• U.S.

Hard Sell, Soft Sell

4 minute read
William A. Henry III

New political ads cast aspersions and spells

Walter Mondale wanted to look tough. Gary Hart sought to suggest the ferment of new ideas. Ronald Reagan came along, in a soft-spoken way, because he had money to burn. Even House Republicans entered the act to protest the partisanship of House Speaker Tip O’Neill. As the primary campaign reached its final week and seemingly every conceivable thought had been uttered, politicians aplenty inundated the air waves with new, improved and, in some cases, conspicuously nasty commercials.

Mondale harshened his stock “red phone” spot to attack Hart by name as unfit: as the camera focuses on a purported hot line, an announcer declaims that Mondale would be steady in a crisis but that Hart is “unsure, unsteady, untested” and does not “know what he is doing.” Another ad extolling Mondale’s leadership calls Hart “dangerous” for opposing immediate shutdowns of two nuclear power plants. Hart, although much more restrained, countered with an implication that Mondale is part of a discredited past; nearly all his spots close with the suggestive tag line, “We can’t afford to go back.” One Hart ad suggests that Mondale’s attacks are hypocritical by quoting lavish praise that the former Vice President bestowed in 1979 to aid Hart’s Senate reelection campaign.

Mondale, following the conventional wisdom that a front runner should be aloof, barely appears and never speaks in his low-tech ads, which consist mostly of text and testimonials. Hart, by contrast, is on camera in all his commercials. Both candidates have separate series for each coast: Mondale ads condemning Hart for opposing federal handgun legislation have aired in New Jersey, which has tough state controls, but not in California. Hart’s New Jersey commercials show him talking about economic redevelopment on a blacktop swath of the Meadowlands sports complex, which was built on a reclaimed swamp. His California ads are moody and emotive: Kennedyesque, he walks along a beach, skipping rocks into the ocean; on the sound track the thumping of a heart—a wordplay on his name—leads into his anthem that “new vision, new ideas, are the heartbeat of this country’s future.”

The querulous tone of this political year is also reflected in ads prepared by the National Republican Congressional Committee, in which portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson appear to weep over the purportedly high-handed tactics of the Democratic majority. The commercials, aired in Washington and on the Cable News Net work, accuse the Democrats of “bottling up” a Senate-passed crime-control bill and “falsifying congressional records.” (A House Democratic staffer resigned last year after he admitted altering the remarks of G.O.P. members in hearing transcripts.) The Democrats had drawn first blood last month, when O’Neill ordered House cameras to pan the empty chamber during Republicans’ postsession speeches, which were staged primarily for media pickup. In retaliation, G.O.P. members assembled video clips of O’Neill’s fast gaveling on the podium, but decided that using them in ads would violate the House rule against employing shots of the chamber for partisan purposes.

In counterpoint to all this belligerence, Reagan is spending some of the $14 million he still has available for the primary season on ads that feature motherhood and the flag (no mention yet of apple pie). The spots are calculatedly vague—and enormously effective. Their sentimental and consumerist appeal might be used to sell soft drinks or hamburgers. A boy carries a fishbowl into his family’s new house. A white-haired matron embraces a bride. The camera circles farmsteads and skyscrapers, even the Statue of Liberty under renovation, as a symbol of new jobs. The voice-over in tones, “Isn’t it interesting that no one anywhere is saying the job of President is too big for one person.” While the Democrats are mired in the mudfest of spring, Reagan is staking his symbolic claim to the high ground in November with a yes-we-are-better-off answer to the question he used so effectively four years ago.

— By William A. Henry III

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