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Want Us to Forget About Iraq? Maybe Don't Bring Up Nam

McCain's First TV Spot Tries to Overcome Your Basic 'Marketing Challenge'

By Published on .

Let's start with the "100-year war" in Iraq.

Poor guy, John McCain. He never said it. He did suggest, most plausibly, that we can expect an indefinite U.S. presence there, a la Germany and South Korea, without shooting and U.S. casualties.

Doesn't matter. He's stuck with it, along the lines of Al Gore inventing the internet, which tarred the candidate as boastful/delusional although he never really made that claim.

That's not all McCain is stuck with. He's got the war itself, unmanageable and unpopular, but which he supports. He's got the economy, which has gone south under President Bush's watch, at least partly because of historic deficits (see "the war itself" above). He's got his voice and demeanor, unresonant and avuncular.

But wait, there's more!

He's got his age, 118, which at least superficially undermines any image of a fresh Republican face. He's got the Republican Party itself, a third of which hates him for not being Christian enough and a third of which hates him for going off the reservation on campaign finance, judicial nominees and torture. He's got the Keating Five ethics abuses from the S&L scandal bad old days. And he's got that blond lobbyist. Whatever.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call your "marketing challenge." And it's also pretty much what advertising was invented for. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don't mess with Mr. In Between. Hence the twin themes of McCain's first TV spot: leadership and courage.

The spot from Foxhole Productions opens in a (rare) McCain moment of oratorical power, a brief excerpt from the lectern where the candidate is firing on all cylinders.

"Keep that faith! Keep your courage! Stick together! Stay strong! Do not yield! Stand up! We're Americans and we'll never surrender." Then a voice-over, from a narrator who does have resonance and rhetorical command:

"What must a president believe about us? About America? That she is worth protecting, that liberty is priceless, our people honorable, our future prosperous, remarkable and free."

Never mind that those characteristics hardly set McCain apart from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton (they probably aren't traitors or defeatists). The copy simply invites viewers to consider -- as they did in electing Ronald Reagan -- whether there are degrees of patriotism, optimism and leadership. The visuals, meanwhile, dissolve in and out to answer that question in heroic terms. They are (dramatically lit) images of the candidate in the foreground against backdrops of McCain, the defender of our values; McCain, the champion of the middle class; and, most of all, McCain the ex-POW.

Voice-over: "And what must we believe about that president? What does he think? Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?"

Where has he been? In captivity, four decades ago, in North Vietnam. We see him returning, all smiles and salutes. We see him described, in the press, as a "real American hero." We see Lt. Cmdr. McCain interviewed, from his prison-camp hospital bed, surrendering only his serial number: 624787. Then a cut to the title card and logo, prominently displaying a Silver Star.

"John McCain," intones the voice-over. "The American president Americans have been waiting for."

Maybe. The flaw in this beautifully produced, thoughtfully constructed ad is that in accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, it nonetheless defaults to Mr. In Between. Its entire premise is that being a courageous flier and POW is itself a presidential credential. No denying he has been tested, but for exactly what?

We're supplied with no answer, but plenty of irony: To make us not think about a "100-year war," McCain is invoking a tragic quagmire 40 years back.

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