The Carter Eskew Film Festival

Chatterbox is glad to see Al Gore take a beating for succumbing to what the Washington Monthly’s Suzannah Lessard once memorably termed “the cult of the pro.” The cult of the pro is the Washington belief that a person ought to be judged by professional competence rather than by the sort of person he or she tends to take on as a client. Chatterbox expected this attitude to prevail when Gore hired Carter Eskew, a political consultant who is a longtime friend and advisor, but who also ran Big Tobacco’s media campaign against Sen. John McCain’s ambitious tobacco bill last year. (Eskew also worked on ads for Microsoft that ran during its federal antitrust trial last spring.) The McCain bill, aimed at curbing smoking by minors, was a major priority for the Clinton administration, and at the 1996 Democratic convention Gore himself had given a dramatic speech on the subject that essentially accused Big Tobacco of murdering his sister (a smoker who died of lung cancer). For Gore, three years later, to hire someone who–following Gore’s logic–is an accessory to that crime is a tad inconsistent. Chatterbox, knowing Eskew to be an extremely likable guy–he once helped a pregnant woman deliver her baby when she suddenly went into labor on a downtown Washington sidewalk–expected Washington’s pundit class to look the other way. But they didn’t. George Stephanopoulos on ABC: “This cuts at his integrity.” Mark Shields on CNN: “Here’s Al Gore emoting publicly at the [1996] convention about his sister’s death and the evils of tobacco and he hires the guy who ran the campaign that sabotaged the only serious legislative effort to curb smoking in this country … Isn’t that hypocrisy?” Richard Cohen in the Washington Post: “Which is the real Gore–the one who spoke so movingly about his late sister or the one who hired someone who seemed not to have heard the speech at all?”

Hating to be in agreement with the conventional wisdom, Chatterbox reconsidered and decided that it would be unfair to judge Eskew without examining his oeuvre. As it happens, Eskew’s tobacco spots, like everything else of any value in life, are available on the Web. (From the home page, click on “Advertising,” and then scroll down to “Television Advertisements” and the subheading, “The McCain Bill.” Or just click on the name of the ad below.) Herewith, a sampler:

Surplus. This spot zooms in on stills of decent, working-class Americans. “Their sacrifices brought our economy back, and their tax dollars have given us the first budget surplus in almost 30 years,” the narrator says, but “Washington still wants more than $500 billion in new tobacco taxes. Isn’t it time to give hard-working Americans a break?”

As a useful paper by Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center points out, the goal of the McCain bill’s proposed cigarette tax increase (by $1.10 over five years) was not to raise revenue but to reduce cigarette sales and thereby save lives. So the existence of a budget surplus is irrelevant. (Jamieson’s paper–click here; scroll down to “New and Noteworthy” and click on “Tax and Spend Vs. Little Kids: Advocacy and Accuracy in the Tobacco Settlement Ads of 1998”–is the source of much of what follows.) Moreover, the assumption that the cigarette tax increase would reduce demand was implicit in the tobacco industry’s claim that tobacco farmers would be impoverished by the McCain bill. Which brings us to:

Tobacco. This ad, apparently customized for airing in tobacco-growing states, zooms in on photographs of tobacco farmers and others who derive their livelihood from tobacco. “The politicians in Washington are voting to destroy our way of life … Washington wants to tax thousands of Americans out of business. That’s not right.”

In fact, the bill created a trust fund for tobacco-dependent communities, and provided for payments to help tobacco workers and farmers find other employment and shift to other crops. If cigarette manufacturers really wanted to help U.S. tobacco farmers, they would stop importing tobacco leaf. But that, of course, would raise the price of raw materials, which in turn would raise prices on cigarette packs, which would reduce cigarette consumption … which would be a good thing.

Tractor/Trailer. Quick-cut shots to cops ‘n’ robber scenes. “America’s law enforcement officers could soon face another problem: A black market in cigarettes.”

But as Jamieson points out, “if you grant the premises that lead to this conclusion, then the settlement the industry favored [but which was toughened up in the McCain bill] would also have created a black market, as will state-by-state settlement of the pending lawsuits.” Also, law enforcement officials differed about whether the bill would really create much of a black market.

Martelle. Actually, this one isn’t available on the Web. But according to Jamieson, it featured the testimony of Ron Martelle, a former Canadian Mountie, who said that when Canada raised cigarette taxes, “criminals … showed up in Cornwall [and] threatened my life and the lives of my family.”

But Martelle (who was only in the Canadian police force eight months) was then working for Forensic Investigative Associates of Toronto, a firm that represented a lobby group for U.S. tobacco manufacturers and retailers. This went unmentioned in the ad.

Overall, even adhering to the cult of the pro, Chatterbox must give Eskew’s tobacco ads two thumbs down for accuracy and honesty (though the production values were excellent). He fervently hopes Eskew will do better hawking the presidential candidacy of Al Gore.