Varnish Remover

We Love a Man in Uniform

Bio, produced by Seder, Laguens and Hamburger for Harmon for Mayor.

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your television, the political spots are back. No matter that the president is back in the White House and Newt is in the speaker’s chair–odd-numbered years like this one bring what campaigners call “off-year elections,” the gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey and mayoral races in big cities like Los Angeles and New York.

Bio, produced for St. Louis mayoral hopeful Clarence Harmon by Dawn Laguens, presents something of an anomaly: an African-American Democrat running to the right. The candidate, Clarence Harmon, faces another African-American Democrat–incumbent Freeman Bosley (St. Louis is forbidden ground for Republicans). The Harmon-Bosley rivalry is not new: Harmon was the police chief under Bosley until he quit in 1995, claiming political interference from the mayor’s office.

The spot is crafted to reach more conservative voters by building on Harmon’s image as a man who’s tough on crime. Both image and issue also resonate in the black community, whose neighborhoods have been hit the hardest by crime. The ad opens like a traditional biography. “As a young boy,” the narrator reassures us, “he worked to help support his family.” The language is precisely calibrated, giving no details about the child’s labors. The accompanying photograph reinforces the squeaky-clean image–the picture might have been the only one available, or one of a small handful, but it strikes a note that will carry through the spot: Harmon is always well-dressed, and he is always smiling.

The next scene is a photograph of Harmon as a young soldier, conveying both the passage of years and steadiness of character. The hard-working boy has become a man who does the tough jobs, but the smile endures. Again, the language is careful, precise; again, it says little: “When duty called, he stepped forward.” The words echo that famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address and evoke an image of the stalwart soldier answering the clarion call to battle. Did Harmon volunteer, or was he drafted?

The spot then puts Harmon in a new uniform, this time the police chief’s. Unfolding headlines reiterate Chief Harmon’s public service. “A Chief Who Welcomes Change”–you can bet that polling results show the people want change, as usual. “First Black to Lead Force,” the only racial reference, attempts to touch black pride while still appealing across racial lines. And finally, “Super-Chief Clarence Harmon,” a much stronger fillip than a conventional bio spot’s recitation of the candidate’s achievements.

The spot then moves to the present–and the problem: a shot of an abandoned lot with the St. Louis Arch in the background and a chyron proclaiming, “Our city cries out for a leader.” Overworked language, no doubt, but effective shorthand that communicates how St. Louis has been stripped of its vitality as people and businesses have moved to the suburbs. Continuous narration (“once again, Clarence Harmon answers the call”) implies that Harmon is the person the city needs, as the camera captures him shaking hands with a white leader. Though Harmon is in a coat and tie here, we keep seeing him as he was and as he’s really running–as a man in uniform who was ousted by the system and has now stepped up to the plate, yet again. Whether or not he can “solve problems” as the chyron suggests he will, and despite the fact that Bio is mute on his plans, the leaders and cops who surround him in these scenes provide visual endorsements, suggesting that he stands for progress.

The chyron announcing that he will “stop corruption” appears over a scene apparently set in a district attorney’s office. This may be fertile ground, and taps a background of accusations (against the incumbent mayor’s father, against the circuit clerk) and intrigue (about a mysterious murder, and about the mayor himself being barred for life from federal projects after allegedly defaulting on an $8 million HUD loan). Harmon is running by default as the anti-corruption candidate.

The last two scenes carry the same message: “Help our city to be great again.” What does “great” imply here? The spot hopes viewers will fill in the blanks with “old-fashioned values,” “law and order,” “economic growth,” and “cleaning up government,” all of which the spot has claimed Harmon stands for. And who constitutes the “our” in “our city”? The visuals first focus on elderly white women and then cut across racial lines to a mixed group of children, an appeal for change, a break from the past.

The pileup of clichés ends with a safe “Clarence Harmon, Mayor.” Nothing strident, nothing to disapprove of.

Nothing to pop the corks over, either.

–Robert Shrum