Note to readers: Your friendly content provider’s first of 10 national political conventions was in 1984, when the Ronald Reagan-led Republicans took their show to Dallas to re-coronate him. ABC, CBS and NBC turned out in force while the still fledgling CNN tried to make its first big showing. Here’s what many of the day’s heavy-hitters said on convention eve before temperatures spiked to 106 degrees for opening day. This article originally was published on Aug. 19, 1984.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Pile the imposing portable anchor booths atop one another and they stand 11 stories high -- three apiece for ABC, CBS and NBC, and two for CNN.
Can the networks possibly find that many big stories at this week’s four-day Republican National Convention in Dallas? “You want to know how we’re going to make it interesting,” volunteered Reuven Frank, a 34-year veteran of NBC News and executive producer of the network’s convention coverage. “I don’t think that’s our job. I’m not sure, if you’re covering a baseball game, and it’s 10 to 1 going into the eighth inning, that you make it interesting. If we find something interesting, we’ll report it.”
“Our job,” said CBS floor reporter Bob Schieffer, “is to show up and see if anyone commits news. The Republicans are charged with coming up with the plot for this thing.”
With the nominations of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush in the bank, the networks could be facing a series of thin plots and lopsided ballgames. Realizing the obvious, Republican organizers of the convention have condensed it and scheduled two-thirds of the abbreviated agenda in two-hour prime-time blocs. Some of the sleepier business will be dispensed with in two-hour morning sessions on Monday and Tuesday.
The rest of the convention schedule is an almost perfect match for the commercial networks’ coverage plans: Two hours, from 8 to 10 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. Wednesday’s nominating session, scheduled to begin a half-hour earlier, may or may not be covered in its entirety by ABC, NBC and CBS. It depends, in the words of a CBS press release, on whether the extra 30 minutes constitute “newsworthy convention activities.”
By making ready for prime-time -- and little else -- the Republicans have come up only four hours short of foisting gavel-to-gavel coverage on the commercial networks. In San Francisco, the Democrats began at 5 p.m. (CDT) the first two days, at 2 p.m. on day three and 5:30 p.m. on closing night. Consequently, more than half of the convention could be seen only on cable television’s CNN and C-SPAN, both of which will go gavel-to-gavel again in Dallas.
Still, the Democrats saved most of their big acts -- Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale -- until the commercial networks were ready for them. Even former President Jimmy Carter got into the prime-time act, although he originally wasn’t supposed to be there.
“I think the convention planners have become a lot more realistic about the news value of their convention,” said Jeff Gralnick, executive producer of ABC’s convention coverage. “They have an understanding of which end of the dog wags which end of the dog.”
“Every four years they try to orchestrate them more, and you can’t blame them for that,” Schieffer said. “Every day, in every town in the United States, people are trying to manipulate the news media. There’s nothing immoral about that.”
Some critics contend that the three commercial networks are morally obligated to carry a national convention’s activities in full, no matter what the agenda or the Nielsen ratings. Whatever the excitement level, conventions are quadrennial reaffirmations of the democratic process.
CBS anchor Dan Rather was unable to convince his bosses that coverage should start immediately after the early evening newscasts. He also wanted some live reports of daytime sessions.
I don’t think they’d (CBS management) want me in this job if I didn’t feel that way about it,” Rather said. “But in this particular year, it got very difficult to champion that cause. When you have a year in which both parties have settled on their nominees, it makes it hard to take my argument much beyond where I took it. I gave it my best shot. The decision went the other way and I’m comfortable with it.”
Nielsen ratings were expectedly low for the commercial networks’ convention coverage in San Francisco. Only 44 percent of TV viewers tuned in to watch the Democrats on CBS, ABC and NBC. In comparison, ABC’s prime-time Olympics coverage drew 45 percent of the viewing audience during the week ending Aug. 5.
“If we were in the ratings business, we wouldn’t be putting conventions on the air, because the political process is not a big ratings-getter,” Gralnick said. “There’s been erosion in the number of people watching political coverage, just as there’s been an erosion in the number of people who vote. I think both are wrong.”
On CNN, though, the Democratic convention unexpectedly drew substantially larger audiences than the all-news network’s regularly scheduled programs. Robert Furnad, CNN’s political news director, said advertisers therefore are paying four times as much for spots during the Republican convention.
