only room then with a monitor and tape player. The venue worked, as other White House luminaries and staffers dropped in, and a rule with showing a reel of commercials is that the larger the audience, the better the reception. Travis and Carey got smiles in the right spots and applause at the end and entrée to the next step in the new business routine—assessing the marketing problem, or as the Dale Carnegie remnant puts it, the opportunity.

 

The War Room

The political pros showed up at Della Femina Travisano's office (sans Jerry) for the first meeting and ran it. Pollsters Richard Wirthlin and Bob Teeter plus Roger Ailes, remembered as a key character in The Selling of the President 1968, and Doug Watts, who had managed California races, were all introduced as strategists, a title that was a first for the Madison Avenue attendees.

Roger showed a reel of political commercials dating back to the LBJ "Daisy" spot in 1964 through the Reagan ones from 1980. He interrupted the flow occasionally to comment; most important, he talked timing, the notion of "when to go positive and when to go negative." In truth, he seemed more to relish the negative despite having done a memorable positive message himself for Al D'Amato's first Senate race in which Al's mother endorsed him, the premise being his negatives were so high no other person would go on camera for him.

Wirthlin took the group through the polling he had done, national and battleground states, although "battleground" was not yet a part of the strategists' lexicon.

The polls surprised the team. They showed a nation far from the almost 60 percent of the popular vote Ronald Reagan would eventually achieve. By October, coronation was a word thrown around about the campaign; here in mid-March, it looked like the outcome was in doubt.

Jim Weller in Dallas, 1984.

The somber tone continued through Wirthlin's breakdown of the electoral vote landscape. He drifted off and looked around the table as if to say, "I know it's early and we just wanted to lay out the territory in this meeting. But if you guys have any ideas, notions, top-of-the-head thoughts of where to go, we can discuss them."

The Volunteer reached into his pocket and took out a piece of paper with some typewritten words (it was 1984).

Slight pause to unfold the crumpled paper, somewhat theatrical.

He started talking, less like Don Draper reflecting on his whorehouse upbringing and more like, "I have this rough script. It kinda could be a useful template for a launch. As I recite this litany, try to picture scenes of America peaceful and prosperous and normal and happy matching up scene by scene with the copy breaks."

Another pause to unfold the crumpled paper. Even more theatrical.

"This is America, Spring of 1984. And this is America. And this. And this. And this too is America. Yet just four years ago people were saying the job of president was too big for any one man. But look around. What do we see? Jobs are coming back. Housing is coming back. And for the first time in a long time, hope for the future is coming back. And isn't it interesting that no one is saying the job of president is too big for any one man. President Reagan. He's doing what he was elected to do." (Pause) "Kind of an obvious strategy to the story here. Country's going down the tubes. Country comes back. President deserves credit for doing the job thought maybe more appropriate for two presidents," the Volunteer continued in a slight selling mode.

Ailes said, "It works. Got me to think of what could be the visuals."

Riney added: "He raised a question and answered it. Good script. I don't have anything on paper, but I do see three words: Prouder, Stronger, Better."

Nice tagline, the Volunteer thought. Talks about the country and not the person.

 

Sampling the Product

A week later, the group convened in the executive office building, including Ailes, who was just starting to work on Mitch McConnell's effort to upset the Kentucky incumbent senator, and with the addition of art director Barry Vetere, who got the Volunteer to work on a presentation and produce and help direct and edit commercials.

The assemblage sat at a long table (a really long table even by District of Columbia table standards)—the clients (Ed Meese, Deaver, Margaret Tutwhiler, Jim Lake, Lyn Nofziger, Dick Darman and several aides) on one side, and the Tuesday Team, now joined by White House speechwriter Ken Khachigian and pro Ed Rollins, on the other.

As Deaver starts to talk, the almost floor-to-ceiling 14-foot doors open and Ronald Reagan enters. He is followed by two military cameramen snapping potential 2016 selfies for each member of the team as the president walks around the table shaking hands with everyone.

When he finishes his circumnavigation, he looks at the room and says, "I figured if you're going to sell soap, you ought to see the bar."

As the laughter quiets down, he asks the assemblage if they have any policy questions or things he can clear up.

Silence.

"Well, I am going to go now. Before I destroy the illusion."

