Malone Doesn't Die

Political ads dissected and explained.
Sept. 19 2000 9:00 PM

Malone Doesn't Die

"Ian" was produced by Century Media for Gore/Lieberman 2000. Click to read a transcript of the ad. Click here to see the ad on SpeakOut.com.

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From: Jacob Weisberg
To: Chris Suellentrop

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One of the articles I never got around to writing during the primaries was about how campaign rallies were becoming the new Lourdes. In January and February, people would show up at political events and wait patiently for the question period. Then they would rise and ask John McCain or George W. Bush or Al Gore or Bill Bradley: How can you help with my medical/insurance/financial woes?

These people weren't being superstitious. Attention from a figure in the news can, in fact, fix someone's problem in a hurry. At one Bush appearance in California, a young woman with failing eyesight got up to complain that her college scholarship wouldn't pay for an $1,100 eyepiece she needed so she could use a microscope in biology class. Bush raised the cash for her on the spot.

The most dramatic personal intervention by a presidential candidate this year was Al Gore's successful effort to help Ian Malone. As this ad relates, Ian was born last year severely disabled because of a botched delivery (by a midwife, not a doctor, it neglects to note). As a result, Ian now requires constant nursing care, which costs nearly $300 a day. Aetna US Healthcare, the insurer that covers the Malone family, told them it wouldn't pay for this expense. Desperate, Ian's parents contacted the Gore campaign for help. Gore met with the Malones on a trip to their hometown of Everett, Wash. He then spoke publicly about their plight, shaming Aetna into reversing its decision. Ian's mother, Christine Malone, thinks Gore saved her son's life.

A story like that is a gift from the gods: Candidate saves child, becomes mom's hero. So, you wouldn't expect Gore's image-meisters to not make an ad about it. But it wasn't a given that they would make a good ad about it. The danger was that exploiting this incident for political gain would look, well, exploitative. But I've got to hand it to Carter Eskew, Bob Shrum, and Bill Knapp. They've taken this episode and turned it into one of the most powerful and effective campaign ads I've ever seen. This 30-second spot is undeniably moving, it's tied to a substantive issue in the campaign—Gore's call for "a real Patients' Bill of Rights"—and it's entirely positive.

The reason the ad works so well is that the Gore folks didn't drown this story in heavy-handed technique or milk it for extra sobs. It's manipulative, but subtly so. The first shot is of the sick baby, sleeping. Then we see Ian's mother describing her desperation when the insurance company said it wouldn't pay. Then we see Gore in shirtsleeves, fighting for the Malones. Then Christine again, in a tighter shot, describing the way Gore stood up to the insurance company. Then Gore once more, as the narrator makes the point that his fight isn't just for the Malones, since "all families need protection from HMO abuses."

The last shot is the real clincher. Christine Malone appears for a final time, in the tightest close-up yet. "Even if he fought half as hard for the people of our country as he did for my son, nobody loses," she says. To say "nobody loses" instead of something like "we all win" sounds a bit odd and Malone trips very slightly on her utterance, as if reaching for the right words. But the effect of this imprecision is that Malone sounds authentic and natural. If this sound bite was actually scripted and rehearsed, it's all the more impressive for seeming otherwise. 

It's also significant that Gore himself is seen in the ad but not heard. Since the story reflects well on the candidate, it's better for an anonymous announcer to give him the credit. Al isn't sitting in front of a camera boasting about his accomplishments. He's out there on the stump, fighting to save babies' lives. 

From: Chris Suellentrop
To:
Jacob Weisberg

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