Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Jerry-atrics and Generational Advertising

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Will Meg accuse Jerry of loving the smell of napalm in the morning?

History shows that on April 23, 1975, then-President Gerald R. Ford delivered a televised address pronouncing an end to America’s involvement in Vietnam (“a war that is finished as far as America is concerned,” Ford declared). A week later, the last helicopter took off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Since then, Vietnam has flared up in various ways in various political campaigns. Think Dan Quayle’s and George W. Bush’s National Guard Service. Or Bill Clinton’s draft maneuvering. Or the “swift-boating” of John Kerry. Or John McCain’s stay in the Hanoi Hilton. 

So here we are, 25 years and two months after the last flight out of Saigon, with the Vietnam War alive and kicking in California’s governor’s race. Or so believes the Los Angeles Times, which on Sunday would have you believe that Meg Whitman’s campaign is purposely reopening that wound to portray Democrat Jerry Brown as little more than Wavy Gravy in wing-tips.

Here’s an excerpt from the Times’ story:

“Television screens in California last week were filled with pictures that looked like finds from a time capsule. A McGovern poster. Peace signs. Woodstock-esque views of young people having fun doing who knows what. A war helicopter, vaguely reminiscent of the Vietnam era, arcing sharply as if to avoid fire.

It was not an ad for a documentary on the 1960s or some PBS show on the Vietnam War. It was an ad for Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor.

On one level, the ad was meant to portray Democratic nominee Jerry Brown as a doddering has-been, the political equivalent of the almost-extinct machine it also pictured, the record turntable. On another level, however, it was dredging up the turbulent past in hopes of gaining political advantage.”

With all due respect to Cathleen Decker, the story’s author, I think she misses the purpose of the ad (click here, to judge yourself). In a word, it’s “failure” — having you, the viewer, believe that Brown couldn’t cut it as a governor, a senatorial or presidential candidate, or mayor of Oakland.

Sure, there’s a generational aspect — the needle on the phonograph, the 70s duds and the dated headlines — but that’s just a roundabout way of pointing out that it’s Pat Brown’s son, not his grandson, running in 2010.

I think the ad serves one other purpose: by pointing out all the campaigns, the controversies and Brown’s seemingly restless routine over the past 40 years as someone more interesting in running than sitting in place, it’s meant to chip away at Democrat’s attempt to re-brand himself as the true outsider in this contest (as Brown puts it, “someone with an insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind”).

But let’s get back to the question of tapping into Vietnam-era unrest as a campaign tactic.

If the real purpose behind this and future ads is to mobilize older voters against Jerry, then why not try something that literally hits closer to home for many Californians — i.e., his mixed feelings back in the late-1970s toward Proposition 13 (Brown at first called Howard Jarvis’ idea a “rip-off” . . . until it passed by a 2-1 margin, after which then-Gov. Brown became a booster of the tax-limiting measure).

I can see the Whitman campaign using plenty of ’70’s lyrics at their rival’s expense (“running on empty . . . running blind” (Jackson Browne) . . . “He’s a complicated man and no one understands him but his woman” (Isaac Hayes) . . . “got ants in my pants and I want to dance” (James Brown)).

But Jerry and Vietnam? “Apocalypse Brown”? Perhaps that’s a stretch.


Written by Bill Whalen

June 29, 2010 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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