Splitting the '60s

Political ads dissected and explained.
Aug. 29 2000 3:00 AM

Splitting the '60s

"1969" was produced by the Campaign Company Inc. for Gore/Lieberman 2000. For a transcript of the ad, click.

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1969 From: William Saletan To: Jacob Weisberg

It's no accident that the title and first word of this ad are a number. The theme is generational and ideological. America was "in turmoil" in 1969, and so was Al Gore. The turmoil was racial, economic, and cultural: movements for integration and equality, a revolt against corporate greed, and a backlash against American military involvement overseas. Why is Gore hearkening back to those days? To consolidate and endorse a divided verdict many swing voters have rendered on the legacies of that era. He's reclaiming what he likes about the '60s while repudiating excesses that crippled the Democratic Party for years afterward.

The spot is running in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and West Virginia, among other states. That's a telling list. This is not another attempt to shore up Gore's liberal base. It's an aggressive pitch to the center: economic populism tempered by cultural conservatism. The cultural message starts with Vietnam. Gore doubted the war's wisdom but enlisted anyway. As a senator, he voted for the Gulf War. In doing so, he "broke with his own party." Translation: Gore rejected flag-burning radicalism and liberal pacifism. He believes in duty, patriotism, and military strength. He shares the values of Appalachia and the South.

Welfare gets the same treatment. The ad signals that Gore is no bleeding-heart tax-and-spender. He "fought to reform welfare with work requirements and time limits." He's a stern disciplinarian on education, vowing to "hold schools accountable for results." And he's a family man, "married 30 years, father of four." No more free love in the Oval Office. What about race relations? On this, the commercial is curiously silent. Imagine Bill Clinton making a one-minute spot about the '60s and early '70s without mentioning race. Why does Gore leave it out? Because it's not his passion, and because he thinks there's another way to unite blacks and conservative white Democrats: populism.

This pitch is familiar to anyone who saw Gore's convention speech. The ad says he wants "to ensure that prosperity enriches all our families, not just the few; strengthen Social Security; take on big drug companies to guarantee prescription drugs for seniors," and pass "tax cuts for working families and the middle class." Gore is no big-government liberal. He wants tax cuts, but he wants them for you, not for the rich. How does he propose to achieve these goals? Fight, fight, fight. In case you missed that word the first 1,000 times Gore used it this month, the spot repeats it four more times.

Young Al begins fighting for the people as "an investigative reporter." Note the magic word. Reporters are cynical and biased. But investigative reporters are brave, diligent, and honest. They seek the truth and expose corruption. Then Gore fights for a seat in Congress. Once there, he holds "some of the first hearings on cleaning up toxic waste"—still investigating and fighting powerful interests on behalf of the people, as in his journalism days. Of all the environmental issues the spot could mention, toxic waste is the most politically useful, because it indisputably pits corporate greed against public safety and quality of life.

The formula is interesting: Attract conservative Democrats by embracing military patriotism, family values, and welfare reform. Meanwhile, pry them away from the GOP by championing Social Security, confining tax cuts to "working families," and assailing polluters and "big drug companies." Repudiate the counterculture in order to rekindle the politics of economic justice. Let's see whether that message moves the polls in Louisiana 31 years later. 

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

You make an excellent point about how this ad reframes the cultural and political history of the 1960s. One thing that interests me is the way it also bowdlerizes Gore's personal history. 

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