“The commercial time was sold just like that,” Furnad said. “Which helps, because we lost our butts on the other one, in terms of finances.”
In terms of excitement, said NBC’s Frank, the Dallas GOP convention is comparable to the 1956 Republican gathering at which Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were renominated.
“We didn’t know how to do it as well as we do now,” he recalled. “We actually reported one of our reporters being instructed in the hula by one of the delegates. I mean, there was nothin’ going on. That’s one of the things that happens with gavel-to-gavel. Not doing gavel-to-gavel this time will help us.”
The conventions of the 1950s, and television’s coverage of them, seem prehistoric now. Gralnick says that today’s political conventions have become “dying dinosaurs” with little purpose other than to ratify decisions made by voters during the presidential primary season.
“Some conventions are more interesting than others, but that doesn’t make them dinosaurs,” Rather countered. “What we’re all taught, by no later than the seventh grade, is that we are committed to the idea and the ideal that people choose their own leaders. The conventions are an integral part of that system, and we forget that or make light of that at our peril.
“Unfortunately, we’ve all gotten a little afraid to talk in those terms. We believe it, we know it, but it’s become fashionable to say it doesn’t amount to anything. If that sounds like someone’s Fourth of July speech, then so be it. I believe it.”
Tom Brokaw, anchor of NBC’s convention coverage, said he doesn’t expect a “three-ring, go-to-hell, knock-down, drag-out circus” in Dallas. But a little democracy in action goes a long way with him, too.
“I don’t think you can just turn on the cameras and microphones and say this is a civics lesson,” Brokaw said. “But, in the course of our coverage, we can in fact provide an important civics lesson for the country. That doesn’t mean that we take on the role of instructors of Americana. But there is nothing more reflective or representative of the body politic in America than a national political convention. I think it’s important to have this kind of electronic forum available.”
Anchors with hands over hearts still have time to fill, though. Brokaw, Rather, ABC’s Peter Jennings and CNN’s Don Farmer all say they are convinced the Republicans will offer some real meat amid the filler. Would a self-respecting anchor say otherwise, though?
“Certainly, if the Republicans put on nothing but a steady steam of aging white men in gray suits talking about inflation, it’s not going to be a very interesting convention,” Rather said. “But I don’t think that will happen.”
Rather thinks that the party’s divided position on taxes, for one, could be an interesting, significant story.
Brokaw says NBC will examine Reagan’s presidency and the GOP’s relevance to women and minorities.
“I think it’s going to be very obviously a choreographed celebration of Ronald Reagan’s four years in office,” he said. “Our obligation is to provide some examination of that. We see it as an opportunity to raise before a wider audience many of the issues that are important to the country.”
The tax increase/budget deficit debate between Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale undoubtedly will continue at the convention. That doesn’t mean an anchor has to like it.
“It’s one of the great silly issues of our day,” said Farmer, one of CNN’s three convention anchors. “You know, such garbage. Every credible economist and economic journalist I’ve read has said that of course we’ll have to raise taxes. No question about it.
“I think our commentary and analysis will have less to do with the happenings at this particular convention and have more to do with the campaign,” he added. “Because Mondale has been so vocal, he’s given everybody a quick, and not very sneaky, preview of some of the themes of his campaign.”
Of the anchors, producers and reporters interviewed, only ABC’s Jennings thought that Dallas, and Texas, might get heavier media exposure than San Francisco did.
“I think Texas in general and Dallas will get quite a lot of coverage,” he said, “because they are seen in the president’s mind as being bastions of Republican strength.”
NBC’s Frank doesn’t think Dallas will be much of a story.
“The thing I have found about conventions,” he said, “is that they become sealed universes. Nothing outside seems to matter. We thought that San Francisco would be very important, and it wasn’t. The importance of Dallas, when it was picked as a convention site, was a big story. But once Monday night rolls around, it could just as well be on the moon.”
CNN plans to have stories on Billy Bob’s Texas nightclub, convention security and the King Ranch. All the networks will cover any particularly picturesque demonstrations. There was this story idea, too, on an assignment sheet posted in one of CNN’s work areas at the Dallas Convention Center.
“The Anatole may be the brick and glass equivalent of Sister Boom-Boom from San Francisco. We shall take a look at what will be the president’s home during his stay here.”
