9:01pm

Wed March 14, 2012
Presidential Race

Campaign Videos: A Time-Tested Election Tactic

Originally published on Thu March 15, 2012 5:34 am

President Obama's re-election campaign is releasing a video Thursday that looks back on the accomplishments of his first term. The documentary-style film, directed by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim and narrated by actor Tom Hanks, is likely to go viral, but such video tributes are far from new in presidential politics.

In 1952, a war hero named Eisenhower was running for president; his campaign decided it needed to reintroduce the former general to the American public. The film, with its grainy World War II footage and its shouting newsreel announcer, is really where the presidential biographical film got its start — at the dawn of the golden age of American television.

Since then, every nominee — and many a candidate who didn't get that far — has done some kind of biographical documentary-style film. Most of these films have come and gone, and created little buzz. They were shown at nominating conventions or maybe on TV, but in the pre-YouTube age, they weren't that easy for a voter to see.

Mostly the intent, especially for a nonincumbent, is simple: Meet the candidate.

Jimmy Carter's film featured music that could have doubled as the theme for The Rockford Files or Charlie's Angels. Its message: Carter is an outsider you can trust after the Watergate scandal.

Anne Johnston, a professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of a book looking at how candidates use media techniques to sell their biography, says her favorite of these films is from President Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972. It highlights Nixon's success in opening up diplomatic relations with China, but it also shows something else.

"He's very — this is going to sound strange, but very human," Johnston says. "He's laughing with the Chinese translator. He's sort of teasing with her there. So it's Richard Nixon, if you're saying, playing against type, that's what I would say, is very, very comfortable with television, which of course, Nixon was not."

Among the most memorable of these films was one shown during the Democratic convention in 1992. Forty years earlier, the Eisenhower campaign unveiled The Man from Abilene. The campaign of candidate Bill Clinton drew inspiration from that.

Mark McKinnon, a veteran political media adviser who was the media adviser for both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, says Clinton's film worked so well because it told a very human story.

"I think it was important in terms of that storytelling to tell a story that a lot of Americans can relate to, to say, you know, 'Boy, this is a guy who could be president but met some of the very same challenges that I did or my family did, or friends that I know did,' " he says.

McKinnon made two of these films for Bush. The first was an introduction to a candidate who, even though he was a governor and the son of a president, was not that well-known. Four years later, for the Bush re-election, it was all about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and how the president responded to the crisis. It included scenes of the president at ground zero, and it ended with the uplifting moment of Bush throwing out the pitch at the World Series in Yankee Stadium six weeks later.

A new film is added to the library Thursday: It's 17 minutes long. A preview was released online last week.

It's coming out early — a strategic move to get the president's narrative out there. As for exposure, today's films can zip around the Web, finding an audience and being played at campaign events and in college dorms and on smartphones and all kinds of ways that the man from Abilene couldn't begin to imagine.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Even as the primary campaign continues, Republicans regularly take aim at the president. Independent groups have also run ads. A group called the American Future Fund describes itself as favoring free enterprise, and has run ads ripping the president for his ties to Wall Street.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tonight, the Obama campaign premiers its own video online, a documentary-style ad. Tom Hanks narrates, and it's directed by Davis Guggenheim, who got an Oscar for the Al Gore film "An Inconvenient Truth."

Movie-style tributes are far from new in presidential politics. NPR's Don Gonyea has a history.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was 1952, and a war hero was running for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The man from Abilene, out of the heartland of America, out of this small frame house in Abilene, Kansas, came a man, Dwight D. Eisenhower...

GONYEA: This film, with its grainy World War II footage and its shouting newsreel announcer, is really where the presidential biographical film got its start.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Through the crucial hour of historical D-Day, he brought us to the triumph and piece of VE-Day. Now another crucial hour in our history...

GONYEA: Since then, these films, shown on TV and at nominating conventions, have become a staple of presidential campaigns. Jimmy Carter's film was about an outsider from Georgia. Much of it was shot on the farm. The candidate wore a plaid shirt. The post-Watergate message was clear: This was a guy you could trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: We've always worked for a living. We know what it means to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And it was the working people, not the special interests, that Jimmy Carter represented as governor of the largest state east of the Mississippi.

GONYEA: Often there's an attempt to humanize the candidate. In a 1972 bio for the Nixon re-election campaign, the focus was on the breakthrough in diplomacy with China. In the midst of that, the film cuts to this moment featuring Nixon teasing his interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I express my appreciation to my Chinese voice, to Mrs. Chung(ph). I listened to her translation. She got every word right.

GONYEA: One of the most memorable of these films premiered at the Democratic convention in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I was born in a little town called Hope, Arkansas three months after my father died. I remember living in that old two story house where I lived with my grandparents. And I remember going to my grandfather's grocery store and...

GONYEA: Mark McKinnon, a media veteran who worked on George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, says that Bill Clinton movie worked because it told a very human story.

MARK MCKINNON: I think it was important to tell a story that a lot of Americans can relate to, to say, you know, boy, this is a guy who could be president, but met some of the very same challenges that I did or some of my family did. So it gave a real sense that Bill Clinton was a man of the people because he'd gone through very similar struggles.

GONYEA: McKinnon made biographical films for the two George W. Bush campaigns. The first basically introduced a candidate who, despite being a governor and a president's son, was not well known by many Americans. Four years later, for the Bush re-election, it was a very different kind of film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

GONYEA: Today, a new one is added to the list. It's 17 minutes long. A trailer was released last week by the Obama campaign. You hear the voice of Tom Hanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

TOM HANKS: How do we understand this president and his time in office?

GONYEA: Releasing it this early gets the president's version of events out there while the GOP hopefuls are still beating each other up. You hear from White House aides.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

DAVID AXELROD: What was described in that meeting was an economic crisis beyond anything anybody had imagined.

GONYEA: As for exposure, today a video can zip around the world instantly on the Web and on smartphones, reaching audiences just about anywhere at any time and in all kinds of ways that the man from Abilene couldn't begin to imagine.

Done Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.