“Most people have this image in their heads of tobacco executives jet-setting around the world on private planes, eating foie gras as they count their money. Not me. I like to ride with the people. Know your clients. My people cram themselves into a tiny seat, pop a Xanex, and dream of the moment when they can stuff their face with fresh tobacco. If I can convince just one of these kids to pick up smoking, I’ve paid for my flight. Round trip.” Nick Naylor, Thank You For Smoking
The hype surrounding the world’s sexiest politician – one Sarah Palin – has scaled dizzy heights for the Republicans just as they were beginning to falter. It was a tricky time for them ten days ago as the Obama bandwagon was picking up pace. The triumphant, choreographed theatrics of Denver were a work of art. But this was thoroughly turned around with the launch of the ex-beauty queen and all American ” ordinary Hockey Mom” – tweaked to appeal to the media and the public. Sarah Palin is the embodiment of a photogenic and sexy local librarian and her down-home appeal has rallied the troops and bewitched the US.
So what is the back-story to this PR triumph? The chief alchemist cooking up the formula for her success is Steve Schmidt. Look carefully and his shadow can be spotted lurking in dim recesses of the nightly TV coverage. He is a shaven-headed strategist who earned his spurs as the helmer for Karl Rove’s war room in 2004. How can we forget him Frenchifying and castrating John Kerry?
An arch-strategist, Schmidt and his magic pixies have quickly isolated McCain’s weaknesses and prefabricated the presidential candidate. They worked out that the key problems were his age, lack of energy and stumbling charisma. They went in search of a fix and the came up with a political Viagra pill. They found one. After sugar coating it, they branded it ‘Sarah Palin’.
Before the Palin factor came into play, Schmidt had tried to construct a bold campaign focused on undermining the Obama bandwagon and pulling it apart. Friends in the US who have been briefing me were quick to point out that his crude spin, trying to destabilize Obama, was coming unstuck. The transparent sloganeering, suggesting that Obama was an egotist who was running for purposes of self-aggrandizement rather than the good of the nation, was rough and ready to say the least.
Schmidt helped McCain pump out sound bites positing that Obama: “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”. There was a negative forums claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops – seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” The final attempt was the clever mash-up ad featuring intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. The strategy: drive up Obama’s negatives and give the impression that he was undesirable to critical voting blocs and little more than an empty celebrity, portraying him as too young, too weak, and too cosseted to be a hard, decision-making president.
While this gerrymandering was taking shape, Schmidt caused a stir with the Hall of Mirrors trick. In almost every shot in the McCain ads, Obama is smiling flashily, whereas McCain is pictured as gnarled, restrained and staring hard into the distance – a clever bit of image twisting which tried to use Obama’s good looks against him in an attempt to make him appear self-infatuated and effete.
One blog declared: “Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, drink gallons of a hard-to-find organic brew-Black Forest Berry Honest Tea’ and worry about the price of arugula,” The accent on Obama’s rock-star persona, designed to engender envy and contempt among the swath of Middle America for which hipness is no virtue but a sign of pretension. Obama noted his opponents were trying to make voters “scared” of him how can we forget ” he doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.”
The hard-working Schmidt, briefed by the pollsters, realized that his team’s spin was unravelling. So he regrouped and came up with an impressive Plan B. The Palin project seems to have galvanized the right wing rump of Middle America. The brilliant introduction of Palin as VP allowed McCain to interrupt the news cycle. The announcement was intelligently set up. It was put around that there would be “a leak that there’s going to be a leak”. Reportedly, the McCain camp began whispering in the ears of reporters that there was going to be a leak about Mr. McCain’s selection either right before or after Mr. Obama’s speech. That leak never came, but it had the pundits guessing and waiting for most of the night.
It was a very stylish double-leak strategy that took a lot of the energy and impact out of Obama’s speech; you have to hand it to Schmidt and his henchmen, they played it brilliantly. It was a pragmatic plan that telegraphed to the hardcore that their prayers have been answered; they have been provided a turbo-charged VP. Yesterday’s electrifying speech by Sarah Palin, attacking Obama, which was very Thatcher, proved this beyond measure.
Meanwhile, in the shadows, Schmidt’s team continues to underplay Palin’s readiness for the media stresses. All this under-promising is doing is giving her permission to over-deliver. So far, she has done so in spades.