“We’re proud to say that we’re not doing anything on the Dallas television program,” Farmer said. “And I don’t think we’re doing anything on the assassination route. I’m not saying we won’t at some point allude to it, but it’s certainly not something we’re going to spend a lot of time on.”
Schieffer and Rather, both native Texans, have homier feelings about the area they grew up in.
“Dallas is just like anybody else who’s about to host a party,” Schieffer said. “There’s going to be a certain amount of nervousness, I’m sure. I think everybody wishes Dallas well on this thing. I sure do. It’s tough to put on one of these things.”
“So far, Dallas has gotten an absolute Niagra of good reports from the press,” Rather said. “Reporters I’ve talked to are surprised by how much the area has grown and how much more sophisticated, how much less provincial the place seems to them. Dallas has won a lot of people over. It seems to have a better sense of humor about itself now than it once had. And that’s helped enormously.”
The networks, like Dallas and San Francisco before it, will be examined for warts and beauty marks during convention week. Some of the sharpest criticism of the Democratic convention coverage came from Thomas Griffith in the Time magazine “Newswatch” column.
“The arrogance of television,” Griffith wrote, “is its assumption that its own maunderings are more interesting than what is being said on the platform.”
Jennings strongly objects.
“I’m very self-conscious about that kind of thing,” he said. “I never think it’s particularly my role to blow smoke or blow wind. One of the things that we did quite a lot of in San Francisco was to go back to the floor and hear from other people. I would much rather hear what is happening at the convention than to hear me or any of my colleagues sitting around analyzing it to death.”
An anchor, Jennings said, should be a “traffic cop.”
According to sources at ABC News, Jennings was infuriated when his network blew the whistle on convention coverage during a lull before Jesse Jackson’s speech. ABC cut away from its coverage, showed part of a Hart to Hart rerun, and then returned, reportedly at Jennings’ behest, to catch part of House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s warmup speech for Jackson.
Gralnick, who made the decision, still defends it.
“I haven’t lost any sleep at all about that one,” he said. “If we had a special edition of 20/20 that we cut to and then went away from, nobody would have said anything. But somehow there’s this bugaboo about entertainment programming.”
Marty Haag, news director at ABC affiliate WFAA-TV (Channel 8), termed Gralnick’s decision “horrible.”
“It’s a tacit admission that you can’t fill the time with reporters who supposedly have been with the candidates for some time,” he said. “If a local station did that, we would have been bombarded with phone calls.”
Frank, playing games with ABC, ran a synopsis on NBC of the Hart to Hart episode’s conclusion during the closing credits of that night’s convention coverage.
The Democratic convention’s other celebrated incident, from a coverage standpoint, was the denunciation of CBS floor reporter Ed Bradley by Chicago mayor Harold Washington. Bradley had tried to arrange an impromptu floor debate between Washington and Chicago alderman Edward Vrodlyak, who are bitter political enemies.
“I’m stunned at a man of your high caliber who would stoop to such a thing,” Washington told Bradley on camera. “You are one of the lowest possible individuals I have seen. How dare you call yourself a press man?”
Leaving Washington’s insult unanswered, Bradley cut away by saying, “Dan, I think you see an example of the problems that the Democratic Party has.”
During dead spots in conventions, “There’s a danger of taking a slight ripple and making it into a whirlpool,” CNN’s Farmer said. “The ‘Ed Bradley lesson’ is not lost. Ed’s a good man, but in my opinion he went too far. That’s something that I hope our people won’t do.”
CBS had left Sen. George McGovern’s podium speech for what turned out to be Bradley’s uncomfortable scene with Washington. The timing was unfortunate, Rather said, but criticism of Bradley is “an unfair rap.”
“I thought Ed handled it wonderfully. I don’t know of anybody in the business who would have handled it as well,” Rather said. “Was he trying to make something out of nothing? Absolutely not. The ill feeling between the different factions of the Democratic Party in Chicago is real. It’s not something Ed Bradley created. It’s a fact, and Bradley’s reporting brought that to the television screen.”
It is unlikely that comparable friction will be found between two Republican delegates from the same state. But there’s got to be a ripple -- or maybe even a whirlpool -- somewhere on the convention floor.
“It’s pretty hard to get this many members of a political party together at one time and not have something that’s interesting,” Schieffer said. “But if there’s no story, there’s no story. Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you.”
