My father was in the advertising business, and he was a Democrat, which was not all that common a combination in the fifties and sixties, when the ad business was a Connecticut-guy Wasp game. His dual identity gave him, he believed, some special political understanding and usefulness, and, especially during the Johnson/Humphrey/McGovern years, he was often on the phone with Democratic Party regulars trying to make the point (and, no doubt, get business for himself) that, insofar as using television and the mechanics of conveying an appealing and coherent message (show, don’t tell), the Democrats didn’t know what they were doing. There was, I might have said in my much younger years, a cynical way my father reduced politics to just media. Sometimes I doubted he cared all that much about issues. I believe I might even have accused my father of trying to manipulate the public.
Now we all (except the most self-interested or emotionally troubled among us) look at politics as though we are media advisers. This trend away from issues and ideology, which advanced significantly with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the right wing, might well be reaching new heights in this campaign, which takes place in the issue-deadening eighth year of the longest economic boom in history.
Accordingly, almost everyone in politics and the media business is now trying to gauge the extent of the Gore problem by analyzing his media failings. Indeed, the overriding theme of the media’s analysis of Gore is his failure to be a more able and savvy media player.
Such an analysis is part psychoanalytic. That is, we keep trying to figure out what in his background keeps him from having a more successfully socialized media persona (withholding parents made him overcompensate with forced sincerity and niceness is the most frequent diagnosis). The analysis also stresses the cognitive elements. We understand that the audience has difficulty in positively identifying with Gore because Gore is unresponsive to the audience itself (stiff does not just mean self-conscious; it means you’re hiding something – your emotional life, if nothing else). And it is part semiotic. Gore, almost every reporter has noted, is symbolically challenged – he’s too literal. He can’t shade meaning (as Bush has managed to do neatly with Yale – he’s smart because he went to Yale; he’s got the common touch because he didn’t do very well). And then there is the look-and-feel issue – Gore has been accused of being both too fat and too buff; his clothing has been faulted for its tightness as well as its natural earth tones.
Certainly if you come out of government (with a do-gooder chip on your shoulder), which is where most people on the Democratic side tend to come from, you won’t have had much exposure to the joys and rewards of salesmanship.
“Gore’s basic problem is not that he’s wrong about most things or that he’s a bad person,” writes Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic (one of the few journals that still pride themselves on being involved with political issues), but “that he seems to have no gut connection to …”
Lois, the mother in the show Malcolm in the Middle, represents the Everyman woman with whom Gore must do better. The attenuation of Sullivan’s analysis is worth noting: Gore’s media character is faulted for its inability to appeal to someone who is only a media character.
Lois, of course, is a successful media creation; Gore is not. Gore fails here, according to Sullivan, because his background is “elitist to the core.” Sullivan feels that Gore’s advisers should get him to watch Malcolm in the Middle – that this could be a transforming political experience for Gore (like Robert Kennedy’s trip to Appalachia, perhaps).
While voters approve of Gore’s positions, Gail Sheehy also notes in a Times Op-Ed, these same voters don’t relate to him personally. He’s too perfect, she says (that goes back to withholding parents). “The ur-attribute of a successful politician is charm. People look first for a candidate who needs to be loved.” Then she deconstructs his labored speaking style (in the South, she says, there is a tradition of courtly oversyllabification).
“Gore is trying to look hip,” Bob Woodward remarks darkly to Chris Matthews, hinting at scandal and disgrace. And, of course, the public, too – “Al Bore,” everyone says – seems quite aware, and unforgiving, that the presentation is faulty.
While the Gore media problem is severe – virtually all polls have Gore losing support in every voter segment, among them suburban women, white men, and all age groups except the elderly – many pundits believe there is a media fix.
That fix is the convention.
This is what the Gore people are saying, too: Don’t worry that we’ve flubbed it so far – the convention will save our butts. It will be the culmination of a summer of soft-dollar ads and the happy launch of the fall’s campaign season. It’s our fail-safe. (Remember, they say: Dukakis was ahead of Bush in ‘88 until the Republican convention.)
Political conventions have been, of course, the zenith not only of politics but of media for most of the past half-century. Because news organizations have traditionally focused top talent, unlimited resources, and prime-time exposure on political conventions, you could be guaranteed that the convention would be a major P.R. coup if it were properly staged and a black mark if it weren’t (e.g., Bush’s public wrestling with Buchanan in 1992).
