Richard Reeves

A View of Bush Gore From the Bottom Up

NEW YORK -- One of the reasons so many politicians, no matter how they vote and talk, are against almost any kind of campaign finance reform is an old rule: Only 10 percent of what candidates do actually works, but no one knows which 10 percent. So, though public opinion may force them to cut expenditures, they really want to get and spend every penny they can get their hands on.

That rule seems to be confirmed by the experience of a 21-year-old Northwestern University student who spent his summer and fall vacations last year toiling away in the lower levels of Al Gore's Media Response Center in Nashville -- the war room staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Charles Huebner had a bottom-up view of politicians and reporters doing their mating dance, and he described the moves in his honors thesis titled, "Shaping Media Messages: Communication Strategy and Tactics in the Gore 2000 Presidential Campaign."

Reading this little memoir with analysis you might get the impression that Gore, George W. Bush and the ladies and gentlemen of the press might all do better if they stayed home and kept their mouths shut. One of the patterns he shows in seven case studies is that more often than not the smaller the issue, the bigger the play in newspapers and on television -- and the candidate who talks about mini-issues and mini-crises usually comes out the loser.

The best "issue" analyzed by young Mr. Huebner was arguably the most ridiculous one in a campaign not noted for big things -- the "RATS" commercial. In case you've forgotten, blessedly, a Bush television commercial attacking a Gore scheme for reducing the price folks pay for prescription drugs seemingly hovered on the last four letters of the word "DEMOCRATS." A Gore supporter in Seattle called Nashville and said it looked like subliminal advertising. No one proved anything in the media scrum that followed, except that George Bush could not pronounce "subliminal."

What happened in the war room was a decision to go for "an exclusive leak" to The New York Times by Gore communications director Mark Fabiani. To everyone's surprise and delight, the Times played the thing on Page One, ignoring the fact that the story had actually broken a few days earlier on a local Fox News program. No matter, the Times had more clout and credibility than Fox -- or Gore for that matter -- and the story and RATS ate up three or four campaign days.

As Huebner reports from leak central: "Simple, vivid and easily understood stories are the ones that get covered on national television. ... The story was an effective effort for Gore. It undermined Bush's message strategy, putting the governor on the defensive for several crucial days and preventing him from doing anything that might damage the Gore campaign."

The Gore campaign did nothing. The candidate said nothing. That's what "effective" meant.

"This development effectively turned Bush 'off message'; that is, he no longer was telling the press what he wanted to tell them but instead was talking about whatever they wanted to hear," Huebner wrote. "By letting pundits and the press do all the dirty work and criticism, Gore avoided the risk of looking negative and unfair."

The paper also does some issue-tracking to show why another rule of campaign is simply: "Timing is everything." Or, perhaps it should be luck is eveything. The example Huebner used was the "Failed Leadership" tour of Texas taken by Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman. The idea was to generate television footage of slums, guns and pollution in Gov. Bush's state. That might have done Gore some good, but pretty much no one outside the Nashville war room knew where Lieberman was.

Why? Because Lieberman toured during two days dominated by horrible foreign news with dramatic pictures: the terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen and film of Palestians killing an Israeli citizen, throwing his body out a window, then waving bloody hands in celebration.

So it goes in the dance of politics and media. Huebner ends up calling for more serious campaigning and coverage. That's what we all say, isn't it?

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