Varnish Remover

For Better or for Worse

In one of Bob Dole’s worst hours, his wife Elizabeth follows her brilliant performance at the Republican Convention with a warm, well-filmed 30-second appeal on his behalf. The spot, called Elizabeth, was produced by Alex Castellanos. He’s Jesse Helms’ ex-media man, and this ad proves that his style surely does change with his client. Normally, a spouse’s endorsement spot doesn’t do much beyond making a candidate feel good. If your wife or husband isn’t for you, who is? But Elizabeth Dole’s poll ratings and communication skills decisively exceed her husband’s. In fact, Republican pollster Frank Luntz reports that his focus groups of voters show that the convention bounce was for Elizabeth, not Bob Dole.

Visually, the spot creates the sense of a one-on-one conversation between each viewer and the appealing woman in the soft yellow suit who’s sitting casually in what appears to be her living room. The smooth, slow camera movement through the spot imparts a degree of visual variety without disturbing the intimate mood. The surface simplicity of the scene belies the sheer weight of the spot’s message. Elizabeth attempts to make three separate points, all of them critical to the Dole campaign.

The would-be first lady first vouches for her husband’s integrity–and by implication, points to the contrast with Bill Clinton. The spot is intentionally ladylike, a positive oasis in a desert of attack ads on both sides. But it, too, is intended to be negative: phrases like “doing what’s right” and “living up to his word” play off much-surveyed voter doubts about the president’s character.

Elizabeth next tries to deal with one of Dole’s central political weaknesses, a gender gap that leaves him as much as 25 or 30 points behind among women. So this woman, successful in her own right, and except for her politics a poster woman for the “Ms. Generation,” tells us that her “husband” has strong commitments on domestic violence and equal retirement benefits for women.

But the spot doesn’t linger here. It moves swiftly and smoothly to Dole’s most fundamental problem, his loss of credibility on the tax issue. In part because his campaign ads dealt in drugs and character in the weeks after the Republican Convention, voters increasingly bought into the Democratic definitions of the 15 percent tax cut–that it’s probably phony, and almost certainly wouldn’t happen even if Dole got elected. Elizabeth reminds us that Bob Dole does what he does “because it’s right”–another JFK line, straight out of the inaugural address. Here, the line tweaks our now-collective memory of Dole’s war service and suggests that he wouldn’t propose the tax cut simply because it was easy or politic. “You can count on it,” we hear straight from Elizabeth, “because it’s right for America’s families.”

Does this really reassure us? It helps. After all, would this lady lie to us? And we know she’s too smart to be fooled. Just for insurance, she returns to the implicit comparison with Clinton: “Bob Dole doesn’t make promises he can’t keep.” Elizabeth argues that we can trust Dole more–or at least distrust him less. The sharpness of the message woven through the softness of the image recalls Carl Sandburg’s description of someone as “a steel fist in a velvet glove.”

This spot concludes with footage of the empty Kansas prairie, the place Bob Dole comes from, where, as he said in his acceptance speech, a man is very small against the sky. Dole, the picture says again, is from the heartland, the land of plain virtue and truth-telling. The empty sky here leaves room for the words he wants people to decide are true: “Bob Dole will cut our taxes.” This last scene is curiously disconnected from the preceding conversation with our friend “Elizabeth.” Despite the ad-maker’s intention, the viewer may decide that the winding two-lane road of the scene leads only to Dole’s bridge to the past. But whatever the outcome, the spot artfully–and literally–puts the best face on a tough sale.

–Robert Shrum