Varnish Remover

Getting Bombed With Clinton

The Threat, produced for the Dole campaign by Don Sipple of New Century Media.

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In 1964, the Johnson for President campaign produced the classic “Daisy Ad,” which successfully cast opponent Barry Goldwater as a nuclear warmonger without even mentioning him by name. The ad juxtaposed a little girl counting the petals on a flower with a nuclear countdown/detonation and asked if Americans wouldn’t feel safer with LBJ as their president.

Now, three decades later, the Republicans extract (esoteric) revenge with The Threat for the spot that has rankled them for years. Their ad portrays Clinton as the candidate who is placing the same petal-plucking little girl–and the nation’s children–at risk with his lax drug policies.

After The Threat aired, the Dole campaign gleefully revealed that the spot was a feint: It was backed by only a few advertising dollars and a low time-buy. Its aim was to provoke a hasty response from the Clinton war room, and that is exactly what happened. The Clinton camp’s rejoinder aired within hours across the country, at a cost of millions of dollars. But the feint also fooled the news media and the Republican spinmeisters. The ad was widely shown on the network news, and Dole’s supporters on the talk-show circuit wheeled the verbal cannon toward the drug issue. The effect was amplified by real news–a government report showing a rise in teen-age drug use.

The Threat, the swan song of Dole’s second–and now departed–media team, Don Sipple and Mike Murphy, is an opening salvo in the assault on Clinton’s character. Shot in documentary monochrome, The Threat moves from its defining “Johnson-girl-with-flower” first scene to successive shots of youngsters on a playground using, buying, or being tempted by drugs. The narrator cites two incontrovertible facts as the front page of the New York Post (“TEEN DRUG CRISIS”) moves across the screen: 1) “Teenage drug use has doubled in the last four years”; and 2) “Clinton cut the Office of National Drug Control Policy by 83 percent.” In fact, this office, an enclave of the White House, represents a barely detectable portion of the drug-policy budget. The effect of the language, the admakers hope, reaches far beyond its technical truth.

As the parade of endangered children continues, the narrative glides explicitly to the character issue: “And [Clinton’s] own surgeon general even considered legalizing drugs.” Though that surgeon general is long gone, the Dole strategists assume that this is the last issue the Clinton campaign wants to discuss or respond to.

As the spot concludes with a very young teen-ager about to light up, the narrator capitalizes on the public perception that Clinton is a weak waffler. The positive spin on Clinton’s waffling is that he is a moderate, pragmatic politician. The negative spin is that he suffers from character flaws. The Dole ad, naturally enough, pushes the latter, and links Clinton’s “weakness” to the drug war. “Bill Clinton said he’d lead the war on drugs and change America,” the narrator says. “All he did was change his mind.”The Threat stimulates viewers to ask the question the ad dare not raise directly: Is Clinton soft on drugs–and on moral issues in general?

The ad ends with an abbreviated nod to Dole’s slogan, “A Better Man for a Better Future,” as the narrator asserts that “America deserves better.” Whether the voters deserve it or not, we’re likely to hear a lot more in coming spots about which man is better–or worse. It may be a long-shot strategy, but Dole is far behind.

–Robert Shrum