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Note to readers: David Brinkley, who died in 2003 at age 82, was in his last cycle of national political conventions during the 1996 Republican gathering in San Diego. He wasn’t doing many interviews at the time, but sat still for this one. This article originally was published on Aug. 14, 1996.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
SAN DIEGO -- It will be the end of an era or two when David Brinkley stops being a fixture at national political conventions.
The ongoing Republican gathering is his 21st. The Democrats in Chicago will be his last. At age 76, it’s time for him “to do something else,” Brinkley said Tuesday from a makeshift office at the ABC News trailer compound off San Diego Bay. “I don’t know what. It’s all pretty much up in the air.”
He also will be leaving Sunday morning’s This Week with David Brinkley after 15 years. But he disputes a current TV Guide story that says he’ll stay with the program until the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
It could be much sooner than that, perhaps “even sometime this summer,” Brinkley said. “I don’t know precisely when it will be. I don’t know how they think they know.”
Jacket-less in a wide-striped shirt, maroon tie and navy blue suit pants, the usually press-shy TV news pioneer cordially endured an interview with a reporter who was still a grade-schooler in 1956. That’s when Brinkley, in tandem with Chet Huntley, anchored his first pair of national political conventions. The network was NBC, and the inclination was to televise every last minute the politicians had to offer. On several convention days, the soon-to-be-famous Huntley-Brinkley team began convention coverage at 9 a.m. and stayed on the air until 3 o’clock the following morning.
“The difference was that people were interested, found them exciting and tuned them in in enormous numbers because they’d never seen anything like it before,” Brinkley said. “Now they’re largely indifferent. It’s just another political show.”
Not that politicians of both parties have stopped trying to use the networks as dispensers of their modern-day infomercials. At his Tuesday morning press briefing, for instance, Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour griped that CBS was the only broadcast network not to carry a brief, “powerful and moving” filmed tribute to Ronald Reagan. ABC was alone in shunning a previous speech by former President George Bush.
“Both parties want the whole network given over to them hour after hour after hour,” Brinkley said. “They will not be satisfied until they return to the glory days of the past, which will never come back.”
Monday’s convention coverage on ABC lasted all of one hour, as it did on rivals NBC and CBS. Brinkley didn’t even get on the air, although that wasn’t the original intention. A taped piece of his was scrapped because of lack of time, he said. ”Several things got left out, but we’re used to that. Didn’t pay any attention to it.”
Brinkley said he didn’t watch much of ABC’s coverage Monday night. Again, his trademark, clipped manner of speaking came into play: “I had other work to do, and I was doing it.”
ABC anchor Peter Jennings said it was “quite unnatural for me” to anchor the opening night’s coverage without Brinkley, who was scheduled to join him on Tuesday night. They have covered politics together since 1983, when Jennings returned from an extended assignment overseas to replace the late Frank Reynolds as anchor of World News Tonight.
“I was very conscious that David could pretty much make or break my political re-entry,” Jennings said. “Had he sneered at my faulty knowledge, had he been in any way heavy-handed, I’d have gone right down the tubes. He did quite the opposite. He was patient and indulgent, never overbearing. As a result, our relationship has some father-son qualities to it. So for me, he’ll be a big loss.”
Brinkley recalls the demonstration-plagued 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago as “the roughest” he has covered. But the “ugliest,” he said, was the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, from which Barry Goldwater emerged as the nominee.
“The delegates were really hostile and threatening and ugly to us,” Brinkley said. “Threatened us with physical harm. We had to get bodyguards. And we had to sneak into the hotels and sneak out.
“Goldwater himself was a fine man. I love him. I still do. But some of his followers thought we were flat-out Communists, or so they said. It’s ridiculous, but there it is.”
Today’s charges of “media bias” are both tame and predictable in Brinkley’s view.
“We do our jobs, and win or lose, what the hell, that’s it,” he said. “We don’t worry about it.”
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Stiff-arming Stewart and The Daily Show at the 2000 Republican convention -- even with Bob Dole as a commentator
Note to readers: Your friendly content provider’s checkered past includes on-site coverage of 10 national political conventions in presidential years. In tandem with the ongoing Republican National Convention in Cleveland, here’s the second in a series of look-backs. This article was originally published on Aug. 1, 2000.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
PHILADELPHIA -- The joke is on Comedy Central this week. Courtesy of the Republican National Convention, its Indecision 2000 team is being housed on rubber-coated cots in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate dormitory.
