The Picture of Sen. Dorian Gray

Oct. 5 1996 3:30 AM

The Picture of Sen. Dorian Gray

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Legacy, produced by Kevin Geddings of Geddings Communications for Elliott Close for U.S. Senate. Windows or Mac; download time, 3.5 minutes at 56K {Sound for sound only

When campaign strategists politely invite voters to retire an incumbent, they're said to be "giving the opponent a gold watch." Legacy, a spot from Democrat Elliott Close's campaign against 95-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, is a 14K example of this technique. It cleverly places the still-popular politician in a time machine and gives South Carolina voters permission to ease him out of office without repudiating him.

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Juxtaposed with the visual of a young Thurmond is a reminder from the narrator that Thurmond began in politics "way back in 1928." As that photo dissolves into one of Thurmond in his 40s, then one of him in his 60s (70s?), the narrator praises the senator for serving South Carolina for "most of this century." The spot could have reminded voters that Thurmond was a hanging judge for blacks; a segregationist candidate for president against Harry Truman; and a bitter-end opponent of civil rights. But avoiding the negative is a smart tack. Assailing Thurmond's record would only appear to upbraid voters for having sent him to the Senate a half-dozen times.

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As the camera zooms in on the liver-spotted Thurmond of the third photo, the narrator voices what must be the thoughts of his constituents by now: "We appreciate all he's done." But that's not just a "thank you"; it's a gentle "goodbye." This is a Dorian Gray brought out of the attic of memory, aging before our eyes.

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The next scene clinches the argument. It begins with a tight shot of an open book featuring two photos of Thurmond. In one, he looks as if he's offering a farewell salute; in the other, he's an old man working out, trying to hang on. The camera cuts away to reveal that the reader is Close, sitting in his own living room. Literally closing the book on Thurmond, Close says respectfully that this election is "about the next century, not the last one."

The succeeding scenes are more conventional, but Close's every appearance, in vivid color, completes the case. At what appears to be a Chamber of Commerce lunch, he chats with a woman while his voice-over offers the assurance that he's for a balanced budget--a Thurmond priority--"without gutting Medicare and student loans." This is the only implicit criticism of Thurmond, who voted the other way, but it is stated in entirely positive terms. Next we see Close in a country store, pledging, again via his voice-over, that he "won't be owned by the special interests." The viewer is free to read the cliché either as a soft criticism of Thurmond or an affirmation that Close will be like Thurmond, unencumbered by liberals and labor.

Back in his living room, Close promises to continue to do the one thing that everyone concedes Thurmond does well. "I, too, will provide great constituent service."

Close is a Democrat, and South Carolina has a large black population--two things you'd never discern from Legacy. Race has increasingly become a predictor of party identification in the South, and Close can't risk conveying, visually or otherwise, that he's a liberal--or even a Democrat. (Thurmond has no such worries. Thanks to his record, he is at liberty to build bridges to blacks without risking white backlash.)

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Celebrating the Thurmond "legacy" and then portraying him as worn-out, Legacy is free to suggest that a younger version of the senator should replace him. These two points are efficiently fused together in the last scene, in which Close is surrounded by his very young, very contemporary family. The narrator gets the last word: "Elliott Close, a new conservative senator for South Carolina."

Robert Shrum is a leading Democratic political consultant. His deconstruction of ads is a weekly feature of Slate.