Ah, I'm getting carried away. But in times of peace and prosperity, this is what passes for a clarion call. And this is the sort of domestic tinkering a standards test in every pot! A prescription in every medicine cabinet! that George W. Bush and Al Gore are offering up in the national TV ad campaigns each launched this week.
Each, in its own way, picks up where the conventions left off, in Bush's case literally: His 30-second "Education Agenda" opens with him on the podium in Philadelphia, decrying that "seven of ten fourth graders in our highest-poverty schools cannot read a simple children's book." (That sentence, by the way, I believe consitutes the most consecutive numbers Dubya has yet strung together in a public speech.)
We're seeing the kind, kids-minded, lure-the-soccer-moms Bush here, backed with multicultural, homey images: Kids run down a school hallway, a child reads in a porch swing. "The Bush education agenda," says a warm female voiceover. "Reform Head Start. Focus on reading. Restore local control. Triple funding for character education." Triple what for what? In a Bush administration, will we be giving classes in not having affairs with interns half your age?
And, of course... "Hold schools accountable for results." The spot closes with Bush at the convention pledging to "renew the promise of America's public schools" and you can't help noticing that, in fact, Bush behind a podium, grinning, pushing those words out, seems himself like a proud fourth grader giving a report on a simple children's book he read himself.
We continue feeling the love in "Hard Things," the companion 30-second spot, in which Bush outlines his policy differences with Gore by saying as little about them as absolutely necessary. Open-collared, with honeyed light slanting through the windows behind him, as if he's restoring a beautiful old house and just finished setting a dovetail joint, he tells us, "This is a moment in history when we have the chance to focus on tough problems. It's not always popular to say our children can't read. Or Social Security needs improving."
In fact these are such controversial, powder-keg statements that, as we'll see in a minute, Al Gore says them pretty much verbatim in his latest commercial. "Or we have a budget surplus and a deficit in values." Yeah, those are really... um... fightin' words, Dubya. He goes on to defiantly vow to "be bold and decisive, to unite instead of divide" but really the point here is the approachable, homey candidate that these ads present, as contrasted with the harsh tone of his father's campaigns. It's political restoration via Restoration Hardware.
And Now This Message From Al Gore
Al Gore's 60-second "1969" likewise picks up from his convention debut, namely, from his "Wonder Years"-style bio film. "Nineteen sixty-nine," the voiceover declares, to footage of riots and police with nightsticks "America in turmoil," thus fulfilling the customary obligation of using "turmoil" in the same sentence as any reference to a year in the late '60s. "Al Gore graduates college. His father, a U.S. senator, opposes the Vietnam War. Al Gore has his doubts, but enlists in the Army."
This is clever. It not only implies that Gore was more hawkish on Vietnam than his populist old man, it makes it sound as though he enlisted practically in defiance of his old man, rather than to support dad's coming reelection campaign. We see a serious-faced, saddened-looking young Al in fatigues in Nam, and hear that "when he comes home from Vietnam, the last thing he thinks he'll ever do is enter politics" again, a line we heard more than once at the convention. (Al Gore is not a political scion who spent most of his life in Washington, got it?)
But later as we see Al in tie and shirtsleeves listening to constituents and talking to a factory worker "Al Gore decided that to change what was wrong in America, he had to fight for what was right... He made the environment his cause. Broke with his own party to support the Gulf War." (Suddenly it's 1991. Al Gore never ran a failed campaign for president in 1988, understand?) "Fought to reform welfare with work requirements and time limits." (And he was never vice president. He was never, ever in an administration with Bill Clinton. Capice?)
"His fight now," it continues, "is to ensure that prosperity enriches all our families, not just a few. Strengthen social security." Ah, we see: "Improve" (Bush) means "turn into something else." "Strengthen" (Gore) means "keep exactly as it is, come hell or high water, just so it lasts until the baby boomers are dead." Gore will "take on big drug companies to guarantee prescription drugs for seniors. Hold schools accountable for results." (Yes! Those bastards!) "Tax cuts for working families and the middle class." Note the missing verb; at this point the syntax has broken down, as the biography has wholly devolved into a laundry list of promises.
At the end, though, we return to the theme "Al Gore: Human." The candidate walks down a lane buttressed by Tipper, his kids and not one but two dogs, as the narrator intones one of the most ridiculous tag lines in the history of presidential politics. "Al Gore. Married 30 years. Father of four. Fighting for us." Al Gore. He only sleeps with his wife. He's sired babies. So why not give him the nuclear codes?
Thus continues the likability election. Maybe we could just settle it like this: stand them in an arena, put a dog between them and whichever one the pooch runs to first gets to be president. And dogs, like voters, are known to be won over by a friendly man bearing raw meat and treats.