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The Quayle Disappears Amid All the Ad Bird Dogs, Handlers and Programmers

<i> Russell Jacoby, the author of "The Last Intellectuals" (Basic Books, 1987), teaches at UC Riverside</i>

This is a test: (a) Spin doctors; (b) handlers; (c) programmers; (d) reinforcers; (e) instant analysts. Identify these professions as pertaining to (1) rocketry; (2) dog shows; (3) presidential debates; (4) tennis.

Few will fail. This is surprising. Everyone seems to know the lingo and its meaning: Showmen run national elections. To be sure, political hype and puffery are hardly new. Nor is cynicism about political campaigns. Aren’t prepackaged presidential candidates and debates just more of the old stuff? One pundit confirmed that the Bush-Quayle campaign manipulates voters “but the voters have always known they’re being manipulated. The problem is that most voters believe they are being manipulated by both sides, which they are.”

This makes it acceptable; everyone does it. Yet the distance between manipulation and a team of image specialists is roughly that between a hawker--"Get your cold beer here!"--and a million-dollar TV commercial. Once upon a time advertising, touting a product’s features, offered some minimal information--the item was this size, weight, price. No longer. In many television commercials the product has almost vanished; sometimes it is hardly mentioned. Is it designer jeans? Shampoo? Soda?

Or is it a vice presidential candidate? Images swarm about the candidate. For the Bush campaign, Dan Quayle represents a young, dynamic, future-oriented generation. What does this mean? Does he have a youthful idea? Is he against traditions or an older generation? It is impossible to know. Quayle’s every movement is calculated, plotted, premeditated. Spontaneity is the greatest curse, the greatest fear; it might reveal something.

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Advertising agencies entered national elections with Dwight D. Eisenhower, but they hardly played a role. Ike also picked a vice presidential candidate allergic to television, Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor, chose George Bush. Bush picked Quayle. Is this a progression or a regression? Nixon’s tortured relationship to the mass media originated from his political history and his shifting, even shifty, position. Quayle’s difficulties arise from no history and no position. Reagan selected Bush to complement his ticket. Bush tapped Quayle not to be overshadowed.

About 32 million viewers checked out the vice presidential debate; a zillion commentators analyzed it. Cynicism about national elections is also a pretense; the disappointment was palpable. Few expected great things but everyone expected something. It was hardly satisfying to learn that Quayle did not fall on his face or that he could string together two sentences. Since nothing happened or was said, opinion-makers could only ponder how the candidates were perceived. Everyone looks over someone’s shoulder and sees the same things in a hall of mirrors. People can think for themselves but there’s nothing to think when they’re only refracting images.

Polling ratifies and perpetuates the cultural claustrophobia. People are asked which candidate appears “presidential” or “vice presidential.” They can only respond to the pictures served up. Media experts analyze the polls and fine-tune their candidate. New images are bounced off the populace and re-analyzed. The system works, except political discourse evaporates. With Dan Quayle this process seems complete--too complete. Even the least probing voters sense they are being robbed. There is nothing there.

The democratic process requires real choices. By selecting a non-threatening running mate, Bush threatened the minimal diversity that the American system usually sustains. He may have also outsmarted himself. Even in advertising, relentless hype irritates.

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If national campaigns merge with advertising, perhaps they can learn from Madison Avenue’s failures. Detroit perfected its image by lavishly extolling its youthful, fast, comfortable cars. The commercials became slicker and sexier, the cars more inefficient, oversized, poorly designed. Detroit lost its customers. Might this be the future of American elections--more and more media managers and fewer and fewer voters?

“The Selling of the President,” which surveyed Nixon’s television campaign, was published 20 years ago. Joe McGinnis, its author, recently recalled what led to its writing. He overheard an advertising executive say that his agency had landed the “Humphrey account.” Puzzled, McGinnis learned that Hubert Humphrey, then the vice president, had retained the agency to help create a winning image. “A week earlier I’d been in Los Angeles,” McGinnis recounts, “because a leader (Robert Kennedy) of potentially heroic dimensions had been slain. Now I was hearing an ad man say he’d be selling Hubert Humphrey to America like so much toothpaste or detergent.” In 1988 it would be naive to express alarm over this development; it would also be cynical to think that it had done no damage. Political discourse is becoming a memory, elections a charade. Even the most serene might shudder at the prospect of President Quayle amid his handlers and programmers.


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