Herman Cain's most recent campaign ad has attracted controversy because his campaign manager, Mark Block, smokes as he endorses Cain. As oddball as some aspects of the ad may be, it speaks clearly to its audience, a votership that feels embattled and threatened.
Let’s get something straight here. Nothing in a political ad is accidental. Political ads are planned with utmost care, emerging from rooms crammed with spinners, message-crafters, marketers, pollsters, demographers, focus groups, professional finger-in-the-wind-stickers, and videographers.
Herman Cain’s campaign meant for his campaign manager, Mark Block, to take a drag on a cigarette as he endorsed Cain in the most recent ad. They could have yelled, “Cut” and done something else. They did not. The ad, as with all political ads, is sweatily intentional.
That doesn’t mean you don’t get mistakes. Stuff always escapes. Goldwater’s 1964 “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right” backfired and left the GOP black in the face with the soot. So did Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 “Politics of Joy,” possibly the worst-timed campaign theme of the late 20th century. It didn’t lose him the close and pivotal 1968 election to Nixon, but it didn’t help, since it made him seem out of touch, a bother from another planet.
Even campaign ads that were very effective – such as Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, darling little girl, field of flowers, and nuclear holocaust, or Ronald Reagan’s 1984 gauzy-focus “It’s Morning Again in America” – were also immediately notorious and held as nauseating by large sectors of the viewer- and votership.
We have before us Herman Cain’s recent ad, which debuted on Cain’s YouTube channel Oct. 19:
Ninety percent of the ad features his chief of staff, Mark Block, close up, face just barely within the focus range, giving an impassioned, urgent endorsement of candidate Cain.
The climax: “We need you to get involved, because together, we can do this. We can take this country back.”
Quick-cut to an even tighter shot: Block, looking right at us, takes a drag on a ciggie and releases a discreet cirrus of smoke.
Much, maybe too much, emphasis has fallen on the smoking – which is, and very much so, out of touch with the sentiments of 75 percent of everybody, regardless of party. But it was no mistake, and the Cain campaign wanted it to be there.
It’s a complex moment. “I Am America” is the tune in the background. It’s by Krista Branch, Tea Party advocate, Oklahoma mother of three. About half the adult world in the United States doesn’t know this, but “I Am America” has been widely adopted as the right’s answer to “Born in the U.S.A.” Branch sings it with a detectable sneer: She directs her furious verses at those who condescend to the people, to the real “we,” whom these condescenders see as “peasants.” It’s played all over talk radio, ballyhooed by Bill O’Reilly. Its aggrieved aggression is a true, bracing gargle of after-shave:
I’ve got some newsWe’re taking namesWe’re waiting now for the judgment day
. . . which you could take as either the Second Coming or November 6, 2012. Later, we hear:
You preach intoleranceBut lecture meIs there no end to your own hypocrisy
Still elsewhere, Branch sings, “I will not rest until we’ve won.”
And then her rousing chorus:
I Am AmericaOne voiceUnited we standI Am AmericaOne hopeTo heal our land
I realize you’re not supposed to subject pop songs to rigorous logical analysis. They’re not written that way, and people don’t listen to them that way. If they did, few would listen, because pop songs say a lot of dumb things and contradict and fog up the mirror and stumble all over the place . . . if asked to carry too much freight.
So I will not point out that in her verses, Branch preaches division, moral warfare, anger, unmendable difference, while in her chorus she sings of an America with “One voice.” But logic be ignored here. There’s no secret what she’s about. If you didn’t come from the United States of America – say, if you were a Martian – you’d think it makes no sense. But in our hothouse/funhouse of current politics, it makes plenty.
Branch’s chorus is what plays during Mark Block’s ciggie break, and it’s what crescendos during the ad’s teenage fadeout, in which Herman Cain is seen for the only time, in a (somewhat original!) gibbous portrait, half profile, half full-face. This ending has drawn ridicule, but I rather like it. Cain has a great smile, and he seems to be getting a kick out of this ride. There’s mischief in that grin.
To some, he seems to be smirking at that little devil, Mark Block: Look at my bad boy smoking in the street like that! This impression is there, I agree, and it is unfortunate.
Let me address the three elements in the ad that are heaviest with values: The “I” in the tune, the ciggie break, and the focus on the face of Mark Block.
By far, the last is the most potent, most deeply subliminal messenger.
First, Krista Branch’s anthem. In its setting behind the fumaceous Block, it takes on a range of meanings, all of them crucial for the Cain campaign. Remember, this ad is reaching out for support, for voters, for donors, for bucks and action. Time is wasting. Thanks to a recent flutter of political activity, the big party primaries begin a scant two months from now – the Iowa Caucuses are Jan. 3!! – and between now and then the campaign needs a lot of money and volunteer time to launch a creditable effort for Herman Cain. The video is well labeled on YouTube: NOW IS THE TIME FOR ACTION!
In that setting, the “I” in “I Am America” is a bristling, floating referent if you ever saw one:
I, Herman Cain: man of African descent, business success, sure-handed manager, strong-minded, fearless speaker of my strong mind. My story is the kind of story America makes possible.
