Eyes Wide Shut
Hello. Mary and Steve have asked me to join this forum and I frankly find this a bit intimidating. How I process and analyze information when combined with my tendency to underwrite, all too frequently leads listeners to shake their heads at what I’ve said and then press the delete key in their brains. A few, very few, kind of “get me” and with those I frequently have interesting exchanges that sometimes leads to changing my perspective, sometimes theirs and sometimes some synthesis that we both agree upon but is different from where either of us began. If providing this forum to me does nothing more than that, I will likely reap the lion’s share of the reward for my effort.
For others I’m an acquired taste. A bit weird at first but frequently ages not too badly. So for those of you who want to strenuously reject the overall theme or conclusion I’ve drawn, assuming it has any importance to you or our world at all, let it sit for a while before you begin crafting your counter-argument. In my “underwriting,” I frequently neglect to state all the logical links. Think of it like a computer “else” command that skipped the “if not this” preface. It is rare for me to truly skip the “if not” component, but when unstated it is because either a) it is easily dismissed b) has a dead-end a couple of steps later or c) has little to offer in comparison with a discussion of the alternative.
One last point on this topic. I am frequently “ahead of the curve” be that in thought or opinion of a wider populace or simply recognizing when something or someone is “hot.” It is not because I’m prescient, but merely better at pattern and trend recognition in their nascent phase than others are. Alternatively, I’m really weak at seeing the strength or longevity of sudden and dramatic shifts in the popular consciousness and some I never “get” even when the evidence of their existence is obviously clear. Therefore, I am often right, but when I miss, it is not by an inch but by a mile. I know this and it forces me to be more tentative and cautious at times than what I sense to be the case. As such, “the buyer” should similarly beware with me.
Disclosure. I bring no readily identifiable special skills or talents to this assignment. My formal education is in business (undergrad) and psychology (undergrad and post-grad). Most of my professional work has been in business and as a financial and business analyst in a very small specialty industry. That shall remain unidentified because it is hard enough for a woman and Democrat to get any acceptance in a male and GOP dominated field, and as long as they only suspect and don’t know for sure that I’m a socialist type of Democrat, it is easier for them. The same is true for gays in the industry; they are rare and in the closet except with a few safe people like me.
Politics has always been a secret little passion of mine. Only secret because so few people really share in this and others find it incredibly dull. After the 2000 election I felt more lost and adrift than I had ever felt before. Even those around me who found the whole FL mess interesting tired quickly and moved on when I couldn’t. So, I began reading more on the internet that previously had been nothing more than a professional tool for me. Found some voices that nourished me just enough that I didn’t starve, but kept sensing that there had to be more. Then sometime around mid- 2002 I discovered a Blog and one blog let to another. MyDD took me to dKos and I read both avidly along with Atrios in the lead-up to the Iraq resolution and 2002 election. Once they were both done deals, I stayed because I didn’t really have anywhere else to go. The fun part is that I had the opportunity to read people like Steve and Billmon before they graduated to their own fine blogs. Voices that put those employed by our institutional press mostly to shame. I will never be in their league, but surely I can at least do better than Cal Thomas.
I still have few ideas on what I would like to write about, a handicap for generalists as opposed to specialists. However, since the NH caucuses and the “scream” loop brought to us by the what passes for news organizations in this country, I have found myself oddly disengaged from the specifics of this election cycle, and far more interested in the dynamics and elements of our modern day elections. Those that are overvalued and those that are undervalued. Large such as cultural, institutional, mass marketed and small such as individual character and personality. And how to make sense of the wins and losses by both major Parties since 1960 when campaigns moved away from communicating ideas exclusively in written and spoken words and into the artificial visual world. The most I can expect to do is shine a penlight on tiny pieces of the puzzle since I have neither the expertise nor time to engage in a lot of research. If I am wrong on a fact, I need to be told that, but I’m probably not too interested in alternative interpretations or extrapolations of certain facts because that tends to drift into looking like an argument about “facts” and such arguments bore me. (I’m also a lousy typist and poor proofreader, but I will try to moderate the shrillness many of my “quick hit” comments betray.)
Now that I have written the longest ever and most boring preface for a first time blog writer, I would like to begin with a seemingly simple topic. Effective political TV ads and imagery of politicians. Not cute, entertaining or fun but effective at communicating and persuading the viewer on the issue or candidate. An ad or image can be effective in both the short term and long term or one or the other. Oddly one can also be effective in the short run and a total loser in the long run and vice versa. I can only think of one ad that was truly effective on all levels and will return to that later after surveying a few others.
