Kerry ad kerfuffle

Capture from Bush ad

I've been waiting to use that word!

During the Republican convention in New York, John Kerry went windsurfing, and photographers got pictures. This week the Republicans turned the pictures into an ad, set to the Blue Danube Waltz, to reinforce the "whichever way the wind blows" flip-flop theme they've hammered away at for the whole campaign. A genuine kerfuffle ensued.

The Kerry camp fired back with righteous indignation."It's very likely that people will not want to see lighthearted advertising at a time when people are very heavyhearted about what's happening to their loved ones," said advisor Mike McCurry. Within hours, the Kerry campaign released its own ad accusing the Bushies of running "a juvenile and tasteless attack ad" in the face of chaos, casualties, and beheadings in Iraq.

Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder. I, for one, thought it was a clever ad, probably very effective. It certainly gave me a chuckle.

On the other hand. I also thought the Kerry campaign response was not very effective. The tone came a bit close to petulantly stamping one's foot and whining that the Bushies "don't play nice."

Katz book cover

And then. Last night I started on a book I had picked up at the library: Clinton & me: A real-life political comedy, by Mark Katz. Katz was a humor writer for Bill Clinton — who knew there should be such a thing? — and he begins his book with an anecdote about a speech he wrote for Bill Clinton to deliver at the Alfalfa Club (I'm not making this up), one of several annual humor dinners traditionally attended by the president. Shortly before this event, Clinton had delivered a mind-numbing State of the Union address that ran for an hour and twenty minutes, a speech that was thoroughly mocked and subsequently seized upon as a metaphor for an undisciplined, flailing presidency.

Katz rewrote the speech he had prepared for Clinton, giving him a visual joke that would let him win over the room by poking a bit of fun at himself. Clinton was to approach the podium, pull a kitchen timer from his pocket, set it for five minutes, and greet the audience. As a follow-up the laugh that was sure to follow, Clinton was to keep resetting the timer when it went off. To make a long story short, Clinton was not amused. He re-wrote the speech himself, substituting bitter and sarcastic jokes for the self-deprecating humor written for him. Katz describes what happened:

This would-be humor speech was so nakedly hostile, it was unsettling to consider that within fifty feet of this seething president a military aide trained to follow orders held the nuclear football.... By the time it was done, the speech's only saving grace was that it had been relatively short.
Kerry on the cover of Windsurfer magazine
Kerry on the cover. Click picture to enlarge.

This got me thinking about how Kerry might have handled the Bush windsurfing ad more gracefully and effectively. What if he had faced the press with a big smile on his face and said something like, "I'd like to commend the Bush campaign for raising the tone of the campaign with the windsurfing ad. For once he doesn't distort my position at all — I love windsurfing."

Maybe it would have worked, maybe not. With all the pointed attacks on Bush, Kerry runs the risk of being labeled negative and angry, characteristics that were the undoing of Howard Dean's candidacy. A little humor would go a long way toward warming Kerry up and softening the impression he gives of being a sober, humorless, aristocrat — which the Republicans characterize as "looking French." With the debates coming up, I only hope that the battalions of people Kerry recently added to his campaign staff include a few joke writers.