Varnish Remover

Clinton’s Kid Stuff

The Toughest Job in the World, produced by Young & Rubicam Inc. for the Advertising Council Inc./The Coalition for America’s Children PSAs.

The Toughest Job in the World gives us a different Bill Clinton. This isn’t a politician trying to shrug off the shroud of scandal. This is a hard-working man, an engaged parent trying to do the best he can in a world where the odds are stacked up against him and others like him. The issues the spot focuses on–children, their education and development–are what the public really cares about, say the polls. The picture it presents of Clinton–as father, as promoter of family and community values–is one that the White House has been trying to push for at least a year.

As Clinton’s luck would have it, Madison Avenue and big media have partnered to extend the president’s re-election themes of family and community at no cost to him. These ads, created by the nonprofit Ad Council, will be run free on television, radio, and in print as part of a public-service campaign on behalf of children. And this flagship 60-second spot does at least as much to promote the president’s family-values image as it does to jump-start that public-service campaign.

Recalling the Dick Morris-Bob Squier spots for the ‘96 election, this one opens with Clinton at a podium complete with waving flag. It moves on to shots of oil paintings of Lincoln and Washington, implying that these men, like Clinton, who’s doing the voice-over, were also charged with doing “the toughest job in the world.” The consequences of failure, Clinton tells us, “could be serious.”

Cresting around that portentous pronouncement, our expectations are confounded by what comes next. The job in question isn’t the presidency, Clinton tells us: “It’s being a parent.” Appropriately, the camera no longer focuses on the president alone. A home-video-style shot of him with wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea (who’s clearly going to be seen more in the second term than in the first) is followed by one of the first lady, seen next to the president, talking of “drugs and all the other pressures facing our children.” The ensuing images and words evoke two of her favorite themes: a wider investment in our children (it takes a village, stupid) and the importance of reading (one of her–and the administration’s–major education initiatives).

Shots of a politically correct mix of kids, of a mother with her teen-age daughter, of an adult reading to a youngster, are followed by a series that shows the first couple interacting with the children on whose behalf they are crusading. Where the first set of shots was in black and white, the second is in vibrant color–the aim being, of course, to equate involvement with warmth. The first lady speaks of the “350 wonderful organizations” that have come together “to help parents raise good kids,” an idea that infuriates ideologues on the right, especially when it comes from Hillary. Her husband, speaking to the camera and via voice-over, invites viewers to help: This isn’t just about parents doing the best they can; everyone, young adults and seniors alike, can “make a difference.” An e-mail address and a phone number invite viewers to take up the gauntlet and become involved.

The images of the president and the first lady together, of their obvious bond, speak volumes about their commitment to family values. What would have been powerful in an explicitly political ad is even more powerful in an ostensibly nonpolitical context. For Clinton, this kind of image-making couldn’t have come at a better time: The scandals aside, he was recently attacked in an Atlantic Monthly article about the adverse effects of welfare reform on kids. The author, Peter Edelman, was once Clinton’s top advisor on the issue (Edelman’s wife was responsible for bringing Hillary Clinton onto the board of the Children’s Defense Fund). This spot leaves little doubt that Bill Clinton, like the coalition for which he is speaking, is “fighting for the children,” that he’s trying to do well at the toughest job in the world. It might also help him do better for himself.

–Robert Shrum