And the doors reopen and close behind him.

Fade to black.

 

The Pitch

James Baker now enters the picture. He is the White House chief of staff, and he sits in the center of the table looking to see if these advertising people and Mike Deaver know what they are doing.

First up is Hal Riney. 

He brings a monitor and does a calm introduction to what he will show. "It's a representation," he says. "The pictures are stock, and the music is only there as an example. Two elements representing a finished product are the script and the voice."

He turned the monitor on. It popped from black to light and then white, and a harbor shot appeared. Music came up, and the voice (Hal's own) began: "It's morning again in America."

It's not often that you know in the first few seconds of a presentation that you have the account, but right away it was clear that this rough film, with finely chosen scenes and music and an ethereal voice, had won the audience: James Baker. It was already a classic, iconic commercial and it hadn't run or even come close to finishing its 60-second rough track.

While he had them in his sights, Riney also showed a foreign policy spot ("The Bear") using a simple metaphor as an argument for a strong defense.

"Now we'll turn it over to Barry Vetere, who has some additional stuff to show," Jim Travis said, and Vetere rose now in the unenviable spot of following a tour de force of a presentation.

One of the team's old storyboards

Barry knew how to shuffle along, though. He had co-founded an agency in Chicago in the '70s and was about to open another one in Manhattan. So he fell back on the oldest way of boasting: humility. "This spot is represented here with some simple pasteboards. We call them storyboards, but this one has a combination of drawings, by me, and some photos I grabbed from a stock photo book.

"The copy is denotive, and each vignette in the script is matched by one visual in the board. It opens with a simple farm truck leaving a farm house encircled with the flowers of early spring in the morning and ends with the same truck returning home at night."

He then read the script that the Volunteer had read in the first meeting.

More things were presented, some of which would run in the post-convention period, but at the conclusion of the "creative" presentation, Baker extolled the videos he had seen from Hal Riney "…and that pasteboard stuff. Very good. We should go with it." He looked across at Mike Deaver and seemed to say in a Princetonian way, "Hey, you were right, man."

Doug Watts and Wally Carey had the idea of breaking the campaign with roadblocks of network television. That was possible then, as the networks in question numbered only three. But the idea ensured that after a couple of days the advertising would be seen by as large a part of the nation as possible. If there is a difference between media planning and buying by the pols and consumer agencies, it is that the politicos believe in massive spending over short periods and regard the media weight that products and services put to their brands as piddling and powerless to move poll numbers rapidly.

 

On Location

On the West Coast, Hal Riney hired John Pytka, a top director of photography and commercial director, to take over the town of Petaluma, California, and capture the people and backgrounds that make Americana Americana.

On the East Coast, Barry Vetere went to director Tibor Hirsch, a Hungarian émigré who had lived under the Nazis and the Communists and hated them both. He was a backer of Ronald Reagan and worked for union scale. 

Phil Dusenberry separately wrote a scenario for the convention film. He planned to use footage those guys came back with, plus he would film the president with a crew in Normandy for Reagan's "Boys of Pont du Hoc" speech. That speech was, in its evocation of the heroism of kids climbing a cliff to win a war, fully up to the occasion of the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

Sig Rogich thought he could get an exciting track for Phil's film, Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American," and began negotiating for it.

Doug Watts in Dallas, 1984.

The next locations were the dreaded focus groups for the Vetere and Riney rough cuts. Dreaded because Roger Ailes was alleged to have once defined advertising focus groups as the one medium in which amateurs tell professionals what to do. In this case, the groups were used as a disaster check, the key question being credibility. Did the commercials exaggerate the recovery and Ronald Reagan's participation in it?

Today, you watch groups "live" on your computer in the comfort of your home or in a cushy corner of your office. In 1984, the researchers and account people attended as many as possible and got tapes from the other ones. Wirthlin and Teeter, of course, were behind many of the one-way glasses. In truth, focus groups rarely help; however, in the 1994 Congressional election, Frank Luntz made a reputation by finding within groups language from voters that other voters found compelling.

Teeter and Wirthlin did the rarest of things: They went out on a limb and pronounced the commercials winners. The spots were shipped without changes to make the Carey/Watts network roadblock air dates.

 

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