Damned Spot

Bush’s World

“New Americans,” “Once,” and “Hard Things” were produced by Maverick Media for Bush for President. Click for a transcript of the ads.

From: Jacob Weisberg

To: William Saletan

These are technically the first presidential campaign ads, and they have a different look and feel from the earlier Bush “issue ads” produced by the Republican National Committee. Alex Castellanos made the RNC spots, which are fairly prosaic takes on Social Security and education. Bush’s own production team at Maverick Media, which is headed by Mark McKinnon and Stuart Stevens, produced this slicker, more abstract and conceptual suite of ads. These commercials don’t really deal with issues at all. They are image ads, which try to create a set of positive associations for George W. Bush without worrying us unduly about his policies. 

In fact, you get the message of these commercials more clearly if you hit the “mute” button and just watch the pictures go by. Let’s go through each of them frame by frame. 

New Americans In the first ad, “New Americans,” we see: a baby’s foot; a baby’s hand; a baby’s face; a couple in bed with their baby; a couple on a porch swing with their daughter; a baby’s toy; a pile of antique alphabet blocks; a mother dancing with her baby in a baby carrier in her kitchen; a white construction worker putting his arm on the shoulder of a black construction worker; a white shoe salesman handing a dark-skinned customer a sneaker; an old-bearded guy in a batting helmet and team uniform swinging a baseball bat; hands turning the pages of a book; girls in school writing with pencils; a older black woman against a white backdrop, staring at the camera; a older white man taking off his hat for the camera; a pretty Asian woman in a dress; a white boy in a baseball helmet; a pretty Hispanic woman; a white boy smiling; a pretty young girl who might be white, Hispanic, Asian, or any mixture of the three; and finally George W. Bush in shirtsleeves, smiling and waving as he crosses the street.

Once In the second ad, “Once,” some of the images overlap with the first spot. We see: a guy with a mug of coffee looking out his doorway at the new day; a Hispanic woman walking down the street; a young woman helping an older man who might be her grandfather load vacation gear into a trailer; the smiling white kid (which repeats from the first ad); black and white workers having lunch together; the older white guy doffing his hat (repeats); the girls in school writing with pencils (repeats); a woman lifting baby out of crib; an Asian woman in a classroom; the mother playing with her baby in a baby carrier in her kitchen (repeats); a black soldier and a white soldier sitting together, wearing camouflage uniforms; a group of old folks singing around a piano covered with sports trophies; the couple on a porch swing with their daughter (repeats); the baby toy (repeats); a smiling couple with newborn baby; and George W. Bush in shirtsleeves, smiling and waving as he crosses the street (repeats).

HardThings In the third ad, “Hard Things,” we see: Bush, talking head-on to the camera; a classroom filled with kids; the oldsters around the piano (repeats from the second ad); the old guy with the hat (repeats from first and second); Bush again; a couple in front of their house and an American flag; the couple on the swing (repeats from first and second); the baby toy (repeats from first and second); the alphabet blocks (repeats from first and second); the mom dancing with her baby in the kitchen (repeats from first and second); the white boy (repeats from first); a pretty young Hispanic woman; the same Hispanic woman with her white boyfriend; a young white couple; and Bush again.

As this inventory indicates, the three ads are cut from a single pool of images, the way a suit jacket and pants are cut from the same bolt of cloth. When you see the ads repeatedly, as you might if you lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, or Florida, they more or less merge, mentally. I think that the goal is to create a visual sense of Bush’s “vision” of the country.

And what can we say about that country? That it is a sunny, wholesome, and optimistic place where everyone is middle class, the weather is always balmy, and conflict is nowhere in evidence. The dominant emotion is less good cheer than a kind of deep joy at being alive in this kind of world. Babies are born into loving homes. Children learn in sun-soaked classrooms. Men take satisfaction in physical work. Elderly people engage in meaningful and satisfying leisure activities. Most of all, people work, play, and learn together across boundaries of age and race—indeed, without any seeming awareness of those lines at all. There’s even interracial-dating, though only white-Hispanic, not white-black.