Anchor Jon Stewart isn’t taking it personally.
“Republicans aren’t inherently funnier than Democrats. They’re inherently more evil,” he said Monday. “Therefore it’s easier for us to poke fun. Does that make sense?”
Beginning Tuesday at 10 p.m., Stewart will preside over four convention-themed editions of Comedy Central’s flagship “news” program, The Daily Show. Look for Bob Dole, too. Hired as a commentator in January, he’ll deadpan his way through the Tuesday and Thursday editions. The 1996 Republican nominee also is scheduled to address convention delegates Tuesday night as part of a salute to World War II veterans.
Dole, who has declined to do interviews in connection with his Comedy Central activities, “has been an excellent addition to our staff,” Stewart said. “None of us knows who any of the politicians are. So oftentimes I’ll say, ‘Who’s the guy in the brown coat?’ And he’ll say to me, ‘Oh, that’d be the Speaker of the House.’ He’s very dry and very funny and, uh, no comment.”
Even with Dole aboard, “I don’t think the Republicans know who we are,” Stewart said. “Or they might not think we’re funny, which is entirely possible. There are other people in America who feel that way as well.”
Running The Daily Show is executive producer Madeleine Smithberg, who said it’s been tough getting the Republicans to play along. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has agreed to be interviewed, she said, and U.S. Rep. Mary Bono of California is booked as a Daily Show guest. No one from the George W. Bush campaign has responded yet, though. And the GOP so far hasn’t given the show any convention floor passes.
“I must say that the Republicans are really controlling this thing tightly. We really aren’t getting much cooperation,” Smithberg said. “Whereas the Democrats have already given us our own liaison for their convention.”
The Daily Show plans to retaliate on several fronts. One of the featured presentations will be a mock Bush biographical film titled “From Wealth to Riches: The Story of An American Hero.” It will detail the “adversity he has under-come,” Stewart explained.
Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, are a comedy team by default in Stewart’s view. It’s always that way, he said, when two politicians are thrown together on what amounts to a “blind date.”
“You pick a guy, and then the two of you have to travel around the country as bunkmates. So it’s like watching two people trying to dance together for the first time. Humor is mostly in the facade that candidates put up as they go about their business of theater and advertising.”
Bush may be a “more relatable” candidate to baby boomers than any of his opponents, Stewart said. There is, of course, a punch line coming.
“We all knew a kid in school whose dad had connections with the local authorities. A kid who always had the best weed. So there’s an affinity for him.”
The Democrats will get their turn later this month at a convention that likewise is expected to be shorn of suspense or controversy.
“We’re a fake news organization, and this is a fake news event,” Stewart said. “So I think we’re the only ones that should be here. You people should go cover actual news.”
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Note to readers: The four-day Republican National Convention commences on Monday, July 18th in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. Your friendly content provider has been to 10 national party gatherings over the years. For the next four days, we’re taking a look back, beginning with Dan Rather’s major difficulties at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. This article originally was published on Aug. 20, 1992.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
HOUSTON -- Texan Dan Rather’s homecoming to Houston was supposed to be triumphant, not an occasion for President Bush to put him in the doghouse.
The veteran CBS News anchor arrived Saturday in jean jacket, jeans and high spirits. KHOU-TV, where Rather got his start more than 30 years ago, showed him gleefully hugging a Republican elephant mascot at Hobby Airport. The Houston Chronicle pictured Rather surrounded by well-wishers at a breakfast hosted by the television station. The Houston Post featured Rather with a full-beam smile in an article headlined, “Rather comes back home.”
That was all before the White House made it abundantly clear, without directly admitting it, that President Bush would not be doing an interview with Rather during GOP convention week.
“We’ve got a lot of requests, not a lot of time,” Bush campaign press secretary Torie Clark explained. “I’d say we’re working real hard to schedule everyone. Some work out, some don’t.”
Rather said Wednesday through a spokeswoman, “I really can’t talk about it.”
The president has accommodated all of the other major network news anchors, as well as at least a dozen local TV stations, since arriving in Houston on Monday.
