Damned Spot

Splitting the ’60s

“1969” was produced by the Campaign Company Inc. for Gore/Lieberman 2000. For a transcript of the ad, click.

1969 From: William Saletan To: Jacob Weisberg

It’s no accident that the title and first word of this ad are a number. The theme is generational and ideological. America was “in turmoil” in 1969, and so was Al Gore. The turmoil was racial, economic, and cultural: movements for integration and equality, a revolt against corporate greed, and a backlash against American military involvement overseas. Why is Gore hearkening back to those days? To consolidate and endorse a divided verdict many swing voters have rendered on the legacies of that era. He’s reclaiming what he likes about the ‘60s while repudiating excesses that crippled the Democratic Party for years afterward.

The spot is running in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and West Virginia, among other states. That’s a telling list. This is not another attempt to shore up Gore’s liberal base. It’s an aggressive pitch to the center: economic populism tempered by cultural conservatism. The cultural message starts with Vietnam. Gore doubted the war’s wisdom but enlisted anyway. As a senator, he voted for the Gulf War. In doing so, he “broke with his own party.” Translation: Gore rejected flag-burning radicalism and liberal pacifism. He believes in duty, patriotism, and military strength. He shares the values of Appalachia and the South.

Welfare gets the same treatment. The ad signals that Gore is no bleeding-heart tax-and-spender. He “fought to reform welfare with work requirements and time limits.” He’s a stern disciplinarian on education, vowing to “hold schools accountable for results.” And he’s a family man, “married 30 years, father of four.” No more free love in the Oval Office. What about race relations? On this, the commercial is curiously silent. Imagine Bill Clinton making a one-minute spot about the ‘60s and early ‘70s without mentioning race. Why does Gore leave it out? Because it’s not his passion, and because he thinks there’s another way to unite blacks and conservative white Democrats: populism.

This pitch is familiar to anyone who saw Gore’s convention speech. The ad says he wants “to ensure that prosperity enriches all our families, not just the few; strengthen Social Security; take on big drug companies to guarantee prescription drugs for seniors,” and pass “tax cuts for working families and the middle class.” Gore is no big-government liberal. He wants tax cuts, but he wants them for you, not for the rich. How does he propose to achieve these goals? Fight, fight, fight. In case you missed that word the first 1,000 times Gore used it this month, the spot repeats it four more times.

Young Al begins fighting for the people as “an investigative reporter.” Note the magic word. Reporters are cynical and biased. But investigative reporters are brave, diligent, and honest. They seek the truth and expose corruption. Then Gore fights for a seat in Congress. Once there, he holds “some of the first hearings on cleaning up toxic waste”—still investigating and fighting powerful interests on behalf of the people, as in his journalism days. Of all the environmental issues the spot could mention, toxic waste is the most politically useful, because it indisputably pits corporate greed against public safety and quality of life.

The formula is interesting: Attract conservative Democrats by embracing military patriotism, family values, and welfare reform. Meanwhile, pry them away from the GOP by championing Social Security, confining tax cuts to “working families,” and assailing polluters and “big drug companies.” Repudiate the counterculture in order to rekindle the politics of economic justice. Let’s see whether that message moves the polls in Louisiana 31 years later. 

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

You make an excellent point about how this ad reframes the cultural and political history of the 1960s. One thing that interests me is the way it also bowdlerizes Gore’s personal history. 

As biography, “1969” is a masterpiece of elision. It shades the truth at nearly every turn without ever quite violating it. On Vietnam, the narrator intones, “His father, a U.S. senator, opposes the Vietnam War. Al Gore has his doubts but enlists in the Army.” Gore didn’t just have “his doubts.” He opposed the war more strongly than his father did. And from watching the ad, you would never get the idea that the primary reason Gore enlisted was to help his father’s re-election campaign. Another less-than-forthright summary is the line about Gore’s return to civilian life. “When he comes home from Vietnam, the last thing he thinks he’ll ever do is enter politics. Then Al Gore decided that to change what was wrong in America, he had to fight for what was right,” the text says. Did Gore really think politics was “the last thing” he would ever do until he was struck by a blinding revelation that he had to fight for what was right? No one can prove otherwise, but his decision to run for office in Tennessee was less of a surprise to his friends than it appears to have been to Gore himself.

The biggest lacuna is the presidency of Bill Clinton. In 60 seconds, the narration manages to never mention that Al Gore has been vice president for the past eight years. Avoiding this omnipresent reality leads the text into distortion. When it wants to credit Gore with one of the Clinton administration’s accomplishments, welfare reform, the ad attaches it to his congressional résumé, noting at the end of a list of things he did in the House and Senate that he “… fought to reform welfare with work requirements and time limits.” Gore did fight to reform welfare with work requirements and time limits, but he did so from inside the White House, by encouraging Bill Clinton to sign the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996.

The other thing that’s crafty about this ad is its technique of criticizing the other side implicitly, without ever mentioning George W. Bush directly. If you pay close attention, you can pick out an implied contrast between Gore and Bush on nearly every point. Gore’s father opposed the Vietnam War (Bush’s father supported it). Gore enlisted in the Army (Bush avoided service). After the war, Gore “starts a family with Tipper, becomes an investigative reporter” (during the same period Bush extended his adolescence, shirking adult responsibility and employment). Gore “ran for Congress, held some of the first hearings on cleaning up toxic waste” (Bush partied, created toxic waste).

This implied contrast continues into the present. Gore’s “fight now is to ensure that prosperity enriches all our families—not just the few,” (Bush wants prosperity for just the few). Gore wants to “strengthen Social Security” (Bush would weaken it). Gore will “take on big drug companies to guarantee prescription drugs for seniors” (Bush won’t oppose the big pharmaceutical companies and won’t provide a drug benefit for seniors). Gore wants “tax cuts for working families and the middle class” (Bush wants tax cuts only for the rich). The ad concludes: “Al Gore—married 30 years, father of four, fighting for us.” There’s no need to add: “Bush—not married as long, not as many kids, fighting for them.” 

“1969” is really a less-than-truthful, negative-by-implication spot. But by using the form of the positive, biographical spot, the Gore people have created something that the folks on the other side can’t complain about.