The simplest in the imagery category is that which completes a pre-existing “narrative.” Ford stumbling on the steps of the POTUS helicopter was one. It visually reinforced LBJ’s decades old statement that Gerry couldn’t walk and chew gum the same time. Quayle’s misspelling of potato completed the “he’s dumb” narrative, and ended any chance that he would lead the GOP any day. GHB’s “golly gee” in the supermarket check-out, “clueless as to how people in this country live.” Dole falling off a campaign rally stage, “he’s really too old.” Every candidate offers opportunities like these, but their greatest power is when they are both simple and complete, as contrasted with beginning, a “narrative.” Every candidate offers many opportunities to be so caught or trapped. But it is those that are spontaneous that have the most power.
When the narrative is weak, the faux pas doesn’t gain much currency. GWB was captured in 2000 referring to a reporter as a “major league asshole.” It didn’t resonate for several reasons. First most people don’t hold journalists in high esteem. Had he been referring to someone like Oprah Winfrey a whole different story would have been written. Second, it didn’t complete any strong narrative about GWB. If the “GWB is a jerk” narrative had been written, this would have been powerful confirmation. Even though it gave lie to the “GWB as nice guy” story, single moment spontaneous imagery is only powerful to confirm not deny. Finally, with GWB it was still verbal and not visual. Far more powerful was his “fist pumping and ‘feel good” antics before his “the war has begun” speech. I observed this live and found it jaw dropping, but then again it “confirmed the GWB construct in my mind” and not that in the minds of the public, and therefore lacked “power.” Similarly, to me he looked like a complete jerk with his “Top Gun” stunt. Again completing my narrative. GWB could trip on steps, fall off stages, misspell “dog” and not be damaged. Okay, maybe misspelling “dog” is a stretch since the “is he too dumb” narrative is out there.
One of the most fascinating is “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Both made and unmade GHB. Even though the statement preceded the narrative that GHB was not completely truthful, a couple of things made it unique. It was word based but he made his lips the strong image. It was stark and left no wiggle room for his future actions or knowledge of the viewer. In those ways it was not unlike Clinton, wagging his finger and saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Everybody may accept that all politicians lie, but we tend not to forgive when we catch them in a whopper.
Positive imagery that reinforces a narrative is rare. That still doesn’t stop politicians from trying. However, at best it is neutral and seen for what it is, a staged performance. Does anybody think that GWB enjoyed reading the “Very Hungry Caterpillar” to children? Laura Bush is not much more convincing in spite of all the effort they have made to groom her image into that of the dedicated librarian. (It was simply something she had last done far too long ago and the image of librarians as readers to children is a weak one.) Feeding the hungry at holiday time has become so hackneyed that doing it has become a defensive act – not doing it is worse. When the feeding is performed a day in advance so that the politician can be free on the actual holiday, it merely reinforces the meaninglessness of the act.
There is a risk in attempting to implant positive images. Clinton attending church with a prominently displayed Bible after confessing was possibly the worst choice he could have made. GWB showing up in Iraq with a faux turkey was only slightly less dreadful. Compare those with JFK at his desk in the oval office with Caroline and John Jr. playing. We will never tire of the latter and we can’t forget the former fast enough. Contrition, compassionate CIC and loving but busy father. For all we know, Clinton’s was the most authentic of the three and JFK’s the most inauthentic. But that’s not how the audience framed them. We saw hypocritical, silly and idyllic father and children delighting in each other’s presence.
When images get seared in our memories, little that follows can change them. Jacqueline Kennedy will forever remain in that pink suit splattered with blood on November 23, 1963 and dressed in black with a veil a few days later, bravely holding the hands of her young children and later walking behind the casket of her husband. She could later marry one of the wealthiest men on earth not so much for love but for money, and still we saw a beautiful young widow and not a gold digger.
Occasionally in the life of a politician, fate hands them a gift. A moment to graphically present an authentic profile of the individual to all of us. One such was LBJ taking the oath of office on Air Force One with Jacqueline Kennedy beside him. That one image told us that he cared about both the nation and a young widow. His shoulders were strong enough for the weight of our need for reassurance and comfort for the hurt. All subsequent evidence confirms that moment was even more authentic then we knew at the time. He found a place for Jacqueline and the children to live, and she and LBJ remained fond of each other. He demonstrated sure footedness in the duties of the POTUS except for that little mess in Vietnam that the legacies of Ike and JFK handed him.
Authentic images of this sort will always be rare, but now we have entered a new era where they can be manufactured. This is likely true when any new communication medium gains maturity, previously newspapers and then radio. Neither of those media have the inherent power of the visual medium.
