From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
Advertisers draw a distinction between product ads, which are supposed to sell something specific to customers, and image ads, which promote familiarity and positive associations with a company or brand. These first Bush commercials are political image advertising. In them, the president doesn’t tout any particular aspects of his first-term record, such as signing a law subsidizing prescription drug benefits for the elderly, or even any second-term proposals, such as making his tax cuts permanent. Rather, his media team weaves together images, words, and music in an effort to “redefine” Bush after a season of Democratic attacks and make voters feel good about him in general.
Like its commercial cousin, this sort of political advertising relies heavily on clichéd images of Americans going about their jobs and lives. With a bit of re-jiggering, the 60-second spot called “Lead” would work as an uplifting commercial for General Electric or AT&T. The stock images such ads use come in several varieties: nostalgic, technological, patriotic, multicultural, and sentimental. This one begins with a shot of a uniformed waitress switching on the neon “Open” sign in a coffee shop before sunrise. The next picture is of a white businessman making entries in a handheld computer. Then we see a young minority woman at work; white and black construction workers in white hard hats; a minority mother in military camouflage with her child; a Caucasian family sitting on the hatchback door of a station wagon; an Asian-American teacher at the blackboard; an African-American grandmother laughing with her adult granddaughter; and so on. What, one might reasonably ask, does any of this have to do with the election? The final image is of a white president strutting along a white portico in the White House. George W. Bush: He’ll bring the economy back to life.
Amid this wash of feel-good Americana, the president and first lady enumerate the incumbent’s leadership qualities: optimism, strength, focus, and “belief in the people of America.” One can’t dispute the accuracy of anything in this ad because, as the New York Times tartly notes, it “makes no verifiable claims.” If you think Bush is a great president, you will probably like it. If you dislike him, you will think it massively evasive of all the issues in the campaign. I’m in the latter category, but I also dislike it as a critic of political advertising. It’s saccharin political sludge.
The two other Bush ads, “Tested” and “Safer, Stronger” (which also has a Spanish version) are hardly substantive, but they are somewhat more assertive. Both juxtapose the stereotyped pictures of “Lead,” with emotionally charged images of Sept. 11. In “Safer, Stronger,” an American flag waves in front of the ruined World Trade Center; a worker raises a flag on a flagpole; New York City firemen carry a flag-draped body at ground zero; a flag waves behind Bush’s name.
Again, the effort is one of positive association: Bush with flags, Bush with heroic firemen, Bush with America after Sept. 11. But the display text implicitly makes a more tendentious point, depicting the president’s first term as the story of him being handed a country in deep economic crisis, exacerbated by the terrorist attacks, and now finally “turning the corner” thanks to his leadership.
This is a selective version of the past four years, to say the least. Where’d the Iraq war go? And how did Bush become a victim of a weak economy, rather than the perpetrator of one? There is also some explicit dishonesty. The text of “Safer, Stronger” begins: “January 2001, The challenge: An economy in recession. A stock market in decline. …” In fact, as Bush acknowledged quite recently in his Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert, he did not inherit a recession from President Clinton. The recession began two months after he arrived, in March 2001.
This is the only demonstrably untrue statement to be found in these three ads. Tellingly, it is also nearly the only statement of fact in any of them.
From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg
That’s a great catch about misstating the start of the recession. I missed that. I was too mesmerized by the ad’s massive sleight-of-hand, recasting everything that’s gone wrong under Bush as a “test” or a “challenge” presented to him at the outset. Bush won the presidency in 2000 by reframing everything that had gone right under Clinton as a given, to which Clinton had failed to add more. The “prosperity” had been handed to Clinton, who in turn had failed to put it to a larger “purpose.” Now Bush plays the same game with his own administration. The recession that began two months into Bush’s term? The terrorist strike that happened eight months in? Well, as Bush likes to say, if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else.
What really kills me is when Bush includes in his list of challenges the “march to war” in Iraq. As he put it yesterday, “Laura reminded me one time about, on the TV screens, you started to see the banner, ‘March to War,’ in the summer of 2002. That’s not very conducive for investing capital. If you’re an employer, if you’re a small business owner and all of a sudden you’re thinking about marching to war, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the economy. We overcame that.” Overcame that? And whose idea was it to march to war? Clinton’s?
The same language of “tests” and “challenges” graces the fuzziest of the ads. Don’t you just love that Bush’s team named this ad “Tested”? Was that Clinton’s failure—that he neglected to preside over a recession, a terrorist strike, corporate scandals, and a “march to war,” which would have made him a more “tested” president?
Like you, I watched these ads searching in vain for references to Bush’s policies. I did spot some code words related to them. The last line of “Tested” is “Freedom, faith, families, and sacrifice.” As best I can tell, “faith” and “families” represent the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and the faith-based social program funding Bush had to push through by executive order. I guess it wouldn’t do to describe these policies when the themes sound so much nicer. “Sacrifice” appears to be an allusion to all the Americans who died on 9/11 and in Iraq. “Thousands of deaths” wouldn’t sound too good in an ad. But when you look at as “sacrifice,” you realize that it’s noble and makes us all better people.
“Lead” expresses pretty neatly what Bush is all about. He keeps saying “I know” how to achieve this or that—how to make the world “more peaceful,” how to “make sure every person has a chance at realizing the American dream,” how to help people “find work.” It’s as though Bush is running for president for the first time, and we’re supposed to take his word for it. But he’s now got a record. The world is not more peaceful, fewer people have jobs, and fewer are achieving the American dream. Bush is asking us to believe, essentially, that he knows how to make things better than he has made them. “As the economy grows, the job base grows,” he tells us, as though we can’t see that the economy is growing but the job base isn’t.
“One of the things that must never change is the entrepreneurial spirit of America,” Bush says at the outset of the ad. “This country needs a president who clearly sees that.” That’s Bush in a nutshell: He sees our “spirit” but not the lives, jobs, and health insurance we’ve lost. I’m sure he’d make a fine theologian.