IT'S TAKEN ME all this time to get rid of the disgusting aftertaste of the midterm election TV ads, with their artificial colors and flavors — cloying, bitter, sour, stupid. (Is stupid a flavor? It should be.)
Ptui to the candidate and the beaming family, the candidate swarmed by ethnically calibrated rent-a-schoolkids, the candidate speaking solemnly to firefighters/nurses/guys in hardhats, the candidate in Levi's, ambling near a forest, a ranch, a mountain.
What I needed was an antidote. A TV advertising pro. A guy who, cheerfully and forthrightly, tries to sell me something and makes no bones about it. A guy who's spent more time on the tube than any pol. A car salesman. Scratch that — the car salesman. Cal Worthington.
Since he started in 1946, he's sold a million cars, new and used. One million.
On this side of the Continental Divide, Cal was king of the advertising airwaves, him in his Nudie's cowboy suit and his honest-to-Tulsa accent, back when gas and TV airtime were cheap and you had to get up and walk over to the TV to change the channel. His jingle was tenacious as a tapeworm: Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.
Once, his commercials — two, three minutes' worth — ran long enough to for you to hit the loo, stir the stew, check on the kids and still get back in time to hear Cal spiel about a '69 Chevy El Camino with lo, lo miles, while he's got a coati-mundi or a king snake hanging on to him: "I'm Cal Worthington and this is my dog, Spot."
His own spots ran past midnight, in the late-late show double feature. Insomniac women would come up to Cal and purr that they'd spent the night with him.
In American mythology, the only profession to rank lower than politics is used-car salesman. But just now I'd take that old huckster over a new slickster any day.
I don't need a car or truck, but I thought I'd go see Cal anyway.
The car cowboy turns 86 next week. He's spent 60 of those years selling cars. The World War II bomber jock still pilots his Learjet, hopscotching among dealerships from Alaska to San Diego. Then he flies home to the landing strip on the ranch 100 miles north of Sacramento, to the almond trees and the stables and the cattle and his 6-year-old son.
That's what he truly loves — ranching, farming, producing something. "I never really have liked the car business. I got trapped in the car business."
When I asked him what he drives these days, he couldn't remember because, wherever he goes, the dealership "just leaves something at the airport. I never know — I have the damndest time sometimes." Once, at LAX, he raised hell because he couldn't get the key to work. As it turns out, it wasn't even his car. It just had a Worthington plate.
Cal is a marketing genius with a winning line of patter, but he stood on the shoulders of oddball car-salesmen giants with TV gimmicks of their own, and he outlasted them all: Madman Muntz in the Napoleon bicorn hat, Hog Wild Tony Holzer, Honest John with the angel robes and lighted halo. Canny Cal has lasted from the age of his namesake, Calvin Coolidge, to the age of YouTube. Car salesmen, like politicians, learn from the other guys' mistakes.
Cal feels cheesy appearing in anything less than a two- or three-minute pitch. Nowadays a minute-long TV commercial with his voice-over is Cal's big ad presence.
Back in the day, "I could buy the time real cheap, and now it's so expensive you can't afford to goof around. You have to get your message across in 30 seconds. Thirty seconds, it's hard sell. I don't like to be on camera during a hard sell. I don't think it looks good."
And here he starts hollering a rapid-fire sales pitch, then drops out of that character. "You wouldn't want me shouting in your face."
You listen to Cal long enough and you fall into his speech patterns, which is how I heard myself asking whether he'd ever had a hankerin' to go into politics. (He had one foray, four years ago, radio ads pleading with voters to stop a greenhouse-gas emissions bill that passed anyway.)
"I kinda tinkered with the idea a time or two. I think I could win easily enough, but I'd hate having to go out and raise money. It's like taking charity, and I wouldn't do that. That's the bad part — the fundraising. People give you campaign contributions, and they feel like they own you, and in many cases they do."
Still, "I know I could get elected because I know how to put a person in their place with a little humor, make them look kind of funny without getting vicious and slinging mud like a lot of these guys do."
Even in the straitjacket of 30-second spots, maybe Cal could do it. He could set an example for political ads. At least we'd know he really does wear Levi's and that really is his horse. He's already got a theme song — Go vote Cal, go vote Cal, go vote Cal.
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