Wes Clark's beautiful but sneaky bio ad.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 20 2003 10:56 AM

Still Life

Wes Clark's beautiful but sneaky bio ad.

"Story" was produced for Clark for President by Joe Slade White and Co. Inc. To watch the ad on the Clark campaign Web site, click here and choose your preferred format and download speed. For a transcript of the ad, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

How do I love this ad? Let me count the ways.

I love it because it's a story. It doesn't simply characterize the candidate or organize his merits in the form of an argument. It starts with something immediately compelling—the Vietnam battle for which Clark won his Silver Star—and proceeds through the arc of his career. Clark doesn't appear in civilian dress until more than halfway through. It's the story of a soldier, not a politician.

The ad doesn't rush the viewer. It doesn't try to cram a maximum of words and images into 30 seconds, as many ads do. It relies on still black-and-white photographs, giving you eight seconds to absorb the first scene—an unheard-of commitment in television time—and three to five seconds to absorb each of the rest. I like the attitude this commercial reflects: If you can't do the job right in 30 seconds, take 60.

Some campaigns think they have to use motion and color just because television permits it. But what if motion and color are part of the blur you're trying to cut through? Sometimes the best way to catch people's ears is to whisper. And sometimes the best way to catch their eyes is to show them something still, simple, and powerful, a reprieve from the chaos of the medium.

The narration matches the ad's spirit. "Wes Clark's life is simply an American story," says the narrator as you follow the story, forgetting momentarily that it's a political ad. "His actions speak more eloquently than words," says the narrator as you absorb the pictures and barely notice the words. "A quiet, real American courage," says the narrator as the scene quietly shifts from one reality after another. Only one word emerges on screen to summarize the pictures: "responsibility." The word stays there for four seconds, white on black, unencumbered by imagery, and no words follow to wash it out. The point isn't to stuff your head full of words. The point is to leave your head alone so this one word sticks.

The risk most people associate with electing a general to the presidency is authoritarianism. The ad does a nice job of dissolving that concern, too. As the narrator says, "Now, when we need a leader," the screen shows Clark smiling with his hand on the shoulder of a soldier, looking more collegial than bossy. Later, as the narrator says Clark "liberated a people," the screen shows Clark swept up in a joyous crowd of what appear to be Kosovar Albanians. He isn't standing before them or above them. He's one of them. As the setting shifts from battlefields to classrooms and town halls, the pictures continue to show the friendly general on a level with, or even slightly below, those whom he seeks to lead. The message is: Real leadership doesn't need trappings.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

Keep your shirt on! I'll admit this is an effective bio spot. That orchestral music playing under the voice-over made my spine tingle. Stories of military heroism are always stirring, even if Clark milks his pretty shamelessly here:

The first bullet shattered his hand ... (strings) ... the second and third hit his shoulder and leg (snare drums). As he hit the jungle floor, he rallied the troops and directed the firefight ... (helicopter over string crescendo).

This feels like the opening sequence of Platoon. In their respective presidential campaigns, Bob Kerrey and John McCain at least feigned a bit of reluctance about touting the intimate details of their Vietnam heroics. This Clark guy doesn't hold back! The message here is pretty blunt: Vote for me, I'm a war hero.

But what really bothers me about this ad is the conflict it points to in Clark's views about military intervention. The argument of this spot is that Clark can get us out of the mess in Iraq because he fixed Kosovo. "In the Balkans," the narrator says, "... [Clark] led a multinational force that stopped a campaign of terror, liberated a people, and brought peace without the loss of a single American soldier" (flash to black-and-white still photo of Clark being embraced by liberated Kosovars). Clark does deserve immense credit for what he accomplished in the Balkans, working through NATO. As Fred Kaplan reminds us, Clark's drive to stop the genocide in Kosovo in 1999 pitted him against Secretary of Defense William Cohen and most of the U.S. military brass. That was a brave stance, and it has been vindicated by subsequent developments.

It leaves, however, a big question about Clark's principles when it comes to humanitarian military intervention. Why did his determination to fight on humanitarian grounds in Kosovo not extend to Iraq? In the scale of his despotism, Saddam Hussein was Stalin to Milosevic's Mussolini. Saddam's efforts at ethnic cleansing and repression were bigger and more vicious than anything Milosevic was capable of. Clark objects to the way Bush went about making war on Iraq, and so do I. But everything Clark says now is calculated to leave the impression, true or not, that he wouldn't have used the military to end the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in Iraq.

What distinguishes these two instances of humanitarian intervention isn't principle, but politics. Kosovo was Clark's war. Iraq is Bush's. The general's self-serving use of one war to flay his enemy for the other is hardly shocking. Yet I resent this ad for trying to wash the contradiction away with swelling violins.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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