Varnish Remover

On With His Head

Photo exploits the controversy surrounding 1996’s most reviled political ad, a Greg Stevens and Co. spot for Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner that attacked challenger Mark Warner as a national Democrat and–heaven forbid–a liberal.

The Stevens ad featured a buddy photo of President Clinton, former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, and Sen. Chuck Robb, in which Mark Warner’s head was superimposed on Robb’s body–Warner was actually off to the side in the picture.

It would have been a bad idea to try this trick anywhere; it was an even worse idea to try it in Washington, using a Washington Post photo. When the fake-photo story hit the front pages, Stevens, one of the most respected Republican consultants around, took the fall. John Warner asked him to leave the campaign (although he’s still working for Bob Dole, and it’s still not clear exactly how all this happened). Stevens himself is so closemouthed about it that he could do an ad for No Excuses jeans.

Mark Warner’s media team responded with an ad that targets John Warner’s greatest strength–his perceived integrity. Photo assumes, correctly, that the audience is familiar with the controversy, and opens–as the narrator says–with the “real photo.” Mark is almost out of the frame; you wouldn’t look past the three powerful, well-known figures to find him–unless you were explicitly looking for him, that is. The next scene piques the viewer’s interest by showing how the trick was played. Though the image was computer-generated, the tactic is as old as Stalin airbrushing the exiled Trotsky out of photos with Lenin. But where the old way always looked fake, today’s technology can make the fake look entirely authentic.

The next scene invokes a newspaper story as a third-party verifier of the scandal, and adds the charge that John’s campaign is guilty of the dirty deed and of lying about it. Here Mark’s spot adroitly turns the corner from response to attack. Indeed, it ignores the essence of John’s charge (captured in the succeeding scene of the offending ad, which showed House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Sen. Chris Dodd; they were the ones for whom Mark was accused in the red chyron of “Raising Millions”), choosing, instead, to use the phony picture to segue into a general attack on John Warner’s character. Until now, this Republican senator has been a rare exception to politics as usual: He broke with his party to oppose Robert Bork for the Supreme Court; he opposed Oliver North for the Senate even after North was the Republican nominee against Chuck Robb, the GOP’s No. 1 target in 1994; he’s pro-choice. These stands protected him against the standard Democratic charges against the Republicans: Gingrich, Medicare, and education cuts.

But Photo punches through his Teflon. Charging that John was “less than candid,” it asks, “How long has he been fooling us?” The fake ad becomes a moment of dark revelation–a window into John’s true character. The charges pile up–and what is a response spot dares to charge that John is “unprincipled,” that we can’t “trust” him. The visual recap of the trick-decapitation and the ensuing newspaper story make the assault as credible as it can be, given the unusually strong public perception of John as a decent and independent guy, who was, until now, the least likely of political hacks.

The fake photo is the latest emblem of a year when consultants have become more notorious than famous, more Dick Morris than James Carville. Mark Warner’s consultants moved swiftly to convert the mistake into their best argument yet for unseating John Warner, whose campaign previously boasted that he made Virginia proud.

–Robert Shrum