Nice pictures, you might say, but what do they have to do the question of whether I vote for Bush for president? No more than similar kinds of images have to do with the question of whether you should buy a Volvo car or a General Electric dishwasher, or feel positive feelings about Fannie Mae or Cisco, a corporation that advertises on television despite the fact that it doesn’t even sell products to consumers. These companies all use this sort of “ideal world” sequence in their commercials for the same reason. They want us to connect them with resonant and positive imagery of diversity, good will, and human fulfillment. It’s the softest of soft sells. They don’t explicitly ask us to buy their appliances for the same reason the Bush doesn’t say “Vote for me” in these spots. We’re supposed to respond to the “vision,” to the way the sponsor sees the world or wants it to be. If we like what we see, we’ll have Bush in the back of our minds when it comes time to make a choice.

From: William Saletan

To: Jacob Weisberg

According to these ads, this is a crucial election with big challenges at stake. “Once in a hundred years our nation has this chance—to be at peace, to be prosperous, to do something good with it all. This is the time to tackle the tough things,” says the narrator of “Once.” In “Hard Things,” Bush reiterates, “This is a moment in history when we have a chance to focus on tough problems. … Now is the time to do the hard things.”

What are these “hard things”? We must “make sure every child learns to read,” guarantee that “our grandkids find Social Security secure,” and “rebuild our military.” And what is the president’s part in this crusade? To “unite, not divide,” to “renew America’s purpose,” “to give everyone a shot at the American dream,” and to “let every American look at the White House and be proud.”

Let’s translate this poetry into prose. What do the commitments expressed in these ads amount to?

1. Renew America’s purpose. A meaningless phrase. Bush doesn’t even tell you what the purpose is.

2. Let every American look at the White House and be proud. A lower standard of presidential accomplishment can scarcely be imagined. All Bush has to do is keep his pants on.

3. Unite, not divide. Bush repeats this in all three ads, as he has throughout the campaign. It’s a self-debunking pledge. The purpose of claiming to be a “uniter, not a divider” is to divide “uniters” such as you from “dividers” such as your opponent.

4. Give everyone a shot at the American dream. Bush has spent the past year denying the premise, advanced by Clinton and Gore, that the president plays a key role in the expansion of economic opportunity. If he’s right about that, then his promise to “give everyone a shot” is equally misleading and empty.

5. Rebuild our military. Bush cites this as one of the “tough things” we must do to capitalize on the “peace” and prosperity we enjoy “once in a hundred years.” The connection is completely counterintuitive. Peace is an argument against defense spending. The sensible argument for defense spending is that we need it despite the current peace. Bush demonstrates no grasp of this paradox.

6. Make sure our grandkids find Social Security secure. This is a substantive goal, and it may be a good one, but it’s completely unconnected to Bush’s Social Security plan. Bush’s plan is designed to maximize wealth, not security. To the extent he lets you divert your Social Security money from a guaranteed benefit program into the stock market, he increases your opportunity at the expense of your security. This may be a worthwhile tradeoff, but it certainly doesn’t increase security.

7. Make sure every child learns to read. Everyone who’s for this, raise one leg. Keep it in the air. Now, everyone who heard Bush explain how he’s going to get there, raise the other leg.

By themselves, these hollow and sham commitments are just tiresome. What’s galling is the courage Bush attributes to them. “They’re “hard” and “tough.” They require “leadership” from a “bold and decisive” president. As Bush puts it, “It’s not always popular to say, ‘Our children can’t read,’ or ‘Social Security needs improving,’ or ‘We have a budget surplus and a deficit of values.’ ” Not popular? According to a New York Times poll published Tuesday, education and Social Security are among the top five “most important problems for the government to address in the coming year.” In a simultaneously published Washington Post survey, 75 percent of respondents said “improving education” would be a “very important” issue in determining how they vote in the presidential election, 73 percent said the same about Social Security, and 70 percent said the same about “encouraging high moral standards and values.” If it weren’t popular to say these things, Bush wouldn’t be saying them.

I’ve got a question for Bush, his pollsters, and his media advisers: Did you review any polling or focus group information in the course of making these ads? If so, did this information indicate that any of the three statements described by Bush as “not always popular” were popular or unpopular? Feel free to submit your answers under oath.