Rather apparently is paying the price for his fabled Jan. 25, 1988, dust-up with Bush during a live interview on the CBS Evening News. The payback comes as the nation’s media are clustered en masse and hungry for fresh controversies.
“I think they should just sit down and have a beer together,” CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith said Wednesday. “Dan probably knows a few places he could take the president.”
Absent any Q&A with Bush or his wife, Barbara, CBS scheduled a live interview with Ross Perot on Wednesday night during its convention coverage. CBS News producer Lane Venardos said the network was not playing tit-for-tat.
“It was in our plans two weeks ago,” he said.
The Rather-Perot interview probably would air about 10:35 p.m., Venardos said, while the Republicans were “futzing around before the roll call” to nominate Bush.
Why interview Perot, who ridiculed the Republican National Convention during an interview Wednesday on NBC’s Today?
“Well, he seems to be getting back in the race,” Venardos said. “Before, it was just going to be a general economic discussion, but now it will be more pointed.”
WFAA-TV (Channel 8) anchor Tracy Rowlett, who had a one-on-one interview with Bush on Tuesday, said there is “no question that they’ve (the Bush campaign) decided to throw their weight around a little bit. It’s awfully hard to snub a major network anchor the way they are doing to Rather right now. Personally, I don’t think it’s right.”
Channel 8, which received eight minutes with the president, also provided the camera coverage for the seven other one-on-one interviews the president granted Tuesday at the Houstonian Hotel.
“He’s so well-prepared,” Rowlett said. “In fact, before he came into the interview, he spent a considerable amount of time with his handlers. They were going over the events of the day and they were preparing their positions. He’s done so many of these things. He just sort of kicks in with the campaign theme of the day, regardless of what the question is.”
***Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s moment in the limelight Tuesday night was judged a lemon by NBC News. The network ended its convention coverage while Gramm was 10 minutes away from concluding his keynote address. News president Michael Gartner made the call at 9:57 p.m., NBC spokesman Curt Block said Wednesday. At 10:04 p.m., anchor Tom Brokaw signed off.
“We had an advance text of Mr. Gramm’s speech and had covered more than half of it,” Block said. “The decision was made earlier in the day that if we thought it wasn’t a compelling speech, and we had covered the essence of it, we would go to the local stations’ newscasts. I’m sure we’ll take some criticism.”
Brokaw also made a snap decision to cancel a planned appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show, where host Jay Leno was ready to joke with him about the night’s goings-on.
“He (Brokaw) felt that having cut the convention coverage short, some people might interpret that as NBC wanting to get him on the Tonight Show earlier,” Block said. “That was not the case, but he thought it was best to pass.”
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Note to readers: Then and now, New Hampshire is the quadrennial February home of presidential candidates large, small and desperate.
There were no “social media” outlets in 1992, making TV commercials of prime importance in the battle to emerge from the Granite State with a strut instead of a limp. They remain important, especially to the bottom line of New Hampshire’s lone broadcast network affiliate, WMUR-TV. But 24 years ago, candidates showed their spots with a vengeance while viewers braved barrages of attacks and promises. Here’s how it looked back then. This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 1992.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- If candidate commercials constitute an air war, then New Hampshire residents are being saturation bombed down the home stretch to the Feb. 18 presidential primary.
“I’m sick of all of them,” said baseball card dealer John Wood, a disaffected Republican who plans to vote for consumer advocate Ralph Nader. ”I look at the idiot box, and I find myself screaming at it.”
Nader, running for president as a write-in candidate, is doing so without selling himself via 30- or 60-second TV spots. That’s something of a public service, considering that 11 candidates and some interest groups have bought hours and hours of time for their campaigns.
From conservative GOP challenger Patrick Buchanan to liberal Democrat Tom Harkin, the candidates have made the economy the dominant theme of their commercials.
So far, the eight Democrats on the air have avoided attacking each other directly. The majority of their spots mix thumbnail biographies with pledges to provide jobs and health care for all.
But on the Republican side, Buchanan has been bashing President Bush with a 30-second ad that makes fun of his 1988 “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes. The spot concludes with a small group of New Hampshire residents saying in unison, “Read our lips.”
This lone Buchanan ad, airing more than 25 times a day, is intended to be a gut-level rebuttal to the president’s more polished performance in a 30-second commercial filmed in the Oval Office.
