Seconds, produced by Bob Squier of Squier, Knapp & Ochs for Clinton/Gore ‘96.
Seconds daringly capitalizes on Jim and Sarah Brady’s conversion to the Clinton camp, combining the horrific footage of John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan with a stirring endorsement of Clinton from Brady, who was grievously wounded in the assault.
Nancy Reagan has denounced Seconds as falling below “even the minimum levels of current political advertising.” Apparently Mrs. Reagan hasn’t seen many political spots lately. President Clinton himself decided to reject her demand that this ad be yanked off the air.
The spot is aimed at swing voters–suburbanites, Republican women, and fiscal conservatives who disagree with the dominant Republican position on issues like guns and abortion–precisely the kind of people Jim and Sarah Brady were when he was serving as President Reagan’s press secretary in 1981. Seconds speaks not only to the swing voters who are swinging so decisively to Clinton that he leads in normally Republican suburbs and states; it captures and plays upon the mood of an electorate that this year seems to despise the negative ads if they involve personal attacks. (The Clinton campaign has run plenty of negatives, but almost entirely focused on issues.)
The first scene is the familiar news footage from 1981: A smiling and waving Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton takes a bullet to the chest. The message here is that even the most optimistic person in America can be struck down by a gunman. The presence of this defining Republican president in a Clinton ad signifies and reinforces the appeal across partisan lines.
The visual shifts to the wounded and bloodied Brady on the sidewalk and we recognize the voice, heard by tens of millions during the Democratic National Convention. Jim Brady’s slow words hit like soft hammer blows–“It was over in a moment, but the pain lasts forever.” We next see Brady at home, recovered, lessened physically, but seemingly indomitable. The scar across his forehead speaks to the injury he suffered; and as he speaks, he passes the torch of his own courage to the president who signed “The Brady Bill.” We don’t even have to be told what the bill is anymore; we may not know all the details, but we know–and the pictures tell us–that it’s designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and unstable loners.
In footage of the bill’s signing, the president hands the pen to Jim Brady, whose voiceover celebrates Clinton’s “integrity” and his determination to “do what was right.” Issues like gun control–not Whitewater or FBI files or some murky allegations about an Indonesian connection–are the measure of character in Seconds. Without a single negative word, this spot efficiently repels the Dole campaign’s ninth-inning attack on Clinton’s character.
Brady says, “When I hear people question the president’s character, I say, look what he’s done …”–cut to Clinton walking by himself, maybe even biting his lip– “Look at the lives the Brady Bill will save.” The language is simple and authentic; the witness carries a credibility that the anonymous, disembodied narrators of Dole’s anti-Clinton jeremiads could never claim.
Robert Shrum is a leading Democratic political consultant. His deconstruction of political ads is a weekly feature of Slate during the election season.