Dubya's Latest Weapon: The Hatchet Lady

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Let it never be said that women don't have a role in presidential politics. Sure, we haven't had a woman on a major-party ticket in 16 years, but as the high-profile new Republican attack spot, "Really," shows, women do have a monopoly on one job: as the new junkyard dogs of campaigns.

Going on the offensive against Gore's character is a risk for George W. Bush, since he's more or less built a campaign on not doing so: that is, on elevating the "tone" of public discourse. (Of course, the notion that it's somehow not cricket to suggest that your opponent should not be elected is one of the more ridiculous newer rules of politics, but Bush has been one of its chief advocates.) As a safeguard, "Really" (financed by the Republican National Committee but OK'd by the Bush camp) follows the trendy and insulting strategy of trying to make the hostile message seem nicer by having a chick wield the stiletto.

"Really" opens with a shot of a TV in a kitchen. (Mais oui! Where else would a woman be watching television?) We see Al Gore at the notorious Buddhist temple fund-raiser, dissembling at a podium, claiming to have created the Internet. The female narrator sneers, "There's Al Gore reinventing himself on television again. Like I'm not going to notice. Who's he gonna be today? The Al Gore who raises campaign money at a Buddhist temple? Or the one who now promises campaign finance reform? Really."

In one respect, the ad is cleverer than it can acknowledge. "Reinventing" is after all a neat play on Gore's "Reinventing Government" program of streamlining the federal bureaucracy, but to play up the allusion would be to remind viewer of a fairly popular — and fairly Republican — accomplishment by the enemy.

And there's the problem. Big-time political campaigns don't like clever. They don't trust clever. They don't get clever. And clever, unfortunately, this ad is not.

The Bushies claim the ad is "tongue-in-cheek," and perhaps it could have been. But it's just poorly executed. The narrator comes off not as likable and witty, but bitter and harpy-ish: by the time she huffs, "Re-a-lly," you can practically see her at the end of the kitchen counter, holding a martini in one hand while she lights a cigarette with the one still burning in her mouth. (And yes, that is a sexist image. But try to use positive sexist stereotypes — i.e., that women are inherently nicer than men — and you risk inadvertently conjuring negative ones.)

The sad thing is that "Really" could have been done well. Gore has committed enough flip-flops in his years of realpolitik to support a good hour of stand-up material. But I suspect that if someone had made a truly light, witty and funny commercial — the ad that this spot claims to be — it wouldn't have been red-meat enough to please the party hacks. Instead, "Really" sounds not just nasty but tone deaf, down to what should have been a classic punch line: "(Gore:) 'I took the initiative in creating the Internet.' Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too." It's a beauty — right up until that final and redundant "too," which utterly screws up the rhythm of the joke and would have been cut by anyone with an ear for idiomatic English.

"Another round of this," Hatchet Lady concludes, "and I'll sell my television." Many more clumsy ads like this one, and voters may have the same response to the Bush TV campaign.