Anyway, it will be at the convention, the analysis goes, that Gore will be able to reverse his negative media momentum by enlarging his media canvas and getting credit for all the positives of this era of unprecedented peace and prosperity (obviously, the pre-nomination film is being produced right now).
In media terms, this is called breaking through the clutter. The convention puts the entire media focus on Gore and on the risks of changing parties in the middle of good times.
Now, I wonder if this is plain wishfulness or actually a faulty media plan (one that a good media planner buying time for a package-goods client wouldn’t make).
The networks, which have been losing audience share by significant leaps from convention to convention, have all but gotten out of the convention-coverage business (with some now planning to schedule no more than an hour of prime-time coverage) and turned it over to CNN.
The all-important point is that CNN can’t deliver the audience share that the networks, even in their diminished states, can.
What you would have to think about if you were really doing an adequate job of media analysis is the minimum basic rating Gore needs in his key demographic areas. Whether a CNN convention delivers those numbers is the biggest political question of the summer.
In important ways, we have moved past Wag the Dog. Commentators are not saying that the political system is suspect because politicians use the media to manipulate the electorate cynically. Rather, what we are saying is that we are pretty unimpressed with a politician who can’t manipulate us with any fluency.
Even Bush, who, you might think, has done a painfully obvious job of first going right (Bob Jones, etc.) and then doubling back in full view to insist he’s just an easygoing centrist, gets a lot of praise for being able to execute. (Flip-flops are bad in and of themselves, but good if they are seen as part of a conscious flip-flop strategy.)
In media terms, execution is everything. We in the media recognize, perhaps above all else, how difficult it is to execute a disciplined media strategy. To stay on message, as the Clinton people used to say. It’s a detail thing (after all, you’re spending $100 million, which produces a lot of details).
On the most basic level, for instance, a campaign puts out a mountain of verbiage. Press releases, white papers, and, this year, a torrent of e-mail. Most of this stuff is vacuous and ill-written. Covering a campaign, you live in a web not of deceit but of imprecision, obtuseness, bad sentence structure. “What does this mean?” are the words most frequently uttered on a campaign plane – and not what’s the importance of this press release, but what is its actual linguistic meaning. Anyway, if your verbal clarity level is a little higher than the other guy’s, that’s a plus. (The “Keep it simple, stupid” rule would seem to favor Bush.)
Failing that, a campaign needs professional explainers – pitchmen who can whisper the real meaning. In a finely tuned campaign, the top several tiers of campaign operatives should be spending the bulk of their time on the phone or next to you on the seat taking you into their confidence. (The Bush spinners spent the primaries telling reporters, We’re sucking up to the religious right, but we’re just faking.)
At this level of detail, and of personal interaction, the Gore people are, in my experience, particularly lame.
Chris Lehane, the communications director, for instance, is a prickly, glowering, no-eye-contact, go-away-come-back-another-time kind of guy. The message is clear: charmlessness, an inability to connect, and an inchoate sense of not wanting to be here, which is, of course, what we infer about Gore.
Plus, the Gore people don’t return phone calls.
I have found myself, like my father before me, suggesting to Democratic Party people and big contributors that there could be a management deficiency here. Interestingly, honorably perhaps, they act like this is just a media problem. Whereas on the issues, they are rock-solid, so not to worry.
Indeed, more and more, as I follow the Gore campaign and its inability to court the most basic positive press, I think my father was onto something. The Democrats may really not know how do to this. Aside from the obvious exceptions, Kennedy and Clinton, executing a successful media strategy may well be, more naturally, a Republican thing.
Certainly if you come out of government and politics and public-sector stuff (with a do-gooder chip on your shoulder), which is where most people on the Democratic side tend to come from, you won’t have had much exposure to the joys and rewards of salesmanship.
Indeed, Gore can’t schmooze. Neither can his organization.
Now, these schmooze skills are sometimes instinctive. Clinton’s were, obviously. James Carville’s, too. And such instinctiveness is probably hard to beat. But on a level playing field, schmooze skills are a learned, corporate sort of thing. They’re about going to lunch, returning calls, touching base. Selling, selling, selling, even in the phoniest, most smarmy kind of way, is what works – it’s what gets people to do, on a greater-than-average basis, what you want them to do. You’ve got to know that this is just the kind of stuff Bush was doing with his baseball team.
I don’t know if there’s a fix here for Gore. But my father always thought he could have gotten Adlai Stevenson elected.