Speaking of politics, the new George Bush Lite Beer commercial is one of the best of its genre. The colors are great, the politics are muted but there, while the emphasis is on interracial camaraderie, the cohesive influence of beer, and general manly horseplay. This ad is a winner all around.
We pan in on Bush, who’s wearing a Merle Haggard concert T-shirt, jeans, and an NRA gimme cap. He’s shooting pool with a Hispanic buddy as the guys, in the spirit of manly horseplay, shout encouragement. The Hispanic buddy wins. Bush orders two more beers and says he drinks Lite ’cause it tastes great. And he challenges any guy who drinks it ’cause it’s less filling to arm wrestle. Suddenly the crowd parts and we hear the guys whooping and shouting “Uh-oh! Uh-oh!” The challenger is none other than big Bubba Smith, former football monster! Looks bad for our guy, but after plenty of straining and huffing and puffing, the two fight to a draw. Says Smith, panting: “Hey George, not bad! You’ve got this Bubba’s vote!” Zoom in on Bush for a final word: “Gee, I hope the election’s not this close!” Fade to logo.
Okay, okay, there’s no such commercial- at least not at this writing. But ask yourself: would you really be just shocked out of your mind if you flicked on the set and saw such an ad? Where is the line these days between politics and advertising and show business, between selling beer or cars and selling candidates? Wherever it is, that line is moving in a very disturbing direction. Immense sums of money and hours of high-priced talent go into making these candidates’ television ads, just as with the beer ads. And are the political ads any more reliable, any closer to the truth than the beer ads? Do they help us in making a wise choice?
Of course, if this fantasy were to come true, the beer folks would want to shoot a Michael Dukakis spot for equal time. John Madden bursts in through the wall: “Hey, Democrats love Miller too, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the Duke!” Bob Uecker pipes up: “You can’t fool the old Ueck with that line. John Wayne’s been dead for years. Besides, he was a Republican!” Enter Dukakis, wearing cowboy hat and boots, twirling a six-shooter. In a bad John Wayne accent, he says, “All right, pilgrims. Lissen up ’cause I’m a-gonna tell ya ’bout some good jobs at good wages, okay?” In one stroke the ad “humanizes” the often icy Duke, calms fears that he’s anti-guns, and grabs for the regular-guy vote. It could be worth a mountain of position papers.
MEANWHILE, THIS SIDE OF PARODIES, WE will have a new president this month. As the man said, facts are stubborn things, and we must accept the disquieting fact that one of these candidates will win the presidency. The wearying, degrading quadrennial circus drags to its close. Somewhere beyond the slick television spots and mass-produced lies and spin controllers, the electorate is thinking-but what? We may not know even after Election Day.
What will the victory of one of these men and the defeat of the other really tell us about ourselves? What kind of mandate will we hand to the winner? A Bush victory, for instance, might mean the institutionalization of the Reagan Revolution and serve as final proof that Reagan’s success was not merely personal, but ideological. It might signify a national preference for a somewhat more unfettered free enterprise system over a somewhat larger role for the federal government. It might mean the nation now believes there really is a Communist threat in Central America, as Reagan has said for eight years. It could indicate that the people believe abortion should be limited or outlawed, or that we should always have speedy access to handguns, or that our children should start the day with a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance.
A Bush victory could mean all these things, or none of them. Even partisan Democrats must admit that the Reaganites have had solid successes with the economy (though at what later price remains to be seen). And the world is surely a safer place just now, with terrorists less free to ply their bloody trade with impunity. Peace through strength is more than a slogan. If the treaties and other initiatives with the Russians come to fruition, our fantastically expensive arsenal may be reduced, and the ruinous drain on our national resources lessened.
But for some reason (the campaigning skills of Dukakis cannot be the cause), the Republicans felt they could not win a highroad campaign of ideas and accomplishments. All future candidates may suffer by comparison with the telegenic Reagan, but Bush seems especially ill-suited to argue a good case to the people. He is at best a moderate middle manager, not a crusader, as was Reagan, for a set of ideas. Hence the guarded format Bush’s handlers secured for the “debates,” which allowed both men to duck questions for which they had no canned two-minute reply. The Bush handlers knew that ninety minutes of unmediated give-and-take would leave their man a rambling wreck lost in the elliptical jungles of Bushspeak.
So Bush may win, but for the wrong reasons. Given such a candidate, there was only the low road for the Republican campaign-brass knuckles wrapped in an American flag. As early as the GOP convention. Bush’s campaign manager, the reptilian Lee Atwater, made it clear he was out for mud and blood. When Republicans press the gun control button in August, you know they are worried about November.
But Bush might also lose for the wrong reasons-because many dislike his voice, his too-carefully scripted campaign, his inept-ness on TV. Or because Dukakis dusts off that trusty old secret weapon of Democrats-the fear that those heartless Republicans will slash Social Security. A frightened electorate is not an intelligent electorate. And yet Dukakis, if he is losing late in the game, may at last realize what Bush’s camp seems to have known all along-this year, the high road of ideas may not lead to the White House. A more troubling thought: in the age of charisma and sound-bite campaigning, a clean appeal to voters’ minds rather than our baser emotions may simply be impossible. We may be looking at the campaign style of the future.
So we will have a winner on November 8. But we may also have millions of losers, and not just the supporters of the defeated candidate. We will all have lost a chance to debate, really debate, the great issues of the day. We will have missed a chance to show that we are worthy of our heritage-the awesome burden of self-government-by joining in a great conversation about the kind of country we want. And what did we get instead? Image manipulators. Snow blowers. Pastel patriotism. Pork rinds. Speedboats. Licensing grandmothers and air rifles. The height of the podium, the color of the backdrop, ten-minute tank rides, flag factories. Read my lips: we deserve better.