Typically, an introductory film precedes the nominee's acceptance speech. The candidate film sets the mood for those in the dimmed convention hall as well as those watching the convention at home on television. It uses a carefully chosen narrative structure and invokes symbols to tell the story of the candidate, and, like commercial films, it plays on the emotions of the viewer to establish a connection between him or her and the candidate.
Russ Schriefer, who helped produce Gov. George W. Bush's intro film, states that convention films can serve a strategic purpose, for example in countering or addressing an image problem facing the candidate. Schriefer says that the format can be used to communicate insights that are not getting through on television or in candidate appearances. Joanne Morreale writes:
"...in 15 minutes of film, the candidate's ethos and message can be put forth and illustrated through the strategic interplay of words, music and pictures. As opposed to the nominating speech, in the political campaign film words can be supported with visual 'proofs,' just as visual images can overpower and render words unneccessary."1According to Morreale, candidate films at conventions date back at least to 1952, but they did not assume a prominent role until 1984. Clinton's 1992 film "The Man from Hope," produced by Linda Bloodworth Thomason and Harry Thomason, is remembered as one of the more effective candidate intro films. It had a strongly personal and reflective tone and concluded with Clinton stating, "I still believe in a place called Hope." (He is referring to the place where he was born as well as the metaphorical hope). By contrast, President George H.W. Bush's film was a booming, patriotic affair. Clinton's 1996 film, "A Place Called America," again produced by the Thomasons, had a similar reflective tone, but included many images of President Clinton from the previous four years. The video clocked in at a longish 16 minutes and 20 seconds. Dole's "Portrait of a Man" showed the audience the influence of Dole's Russell, Kansas roots through the words of Dole himself, his wife Elizabeth and several friends and colleagues.
The 2000 Films
The most talked about, and effective, Gore film, by director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich"), ran on August 16, the day before Gore's acceptance speech. Done in cinema verite style, the film showed the personal side of Gore as he interacted with his family in Tennessee and on vacation in North Carolina. The film used to introduce Gore's acceptance speech the next day, and the one that more people saw (and is discussed below), was a photo album-type presentation narrated by Tipper Gore.
The Bush and Gore intros ran about ten minutes each. Both films have a falling-in-love element fairly early on, in the first third, and both also have an element of tragedy (for Bush the death of his sister Robin and for Gore his son being hit by a car). Both also have short film clips of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking. Otherwise, the two films have few similarities.
The narrative structures of the two films differ markedly. Although Bush was known for his inarticulateness, the majority of the sound track carries his voice. One memorable element, used in the beginning and at the close, has Bush driving a pickup truck and talking to the camera; a second major element is footage of Bush, seated outdoors with Laura, talking to the camera. Intercut are clips from Bush speeches and appearances during the primary campaign. The popular Barbara Bush is given significant speaking time fairly early on, Laura Bush and former President George H.W. Bush also speak, and several other figures provide testimonials. The truck footage is particularly effective; it is as if Bush is sitting next to the viewer and talking to him or her.
By contrast the Gore film is almost entirely narrated by Tipper Gore; Gore himself is only heard in a few short audio clips about half way into the production. Bush's consultant Schriefer notes that the challenge faced by the Gore team was to "make Al likable." Use of Mrs. Gore as a narrator was almost certainly an effort to accomplish that. However, it is ironic that, given criticism of television for reducing everything to sound bites, Gore is limited to just five short and rather unremarkable sound bites in his own film. This film would have benefited from having at least a couple of minutes of Gore talking reflectively about something, rather than just the few sound bites that are included. Further, the photo-based narration is a somewhat constricting format -- Mrs. Gore, in remarks introducing the film, jokes about people "sprinting for the door" to avoid having to look at "the family photo album." The film does have a few stock film clips (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking, '60s turbulence, Vietnam) but for the most part it is all family or news-type photos. After an introductory photo of Gore, the first image is a photo of Tipper in a formal dress; indeed the film turns out to be about Tipper Gore almost as much as it is about Al Gore.