GWB completely flubbed the visual imagery test on 9/11. If America had watched endless replays of the guy sitting there looking clueless after being told about the 2nd plane into the WTC, the guy would have been toast by the mid-term elections. His team managed to come up with all of one picture from his day on AF1 that could barely be construed as appearing that he was engaged in something. Yet, the gods smiled on him a few days later.
Standing on a pile of rubble (just as his handlers had staged it) with a megaphone, all of GWB’s years as a cheerleader suddenly paid off. “I can’t hear you.” “But I can hear you.” It was like Chauncey Gardner. The clueless idiot was suddenly profound. A quip, a smart aleck retort bought him political currency that $200 million couldn’t buy. It fed into an unwritten narrative that Americans wanted and felt the need for. Tell us that you are up to the task. We’ll believe any sign we’re given. Just give us a sign. Everybody played along with it – well except for people like me who still saw Chauncey Bush and not Moses Bush. There was not anything inauthentic with GWB in the moment. The inauthenticity derived from the media and the public. It’s power is ongoing in every person who says, but GWB had such a wonderful opportunity to truly “bring us together” both nationally and internationally, how could he have squandered all that goodwill? Whereas, I saw nothing more than a cheerleader, a war whoop, when his side was down nothing to six and he controlled the magic ball that he could use to make it ten to six. And being greedy would never give it up even when it was fifty-four to six. A win isn’t enough for some people; they want nothing short of a win for their team that will be for all time.
Finally (the one you knew I would get to sooner or later, and probably wished it were much sooner), the “scream.” The most inauthentic image ever to support an inauthentic narrative. We tolerate anger every day over silly petty things. We tolerated the national anger over 9/11 so much that it justified bombing people who had no control over 9/11 or power to hurt us in the future. Sure they had a bunch of thugs living in their midst but bombing the country was not the most effective action we could have taken. It may have even been the least effective. We cheer the angry action hero when he seeks out and destroys those responsible for misdeeds. We had little trouble discriminating between righteous anger and irrational anger. For almost a year the media script on Dean fostered mostly by DEMs was that he was the “Angry Man.” Beware the “Angry Man.” Problem was that Dean wasn’t actually angry anymore than most DEMs and it was really more righteous outrage than anger at what the GOP is doing to this country and the total capitulation of the DEM Party to GWB and the GOP. That, however, did stop them from flogging him with it over and over again.
Think back to 2000. GWB and the story “written” for him. “Not too swift.” Imagine this storyline began a year before NH and was repeated continuously for a year. Then imagine an interview where he is asked what he thinks about a “flag burning” amendment to the Constitution, and he says, “This country was founded on our flag. We fought the British for the right to fly our flag. Our flag is the most important symbol of America. It’s worth more than all the scraps of paper in Washington. Anyone who burns it is a traitor and should be executed.” Bye, bye Georgie. For a variety of reasons not the subject of this survey, Iowa put Dean on the ropes. But it was “the scream” that knocked the breath out of him and caused his knees to buckle before a truly solid punched was landed by his opponents. I watched that speech live and there was no “scream.” Not his best speech. He was clearly disappointed. But there was no “scream.” The scream only existed in a manipulated and edited form of the actual event. It was a manufactured image in that he bore little resemblance to the original. It was inauthentic to the person of Dean, it was inauthentic as to the image it sought to portray and it supported in unauthentic narrative.
So, where does it go from here. Does Dean go into the political trash heap with Gore who became the “Sore/Loserman” poster in Florida? Does he become like that poor innocent man lynched by the TV legal “experts” for abducting and killing Elizabeth Smart? Or perhaps he’ll be like Richard Jewell, who most people now feel badly about. But the media at best merely said, “Oops, mistakes happen,” and is allowed to carry on as they have been. Or will the media pull back at a later date as they did in 1968 when they didn’t reprise the image of the 1962 Nixon saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and the press had not done anything one-tenth as egregious to Nixon as what they did to Dean? Your guess is as good as mine.
The one outcome that I am confident in is that such blatant manipulation will not work against the GOP, and the GOP now has a “get of our jail free” card. Democrats, in their once again craven desire to short-circuit the political process and get these primaries out of the way, elected not to loudly and in unison cry foul. They have now forfeited any legitimate right to do so in the future without appearing hypocritical. Try it against GWB (Rove watched this as well as those 527 ads in Iowa very carefully) and watch him turn it into the evil DEMs who will do anything to win. Try it and watch the GOP and media canonize Dean, the one of their own that they slayed, as they take out other DEMs. It will be interesting to see if there is a second act to the Dean story and if there is, just how long before the actor enter from stage left.
(Part II will survey of TV political Ads and my choice as the Most Effective.)