Invariably airing within five minutes of the Buchanan ad, the spot has Bush talking up his recently unveiled economic plan. “But I need your help now, to send a real message to Congress to get this job done,” he says.
On Friday, the Bush campaign added a new spot that uses images from the Persian Gulf War to dramatize his battle with Congress.
These spots are quite different from the sharp attack ad the Bush campaign aired against Kansas Sen. Bob Dole the weekend before the 1988 New Hampshire primary. That spot, titled “Senator Straddle,” helped Bush win a come-from-behind victory.
This year, the candidates have chosen Manchester’s WMUR-TV, the state’s only network affiliate station, as their principal playing field. The station, which reaches about 90 percent of New Hampshire’s 1.1 million residents, has been airing between 150 and 200 presidential candidate commercials a day, according to assistant sales manager Julie Campasano.
But in the final week of the campaign, “upwards of 90 percent” of WMUR’s available commercial time -- more than 300 spots a day -- will go to the candidates, she said.
The motherlode of media imagery is WMUR’s one-hour early evening newscast, which runs from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday’s program was typical. Nine candidates aired 18 commercials that ran for a combined 11-and-a-half minutes. Each 30-second spot was bought for a $400 reduced rate -- which candidates are entitled to under federal law -- instead of the $700 going rate, Campasano said.
“It’s great for a campaign to come in here and be able to afford to buy television commercials, even if they don’t have a lot of money,” said Maura Keefe, state press secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Bob Kerrey.
WMUR had sold more than $600,000 worth of political commercials through Thursday. “Compared to 1988, it seems to me that we’re airing many, many more spots for less money,” Campasano said.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Bush, Buchanan, Kerrey, Harkin and Bill Clinton have been making the maximum buys -- one minute per half-hour -- on newscasts and during WMUR’s heavy lineup of daytime talk shows.
A 30-second commercial on Sally Jessy Raphael, which airs weekday mornings, costs a candidate only $25. The environment isn’t always ideal, however. On Thursday’s Sally, a Bush ad aired within minutes of the host’s conversation with stripper Toppsy Curvey.
Candidate commercials have been far less visible on the three Boston network affiliate stations that are beamed into most of New Hampshire. Those stations prohibit political ads within newscasts.
But at WMUR, “we’ve always run them on our news during the primary season,” station manager Tom Bonnar said.
After doing a live interview on Tuesday’s early evening newscast, Harkin strolled over to a WMUR monitor to watch one of his commercials. “I’m gonna make a quick call and find out why my new ad isn’t on yet,” he said.
Harkin’s latest commercial turned up the next day. A narrator touts his successful fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and Harkin is pictured with his deaf brother, Frank.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown has bought a handful of 30-second spots to promote his latest half-hour program, Take Back America, scheduled to air a week before the election.
Besides his 30-second attack ad, Buchanan has purchased two half-hour slots on the eve of the primary.
Three “minor” candidates -- Republican Jim Lennane and Democrats Charles Wood and Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine, Calif. -- have been running more ads than Democrat Paul Tsongas.
Agran’s ad makes the most generous economic promise: in an Agran presidency, every household would receive an annual $1,850 “peace dividend.”
Kerrey’s first commercial, which the candidate himself recently criticized, showed him talking tough from a hockey rink about unfair trade. His hastily revised ad campaign is anchored by a biographical spot that depicts him as a courageous outsider for whom “politics is a cause, not a career.” Other spots emphasize his commitment to universal health care.
Clinton is relying almost exclusively on a one-minute “story of a young man born in a small town called Hope. Hope, Arkansas.”
The ad traces the candidate from boyhood -- where he is fleetingly pictured with John F. Kennedy -- to governor of “one of the poorest states in our country.”
“Against all odds,” a narrator says, Clinton improved state schools and triggered “one of the highest growth rates in new jobs in any state in the nation.”
The air wars also have included political commercials by the American Association of Retired Persons urging health care reform and a Bush-bashing ad paid for by the New Hampshire Citizens For Action.
Beginning Thursday, New Hampshire residents can critique the commercials via a hotline 00 1-900-RUN FAIR -- sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. If enough voters sound off, the 900-line will be used in other primary states.
“We feel something has to be done to make the electorate feel more empowered, said New Hampshire League president Ginger Culpepper.
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