A second major difference is that the Bush film actively advances the candidate's compassionate conservative philosophy, notably in the testimonials from Houston community activist Ernie Ladd and teacher Phyllis Hunter, while the Gore film says little about his political philosophy. From the outset of his campaign, Bush emphasized his nonpartisan approach and his success in reaching out to Hispanics; the first person who is not a member of Bush's family to speak in the video is a Democrat and a Hispanic, Carlos M. Ramirez, Mayor of El Paso, Texas. In the Gore video issues and politics are alluded to in much more general terms. Mrs. Gore does refer to Gore's "holding the first hearings on protecting families from toxic waste, the beginning of his commitment to the environment", but the sharpest focus is put on mental illness, an issue that is actually one of Mrs. Gore's major concerns. Of course, issues and political philosophy can be saved for the acceptance speech.
The Bush film makes extensive use of symbols. It opens with old black-and-white footage of a baseball game. Not only is baseball "the great American pastime," but this is an authentic touch since baseball is by all accounts one of George W. Bush's passions. Bush's accompanying voice-over, in which he talks about sending off baseball cards for autographs, evokes a simpler era, prior to multi-million dollar player salaries and professionally organized card shows. The footage of Bush driving around the ranch with his dog is American to the core. This ranks among the classics of campaign imagery. Schriefer said that footage was shot on Bush's ranch during a day in early July; they tried not to script a lot of it but just get Bush talking about what he believed in. The dog, Spotty, was not in the original plans. Finally, the film's inspirational close features clips of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Apollo moon landing. In the Gore film, the use of symbolic figures and events is not nearly as pronounced; there is the early clip of King and a few still photos of Gore with figures such as the Pope and Nelson Mandela.
America, the American Dream, and the presidency are themselves symbols. Early in the film Bush talks about his views on leadership and the American Dream. At another point, Bush reflects on a slogan from Midland, "The sky's the limit." He states, "It's how I feel about America really." Midway through the film, driving in his truck, Bush states, somewhat inarticulately, but at the same time profoundly, "The values are so strong and the concept of entrepreneurship or family, freedom...such a powerful, powerful part of the American experience that somebody who's newly arrived to this country can be just as an American as somebody who's been here for generations." Such reflection on the meaning of America is not as evident in the Gore video.
Although both candidates both grew up in the same time frame (Bush was born on July 6, 1946; Gore on March 31, 1948) only the Gore film touches on the turbulence and counterculture of the '60s. Tipper states, "We also had a lot of fun. Riding on his motorcycle, going to the beach, going to concerts, just falling in love..." By contrast the '60s are missing from the Bush film. Meanwhile, the Gore film has its own omissions; it is very thin when it comes to his service as vice president, there are but one or two quick shots of Gore with Clinton.
An important function of all campaign communications is to get viewers to relate to the candidate, and one way to do this is to use humor or show the lighter side of the candidate. The Bush film includes footage of Bush misspeaking ("it seems like yesterday that we were at the hospital having birth..."), followed by Bush observing that he likes to laugh. This is the kind of self-effacing humor that makes Bush a likable fellow regardless of what people think about his policies. Meanwhile, the most obvious example of the lighter side of Gore is that fact that "he still manages to make time for Halloween." There is a photo of Gore, dressed up as Frankenstein, talking on the phone.
The Spike Jonze film might have been used
to introduce Gore, as it does a better job of making him likable.
Gore's photo album approach appears to be original in terms of candidate
intro films, but it led to a rather one-dimensional product that had perhaps
too much Tipper. The Bush film seems more effective on a number of
levels -- advancing his philosophy, using symbols, and connecting the candidate
to the viewer.
1. Joanne Morreale. "The Political Campaign Film: Epideictic Rhetoric in a Documentary Frame" in Frank Biocca, ed. Television and Political Advertising, Vol. 2: Signs, Codes, and Images. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.
Novak, Janet. "Hope Springs Eternal: The Reinvention of America in Bill Clinton's 1996 Campaign Biography Video." American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 40, No. 8, August 1997.
Timmerman, David. "The Contrasting Narratives of George Bush and Bill Clinton." Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1996.