Fred Davis always loved putting on a show. As a boy, he recruited his siblings and neighbor kids to perform in the plays he wrote and staged in the family den and, sometimes, in nursing homes around Tulsa, Okla.
Davis wanted to be an actor, but his middling talent and the sudden death of his father when he was a teenager changed those plans. He inherited his dad’s public relations firm, grew up and became a successful commercial ad man before moving into politics, largely by happenstance.
He sees things differently from most. His campaign spots feature a phantasm of oddities: “demon sheep,” a rampaging rat, burly convicts pirouetting in pink tutus. They have made Davis quite well known in the political world, and quite well-off.
“He is probably the most creative and inventive consultant out there,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who has faced Davis, a Republican, in a handful of races.
He may be the most controversial too.
In February, Davis was pilloried for a Michigan TV ad featuring a Chinese American actress speaking broken English as she celebrated U.S. jobs going to China. Critics accused him of racism and xenophobia.
Three months later, the New York Times published details of a proposed advertising campaign against President Obama, centered on his past ties to the fulminating Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
Davis’ pitch, intended for private consumption, was typically irreverent. It derided John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, as “a crusty old politician who often seemed confused.” It demeaned the president as “a metrosexual, black Abraham Lincoln” and suggested — cynically, some would say — that Obama would respond by playing “the race card,” ensuring huge attention.
The backlash was swift. The man Davis hoped would finance the ads, billionaire Joe Ricketts, denounced the proposal, as did Mitt Romney, this year’s unofficial GOP nominee. Davis faced death threats, suffered sleepless nights and, by his account, lost nearly 10 pounds. It was, he says, one of the most difficult times of his life.
“I assure you there is not a xenophobic or racist bone in his body,” said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster who has known Davis for nearly two decades. “Anyone who thinks that of Fred does not know him one little bit.”
But, fairly or not, questions of character now attach themselves to Davis, enough that a risk-averse candidate might wish to weigh his talents against the baggage he carries into a campaign.
The paradox is how Davis, so gifted at shaping and promoting the image of others, managed to lose control of his own.
They call him “Hollywood Fred.” Not because of his aerie in the hills above Los Angeles, with its wraparound deck and Catalina views, but his feathered hair — gray at age 60 — and the bland good looks of the character actor he never was. (Davis is still a performer at heart; for an audience of one he did the voices of Cajun-born campaign consultant James Carville, Michigan’s adenoidal Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, a Texas banker, an Australian preacher, a small boy, Davis’ barking high school drama teacher, a Southern governor, several senators and the sound of a jet engine.)
Even as a young executive in Tulsa, long-haired and goateed, Davis stood out, pushing back against the suits and other button-down enforcers of the bland, the commonplace and conventional. His approach has always been simple: “If every other ad is yellow, you do your ad red. If every ad is loud, you do yours soft.”
As he spoke, Davis was sunk into a furry brown cowhide chair, one of four seats in an office arrangement that included a Holstein and zebra and cheetah prints. Perched overhead was a menagerie of taxidermic animals, including a two-headed calf. For Davis, it seems, conformity is practically a mortal sin.
His upbringing was happy and uneventful until a tragedy blindsided him. The eldest of four children, Davis became man of the house on a Christmas break from college when his father fell dead of a heart attack at age 49. Davis was 19.
He quit school and ran his father’s public relations business, struggling before it dawned on him: “If you buy a page in the newspaper, you can put in there anything you want.”
He switched from public relations to advertising, and his company boomed until the collapse of the oil and gas industry flattened Oklahoma’s economy and chased Davis to California. After several unhappy months of consulting work, Davis returned to advertising and began rebuilding his business.
The next life-altering event was a happier one.
Davis’ uncle, James M. Inhofe, wanted to run for an open Oklahoma U.S. Senateseat and summoned his nephew home to produce the ads. Davis’ only political experience had been working on Inhofe’s earlier races, for governor, the U.S. House and Tulsa mayor. (Most of them successful.) With little time or money, Davis gambled on a pair of offbeat spots, seizing on a Democratic crime bill that had a smidgen of arts funding. The ads featured thuggish recruits from a Tulsa halfway house twirling to Strauss’ “Blue Danube” and frolicking Esther Williams-style in floral swimsuits and bathing caps.
The commercials were a huge hit and Inhofe won the 1994 race in a romp. More significantly for Davis, he won top honors in the annual contest of professional campaign consultants, launching his political consulting career. (He still keeps a stable of corporate clients, including gambling and energy interests and the nation’s largest bail-bond company.)
Davis’ specialty became the viral video, a production so compelling, so weird or so wonderful that it builds its own vast audience. One, in 2002, portrayed Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes as a giant rat run amok; it lifted Sonny Perdue to an upset win and crashed the campaign’s computer server, which buckled under viewer demand.
His “demon sheep” ad for California U.S. Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina, a bizarre pastiche of attacks on rival Tom Campbell, became one of the most talked-of spots of 2010 and was, Fiorina strategists believe, key to her primary win.
That’s part of the bargain, Davis said: A dollar yields $5 to $10 worth of publicity once an ad goes viral, winning gobs of free air time.
It’s the formula he hoped would help beat the president in November. Instead, it landed Davis in a mud heap of his own making.
Wright surfaced in 2008 just long enough for Obama to sever his ties and deny ever sitting in a pew during one of the pastor’s incendiary sermons. (“Not God bless America! God damn America!”) McCain rejected the entreaties of Davis and others to use Wright in his TV spots; facing the first viable African American presidential candidate, it was a line the Arizona senator would not cross.
Davis now says McCain was right and has apologized for disparaging him in his leaked memo. He feels no compunction, however, to tell the president he’s sorry.
“I am maybe the only person in America who didn’t see that as racist,” Davis said of juxtaposing Obama with the fiery rants of his longtime spiritual advisor. “I saw it as an interesting fact in a guy’s upbringing and the way he’s formed his opinions.”
Nor, he said, was it racist to use broken English in the ad attacking Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan as “Debbie Spend-It-Now” — it just seemed funnier and sounded better that way.
If cleverness superseded better judgment, some would say it’s not the first time. The criticism is familiar enough that Davis recited it himself: “highly creative ... too much of a risk-taker ... needs adult supervision 24/7.”
Those gibes flew in the days after the Wright debacle, including from people Davis considered friends. Some shunned him. While business is fine, Davis said, he would not discuss those who stood by him, lest they suffer for “being nice to Fred.” It’s a painful thing, this stigma, for the gregarious Davis.
Nothing has been as hurtful, though, as being called a racist. He was raised colorblind, Davis said: “All men created equal, and that’s how I see the world. So, that means to me it’s absolutely vital to look at what influenced a life of someone running for public office, with no regard to race.”
That may sound naive, he admitted, even self-serving. He shrugged. From now on, he vowed, he would do things differently. No less creative, but with more sensitivity. “You can’t come within 100 miles of anything that could ... conceivably have a racist angle to it,” Davis said, and he never will.
There is one thing Davis failed to mention. For years he has worked with inner-city youth, most of them black or Latino, many just steps away from prison or gang life. He has devoted countless hours and given hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Davis has a longtime girlfriend but never married and has no children.)
He discussed his involvement only after others brought it up. Perhaps, it was suggested, his good works might dispel some of the worst people have come to think of him.
“I was raised right,” Davis said. “In my family, you don’t go beating your chest. You don’t bring out kids you helped through Junior Achievement to show you’re OK. I’m hoping over time the truth will prevail. I just don’t know how long it will take.”