I, Mark Block, whom you don’t know from Adam, much less the snake in the garden: I, too, am known for my idiosyncratic take on almost everything. I go my own way. This man of his own mind believes in Herman Cain. I don’t raise my voice, but in that manly restraint, you read my evangelical fervor. I am also a white man. My belief in Cain is thus a counterblast to the notion that conservatism is a whites-only movement. Any self-respecting white man could follow my lead. I’m also older. Check. I’m also un-slick, slightly rumpled. Not like slick folks we could name, who are unlike the I we’re discussing.
I, The Voter: I, too, want to take America back from those who took it unrightfully from us. Never mind who these people are; I am taking names, not telling names. I want the country back. I believe what I believe very strongly, just like Mark Block. I know Herman Cain believes strongly, too, and I stand ready to act out my conscience and support him. We have to show we are America, not the people who now have possession of America. They are hypocrites. They look down on us. They believe and do all the wrong things. Most horrifying of all – they think they are America. They can’t even imagine someone would disagree with them. Well, I do. I think for myself. And I’m ready to act.
All that is fairly obvious. So is the glee with which GOP suits and media satirists alike note that in Cain, the conservative movement has its own person of African descent.
The smoking, in its individualist outrageousness, its testosteronal defiance, cements the entire message of the three I’s.
Note: Block is smoking outdoors, totally legally. No children or pregnant women nearby. I don’t believe (though I don’t know) the building behind him is a government building. If it were, he’d be in violation. (Not that he’d care is something a satirist would say. But not I.)
Let’s dispatch the smoking thing: Of course it’s Marlboro Man redux. It reaches out to the solid male cohort of the conservative movement, with much the same appeal as the old Marlboro Man commercials. A man goes his own way. Thinks for himself. Doesn’t let anybody tell him what to do. He believes what he believes absolutely and without question. (We get this from Block’s “I really believe that Herman Cain will put United back in the United States of America, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here.”) Clear, sure, forthright actions for simply-put reasons: These are male values, for the most part, or at least values that, according to time-tested polling, appeal to most male voters. Such values also strike many women voters (to less of a degree) as comforting. Many older voters, too. In one blow, it’s a cookbook for the conservative strategy. No garbage. No unnecessary complexity and dithering. You can tell what I believe by what I do. (Hear that, prospective Cain supporters?)
Note: Block’s puff has been called a thumb in the eye of those who support a “nanny state,” and so it is. Smoking regulations often come up as Exhibit A in the arguments of those who feel government encroaches on personal freedoms.
Counter-note: Smoking regulations are a prime example of a true grassroots political movement in the United States – a movement largely irrespective of the two big political parties. As history shows, the impetus came not from central government but from people at the most local level imaginable, making demands at town council and school board and P.T.A. meetings decade after decade across the land. Cities, towns, villages, and hamlets everywhere enacted such laws, beginning shortly after Luther Terry’s blockbuster Surgeon General Report linking cancer and smoking in 1964.
No doubt, Democrats are more comfortable with such regs than Republicans are. But plenty of Republicans want them, too. Nobody, GOP, Democrat, crypto-anarchist syndicalist, bloody Bolshevik, nobody, wants to inhale anyone else’s anything, much less carcinogenic fumes cycled through the nasty respiratory system of a stranger. Nobody wants that for their kids, either.
Still – frustration at and objection against top-down encroachment on personal freedoms is framed in Block’s nicotine delivery gesture. I appreciate the civilized restraint in his little foxtail of smoke, not blasting it at the camera, but rather letting it trail daintily into the urban breeze.
But Blocks pause to refresh is not the most potent aspect of this commercial. Neither is the song, although it’s a driver. Neither is Herman Cain’s pixie grin.
The most potent single aspect of the entire commercial is the focus on Block’s impassioned face.
You’ll note that while at times his chin, his hair, and his ears sometimes soften out of focus, the triangle of eyes, cheeks, and nose seldom does. It remains steady, clear, drawing you to the seriousness, the troubled urgency, and above all – clarity above all – to the intensity of his conviction.
And that is what this commercial finally flogs more than anything: intensity of conviction. Utterness of belief. In this era of extreme rhetoric, barely suppressed rage, quasimilitant posturing, and insistent, absolutist trash-talk, one hears it said again and again, streetcorner, talk show, dinner table: I don’t care what anyone thinks; I really believe it.
That is the unspoken sentence that roars loud and clear in this ad. The first part, before the semicolon, is paramount. Others say things about my beliefs; they criticize, they exile me in my own land, they condescend. Then the second clause comes in with full strength: It doesn’t matter what they say. I stand strong. I believe, and my belief is total and genuine.
Herman Cain is no Barry Goldwater. His campaign, so far, is a lot smarter than Goldwater’s was. But the implicit message in that concerted gaze of Mark Block, who wouldn’t be here if his belief were not so real, is not too far from “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.”
In many ways, this ad is fumbling, pitiable, and at odds with itself. But lack of clarity is not among its problems. For its target audiences, it probably works very well, for it has pictured them with such sure understanding.
The Cain campaign is counting on millions of people who feel embattled in their beliefs, endangered in their ways of living. The campaign needs those people to act in support of their candidate. If it takes a song, a ciggie, and the eyes of conviction to rouse them, then this ad has them.