Damned Spot

Dad and Apple Pie 

“Fatherhood” was produced for the Democratic National Committee by “Democratic Victory 2000,” a combined effort of Squier Knapp Dunn, Shrum Devine Donilon, and Carter Eskew. Click for a transcript of the ad.

To: Jacob Weisberg

From: William Saletan

Talk about morning in America. Just last week we were discussing how the latest ad for George W. Bush borrowed Ronald Reagan’s imagery to steal Bill Clinton’s economy. In that ad, the Bush campaign—oops, I mean, the Republican National Committee—used a sunrise and amber waves of grain to convey a “nation at peace and more prosperous than ever.” You pointed out Gore the paradox of the opposition party playing directly to its weak suit: peace and prosperity. The idea was that because peace and prosperity are the most obvious reasons to vote for the incumbent party—at least superficially—Bush is better off facing up to them and reconciling them with his candidacy.

I think Gore’s fatherhood ad operates on the same principle. The most common reason why swing voters currently favor Bush is that he, unlike Gore, comes across as a real person. Every time Gore opens his mouth, he conveys with each policy sub-point, each meticulously pronounced word, each Sesame Street intonation, and each mechanical gesture that he’s an android. Where’s the personality? Where’s the whimsy? Where’s the heart?

In this ad, Gore’s consultants have confronted the problem directly. They have de-Gored Gore. The audio track consists entirely of Reaganesque orchestral music and the indescribably beautiful sound of Al Gore not speaking. The video is composed of photographs and what appear to be home movie clips: a young Gore with his father, a middle-aged Gore with his wife and children, and other fathers with their sons. The on-screen text is limited to heartwarming platitudes, and even the momentary allusion to policy—”The Gore Plan: Promote responsible fatherhood, extend family and medical leave, end the marriage penalty for working families”—boils down to an inconsequential sentiment, a vague promise, and a diluted Republican idea. For once, Gore comes across not as a debating machine but as a man with roots, a family, and values apart from politics.

I thought Gore’s consultants were producing his latest campaign ads for the DNC (rather than for Gore himself) just to skirt the law. Maybe I was wrong. Outside Gore’s nominal purview, they’ve found the courage to stop letting Gore be Gore.

To: William Saletan

From: Jacob Weisberg

Less than two weeks after they started, the pretext of these “issue ads” is already wearing thin. The first DNC ad was a Gore spot arguing that Medicare should cover prescription drugs. This, the second, takes on the bitter debate about whether fathers are a good thing or not. I don’t think the DNC is going to get much of an argument going with the Republicans on that topic. This could be a public service announcement sponsored by the Ad Council. It’s Dad and apple pie.

If there’s any edge to this spot at all, it comes buried in subtext. You’re watching this ad, and you’re thinking, I wonder if that other guy, Bush, has a father too. Why, of course he does! In fact, that’s all he’s got! Bush wouldn’t tout his relationship with his dad in a TV commercial, because that relationship explains too much about why he’s where he is today. Though Gore comes from a political family, he has made his own way enough to safely draw attention to his paternity.

On to the substance of the ad. Whoops—there is no substance to the ad, except for the passing on-screen mention of the family leave act and the “marriage penalty.” The rest is pretty pictures and strings. I think you’re basically right about the concept behind this one. Gore often irks people when he talks to them in his slightly pedantic and condescending way. But people close to him always say that he’s a different, far more appealing person in private. So his image-makers are finally acting on that premise. They’re testing the proposition that voters will like Gore better if they see him in an intimate context, but don’t hear him. What I wonder is how Bob Shrum & Co. sold this concept to the candidate himself. “See, people don’t seem to like you when you talk, Mr. Vice President. So please just shut up and throw Tipper this Frisbee.”

For my money, though, it pretty much works. Gore in a denim shirt playing with his wife and kids is much more appealing than Gore in a blue suit demagoguing about Social Security. The dude badly needs humanizing. And this 30-second spot humanizes him quite effectively. Gore’s wife and kids do seem more down-to-earth and natural than he does. In this ad, their realness rubs off on him. And when you see Gore in earnest postures with his own late father, it reminds me that his awkward public personality is not entirely his fault. Gore’s parents chose his career for him, and he’s doing the best he can with it.

Aside from the fact that it represents a new gold standard in content-free political advertising, the only thing that disturbs me slightly about this spot is how ready Gore is to exploit his family to support his campaign. This ad isn’t quite the equivalent of his two heart-rending convention speeches about his sister’s death from lung cancer and little Al’s near-fatal accident, which really were awful. But in this ad, Gore still makes use of his children in a way that’s a bit tacky. The Clintons have never exploited Chelsea in this way. Bush doesn’t do it with his twin daughters. Gore was quick to get annoyed when a press questioner in one of the primary debates asked about his double standard in sending his own kids to private school while opposing vouchers. But he should realize that you don’t get to have it both ways. You can’t tell reporters to keep your family out of it and then put them in political play yourself.