Damned Spot

Ready or Not

“Lead” was produced by the Campaign Company for Gore-Lieberman 2000. Click hereto view the ad at Washingtonpost.com.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

If this ad seems nastier than George W. Bush’s Parthian shot, the reason may have less to do with content than with tone. In “Nonsense,” Bush calls Al Gore a liar, but does it with a measure of irony. “Lead,” which is sort of the distilled essence of a negative ad, uses no such levity. It indicts Bush a social menace and a lightweight in the most direct and literal way possible.

The vision offered here is of Bush’s Texas as hell on earth. The ad alternates an image of the Republican nominee with grim glimpses of life in his state. Everything in the ad contributes to a powerful sense of misery and dismay: the woozy, ominous piano music, the urgent voice of the announcer, the miasmic look of the brown-toned black-and-white footage. Bush himself is presented in super-slow motion in a way that renders his blank glance as steely glint of a hanging judge. Here is the full sequence of images and words:

1. Bush scowling (“As Governor, George W. Bush …”)

2. An oil derrick (“… gave big oil a tax break”)

3. Bush scowling (“… while opposing health care”)

4. Sick child in bed (” … for 220,000 kids.”)

5. Child with head on parent’s shoulder (“Texas now ranks 50th in family health care.”) 

6. Bush scowling (“He’s left the …”

7. Worker wiping sweat from his brow (“… minimum wage at $3.35 an hour …”)

8. Bush scowling (“… let polluters …”)

9. Smoke billowing from a cooling tower (“… police themselves.”)

10. Houston skyline, drenched in smog (“Today Texas ranks last in air quality.”)

11. Bush scowling (“Now Bush promises …”)

12. Old man looking worried (“… the same one trillion dollars from Social …”)

13. Middle-aged coupled looking worried (“… Security to two different groups.”)

14. Bush scowling (“He squanders the surplus on a tax cut …”)

15. A McMansion (“for those …”)

16. A cruising Mercedes (“… making over $300,000.”)

17. Bush scowling, casting eyes down (“Is he ready to lead America?”)

The message here is intricately woven, but really quite simple: If you want an America that is more like Brazil, vote for Bush. But what makes this ad a killer is the final tag. An earlier, related Democratic National Committee ad closed with the line, “Now consider this: by favoring the few, George W. Bush would hurt the many.” Here the judgment is much harsher and broader: “Is he ready to lead America?”

This carefully crafted phrase has something of a double meaning. In the logical context of the ad, it carries the sense of, “are you ready for the man who did this in Texas to lead America?” The term “ready” stretches to cover such qualities as caring about children, fighting polluters, protecting Social Security, and so forth. But the more conventional sense of “ready” is obviously also present. Beyond the context of the ad, “Is he ready to lead America?” means “does he have the mental equipment to be president?”

Even in a negative ad as harsh as this, the Gore people are holding back somewhat. They are afraid to ridicule Bush as a dunderhead. But given the well-established public stereotype, they probably don’t need to. Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live will finish the job for them.