The 15-second campaign

Image-makers take control of the election

MARCI McDONALD October 3 1988

The 15-second campaign

Image-makers take control of the election

MARCI McDONALD October 3 1988

The 15-second campaign



Image-makers take control of the election

The scene was eerily familiar. When Vice-President George Bush landed at Newark International Airport for a trip to a New Jersey flag factory last

week, aides had already stationed his campaign media corps 45 m away, behind a police barri-

cade. The reporters shouted questions at Bush. But as secret service agents hurried the Republican presidential nominee to his waiting limousine, he declined their entreaties, cupping a hand to one ear as if he could not hear them. For many observers,

Bush’s gesture seemed lifted straight from a White House script—one that regularly features Ronald Reagan ducking White House reporters’ queries under the whirring blades of his presidential helicopter.

The similarities were well planned.

As a startling videotape, mysteriously pirated from a top-secret 1984 Republican strategy session, revealed last week, most of the advisers who propelled Reagan to two landslide victories—and choreographed his eight years in the White House—are now orchestrating Bush’s presidential effort, using the same smoke-and-mirrors tactics. Keeping Bush away from uncontrolled access to the media, they have turned this year’s presidential £ race into a duel of political symbols § and 15-second sound bites tailored for J television newscasts. Last week, in an z attempt to save Democrat Michael h_ Dukakis’s foundering campaign, his aides borrowed many of those techniques—even refusing to schedule his usual daily news conferences.

But in the process, the strategy appears to have unleashed a backlash against the fall campaign, which some critics charge has become little more than an exercise in media manipulation. That criticism—on the eve of one of the election’s few unscripted moments, last Sunday’s first televised debate between Bush and Dukakis—erupted from reporters and politicians alike. David Gergen, a former communications director in the Reagan White House who is now the editor of U.S. News & World Report, said that the Bush campaign’s preoccupation with patriotism and the pledge of allegiance had “reached the point where it could backfire.” Added Gergen: “I think the press and the public are getting fed up with

imagery and sound bites instead of substance.” But the sharpest rebuke came from retired conservative senator Barry Goldwater. At an Arizona photo session with Republican vicepresidential nominee Dan Quayle, Goldwater turned to Quayle and growled, “I want you to go back and tell George Bush to start talking about the issues.”

The outcry underlines what Larry Sabato, an associate professor of government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, called the most significant political development in the last two decades: the increasing power of pollsters and image-makers in American elections. Said Sabato: “They have inflicted severe damage upon the party system and masterminded the modem triumph of personality cults over party politics.” In fact, Bush’s team, led by former treasury secretary James Baker—who directed both of Reagan’s campaigns—has succeeded in turning his candidacy around in less than a month with a remarkable change in what was widely known as the vice-president’s “wimp” image. The reversal has rocketed Bush from 16 points behind Dukakis in mid-August polls to a slight

4-point lead in most recent surveys.

In fact, as media experts spent most of last week rehearsing Bush and Dukakis for their 90-minute debate in Winston-Salem, N.C., the videotape—obtained by a Wall Street Journal reporter—showed that Bush’s aides appear to have borrowed even some predebate tips from their own 1984 campaign handbook. At the time, Reagan’s veteran California consultant Stuart Spencer—currently coaching Quayle— voiced concern that the President would perform badly without his usual TelePrompter and he discussed ways to minimize the damage. Among them: scheduling the debates at least three weeks before the election when viewers would be distracted by other events. “Pick them the night of a World Series game,” Spencer counselled.

In recent weeks, negotiations over the debates reached a temporary deadlock until Bak-

er won most of what he wanted. He succeeded in reducing the number of televised encounters between the candidates to two from four. And both fall within the 23-day period he insisted upon—well before the Nov. 8 election—when the networks are preoccupied with the Summer Olympics and during the run-up to the major-league baseball playoffs.

