Damned Spot

Malone Doesn’t Die

“Ian” was produced by Century Media for Gore/Lieberman 2000. Click to read a transcript of the ad. Click here to see the ad on SpeakOut.com.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: Chris Suellentrop

One of the articles I never got around to writing during the primaries was about how campaign rallies were becoming the new Lourdes. In January and February, people would show up at political events and wait patiently for the question period. Then they would rise and ask John McCain or George W. Bush or Al Gore or Bill Bradley: How can you help with my medical/insurance/financial woes?

These people weren’t being superstitious. Attention from a figure in the news can, in fact, fix someone’s problem in a hurry. At one Bush appearance in California, a young woman with failing eyesight got up to complain that her college scholarship wouldn’t pay for an $1,100 eyepiece she needed so she could use a microscope in biology class. Bush raised the cash for her on the spot.

The most dramatic personal intervention by a presidential candidate this year was Al Gore’s successful effort to help Ian Malone. As this ad relates, Ian was born last year severely disabled because of a botched delivery (by a midwife, not a doctor, it neglects to note). As a result, Ian now requires constant nursing care, which costs nearly $300 a day. Aetna US Healthcare, the insurer that covers the Malone family, told them it wouldn’t pay for this expense. Desperate, Ian’s parents contacted the Gore campaign for help. Gore met with the Malones on a trip to their hometown of Everett, Wash. He then spoke publicly about their plight, shaming Aetna into reversing its decision. Ian’s mother, Christine Malone, thinks Gore saved her son’s life.

A story like that is a gift from the gods: Candidate saves child, becomes mom’s hero. So, you wouldn’t expect Gore’s image-meisters to not make an ad about it. But it wasn’t a given that they would make a good ad about it. The danger was that exploiting this incident for political gain would look, well, exploitative. But I’ve got to hand it to Carter Eskew, Bob Shrum, and Bill Knapp. They’ve taken this episode and turned it into one of the most powerful and effective campaign ads I’ve ever seen. This 30-second spot is undeniably moving, it’s tied to a substantive issue in the campaign—Gore’s call for “a real Patients’ Bill of Rights”—and it’s entirely positive.

The reason the ad works so well is that the Gore folks didn’t drown this story in heavy-handed technique or milk it for extra sobs. It’s manipulative, but subtly so. The first shot is of the sick baby, sleeping. Then we see Ian’s mother describing her desperation when the insurance company said it wouldn’t pay. Then we see Gore in shirtsleeves, fighting for the Malones. Then Christine again, in a tighter shot, describing the way Gore stood up to the insurance company. Then Gore once more, as the narrator makes the point that his fight isn’t just for the Malones, since “all families need protection from HMO abuses.”

The last shot is the real clincher. Christine Malone appears for a final time, in the tightest close-up yet. “Even if he fought half as hard for the people of our country as he did for my son, nobody loses,” she says. To say “nobody loses” instead of something like “we all win” sounds a bit odd and Malone trips very slightly on her utterance, as if reaching for the right words. But the effect of this imprecision is that Malone sounds authentic and natural. If this sound bite was actually scripted and rehearsed, it’s all the more impressive for seeming otherwise. 

It’s also significant that Gore himself is seen in the ad but not heard. Since the story reflects well on the candidate, it’s better for an anonymous announcer to give him the credit. Al isn’t sitting in front of a camera boasting about his accomplishments. He’s out there on the stump, fighting to save babies’ lives. 

From: Chris Suellentrop
Jacob Weisberg

Obviously, somebody loses. Just ask George W. Bush. The real question is whether this ad bodes something new for the future of political campaigning. I think it does. And I hope it doesn’t.

Ronald Reagan is credited with creating what is now known as the “Lenny Skutnik moment” in State of the Union addresses. In his 1982 address, Reagan pointed to Skutnik, a government worker who leapt into the icy Potomac to rescue a woman after a plane crash, and extolled his heroism. Since then, pointing to heroes in the gallery has become an obligatory SOTU flourish. And what in 1982 was a stirring moment has become a tedious gimmick.

If this ad is as effective as you think it is (and I see no reason to disagree), we may be witnessing the birth of what will become known as the “Ian Malone” campaign spot—the 30-second Skutnik moment. Gore has already proven himself to be something of a Skutnik-moment pioneer. James Fallows, in his Atlantic Monthly cover story on how Gore developed his lethal debating skills, credits Gore with being the first to turn the Skutnik moment into a political weapon, rather than a simple celebration of individual heroism. In his ‘96 vice-presidential debate with Jack Kemp, Gore pointed to the Macneale family, whom Gore portrayed as being in dire need of the Clinton-Gore campaign’s proposed $1,500 tax credit for people who pay junior-college tuition. The tactic worked so well that four years later Gore larded an Iowa primary debate with references to people in the audience. One of those people was Chris Peterson, whose farm had been devastated by the 1993 flood. Bill Bradley had voted in the Senate against emergency aid for flood victims. “Why did you vote against disaster relief for Chris Peterson?” Gore asked.

As you noted in your dispatch from the debate, this use of human props in political debates is not an auspicious development. I think the “How-can-you-help-me-right-now?” trend you outline helps to explain why. Gore likes to say that the presidency is the only office that works for all Americans, but do we want a president who works for them one at a time? Granted, Gore links Ian Malone to the issue of a patients’ bill of rights, and Christine Malone surely thinks a patients’ bill of rights would help all Americans, not just her son. But this ad is only superficially about an issue. In fact, it’s only superficially about Ian Malone. The ad is really about Al Gore, fighter for babies and all-around good guy.

The Skutnik moment, as Gore uses it (call it the Ian Malone moment), is not a celebration of individual heroism. Or rather, it’s not about the heroism of ordinary Americans. Instead, an Ian Malone moment is about the individual heroism of Al Gore. That’s what makes an Ian Malone moment (or a Chris Peterson moment, or a Macneale family moment) fundamentally different from a Lenny Skutnik moment. It’s also what makes it so effective.

In a Skutnik moment, a president or a candidate holds up a hero as an example for the nation to admire. The politician may be sending a message about his definition of heroism and what that means for America, but the moment is still focused on the heroism of an individual citizen. In his debates and now with this commercial, Gore has perverted the moment for his own uses. In an Ian Malone moment, it is Gore who casts himself as Lenny Skutnik, American hero, diving into the Potomac and rescuing working families from their personal plane wrecks.