But the key figure on Bush’s debating team remained his media wizard Roger Ailes, the rumpled, tough-talking Madison Avenue expert whom Reagan’s aides called to the rescue after the President’s first disastrous 1984 performance against Mondale. It was Ailes who prompted Reagan’s one-liner in the second debate that silenced a week of media speculation over his age and mental grasp. “I want you to know I will not make age an issue of this

campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

In fact, Ailes—a former Emmy-award-winning TV producer who calls himself “the old fox”—is credited with inventing modern political image-making. Drafted by Richard Nixon for his 1968 presidential campaign, he pioneered the television commercials later celebrated by author Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President 1968. Those ads showed Nixon cooly answering questions on a carefully staged panel show. Now, Ailes has an estimated $38.7million TV advertising budget—which will represent 60 per cent of the candidate’s legally allotted $64-million campaign war chest. One commercial, called “A Crime Quiz,” features an unseen announcer asking: “Which candidate for president gave weekend passes to firstdegree murderers who were not even eligible for parole?”

Intended to raise questions about the Massachusetts prison furlough program—one introduced by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor and shared by 43 other states—the ad’s real aim is to paint Bush’s opponent as a dangerous liberal. That message was underscored by another Ailes masterstroke: last week’s endorsement of Bush by Boston’s 1,500-member Police Patrolman’s Association. A few hours after Ailes’s cameras filmed the scene in a Boston restaurant, Dukakis’s clearly shaken aides unveiled the product of their frenzied allnight efforts at damage control: their own anticrime rally on the statehouse steps where the governor—surrounded by law enforcement officials from Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio and even Bush’s home state of Texas—

criticized the vice-president’s tactics. Said an angry Dukakis: “What George Bush is doing to the truth in this campaign is a crime.”

One of the other pivotal tacticians in the Bush campaign is Detroit-based Robert Teeter. The unflappable Teeter, 49, is Bush’s pollster and senior strategist and a veteran of the past she Republican presidential campaigns. In 1971, he was also hired by the Ontario Conservative party to mastermind the election of Ontario Premier William Davis. Teeter went on to poll for the federal Tory campaigns of 1972,1974 and 1979. As well, he once worked for the Alberta Conservative party.

Many who met him at that time recall that Teeter was the first to introduce Canadians to the notion that political polling was more than merely collecting statistics. Said Paul Curley, former national director of the federal Conservative party: “He was sort of the guru in the early days when polling was just becoming one of the central parts of a campaign. Everyone was awed by him to a certain extent.”

Teeter also appears on Reagan’s 1984 strategy tape, speaking openly of White House media-control efforts as “living on smoke.” And he acknowledges that his campaign goal is to “own the first eight minutes of the evening news.” But the most stunning revelation is that Reagan’s misty “Morning in America” campaign commercials in 1984 were purposely issue-free because Teeter and Spencer discovered that the White House had run out of initiatives. Said Spencer: “There isn’t a God damned thing in the pipeline. They don’t have an idea.” The two men joked about Reagan’s ignorance of most White House matters, his inability to perform simple, undirected ges-

tures and his apparent willingness to be manipulated by his media handlers.

In fact, to many observers, the videotape’s most disturbing ingredient is the attitudes of the experts themselves. Said Mark Hertsgaard, author of the just-released study On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. “It confirms the utter contempt the propagandists around Reagan have for the American public.” He added: “And these are the people who are pulling the strings behind our political process now. It’s an absolute scandal.”

Hertsgaard claims that the media manipulation will continue until the journalists find a way to fight back. But Jody Powell, former press secretary in Jimmy Carter’s White House, points out that the media are partly responsible. Said Powell: “Journalists end up punishing candidates for doing precisely what they always say they want them to do—be open and accessible. A campaign that is relatively accessible will always get burned.”

But last weekend, as Dukakis’s aides shut off his availability to the media, Democrats admitted that they were losing the battle for sound bites. Washington lawyer Robert Strauss, a former party national chairman, paid tribute to Baker for being “better than the Democrats in this kind of manipulation.” He added: “It’s masterful.” Still, last week, the possibility of a public backlash against an increasingly madefor-TV campaign loomed as one of Dukakis’s best hopes of catching up with Bush—if not on the nation’s television screens, then perhaps at the ballot box.

MARCI McDONALD in Washington