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The Selling of the Scandal

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In most political campaigns, there are moments when things begin to shift irrevocably to one side--moments when, in the midst of all the handshakes and speeches and fund-raisers, history actually gets made. This happened most starkly in 1974 after Richard Nixon resigned, and more surprisingly in 1994 when Republicans unveiled the Contract with America. But there was little on this warm July night in North Carolina's Second District to suggest that anything momentous was about to happen that might change the course of the 1998 elections, or set off a panic in the White House, or provoke headlines halfway across the world in Tokyo. In fact, as far as Dan Page could tell, there was nothing happening at all.

The 32-year-old Republican challenger was sitting in his campaign headquarters on New Bern Street in downtown Raleigh, staring blankly at the phone. Every few minutes, his campaign manager, Jack Hawke, would stick his head in and ask if he'd made any more fundraising calls, and Page would nod. No one had given anything in days … or was it weeks? "I'm Dan Page and I'm running for Congress," he'd say shyly, waiting for the inevitable click. What was the point? His opponent, Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge, already had more than $400,000. Page got up and looked around the room. The second-hand desks were chipped, the rug stained with coffee and cigar ashes. Unused "Page for Congress" stickers spilled out of boxes onto the floor. It was the kind of mess that came from abandonment rather than activity. The only thing of value there was an $800 computer, with a screen saver that seemed to mock him: "Dan Page for Congress … he's smarter than a sack of owls."

As he slipped into the corridor, trying to escape, the two-term state senator passed an empty office, once inhabited by the campaign's finance chairman and field director, whom Hawke had been forced to let go for lack of money. Finally, as Page headed downstairs to his car, Hawke approached him--only not about the fund-raising calls. "We've got to pick a fight," he said.

Page nodded, leaning over the hood of his car. "How?" he asked.

Still unsure himself, Hawke smiled. "We roll the dice."

A week later, Hawke arranged a meeting with the Strategy Group, a fledgling political consulting firm in Ohio known for its "edgy" advertising spots. It started as a typical session on how to exploit television; by the end, it would change not only the direction of the Page campaign but the focus of local elections across the country. On Thursday morning, two young consultants from the Strategy Group gathered in the cluttered conference room at Page headquarters, along with Hawke and his right-hand man. As they sipped black coffee, the ad guys distributed an eight-page memo marked "confidential": "The objective of the ad campaign must be to first and foremost properly introduce to the general electorate--they must like and trust you." To do this, the memo recommended running a series of positive spots in October that would portray Page as "fighting for our values" and inoculate him against any attacks for being rated one of the most "ineffective" legislators in the State House. After that they could go negative.

To Hawke, this was chickenshit. They needed to hit hard now, he said, not later. Hawke's longtime partner, Robert Jones, agreed. "We're like a sailboat right now, sittin' there with no wind." As they searched for a gust, a single sentence in the memo caught their attention: "Should the Clinton scandal escalate into a definable crisis, we may want to consider … portraying Etheridge and the Democrats as silent co-conspirators."

"That's it!" Hawke exclaimed.

Jones, who had worked with the famed Clinton-hater Cliff Jackson in Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign, began to fiddle excitedly with his cigar. Page, he noted, had advocated character-building education in schools. He even sang in his church choir. "It's perfect," he said. Well, maybe not perfect. It was not yet clear, after all, that the Clinton scandal had escalated into a "definable" crisis. "We haven't even done a poll yet," said Rex Elsass, one of the consultants. Such a strategy might alienate voters or, worse yet, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC)--the group that determines which candidates are worth funding. The committee had already warned candidates to stay mum, not wanting to risk its eleven-seat majority in the House over an issue most Americans wanted just to go away. In January, GOP pollster Frank Luntz circulated a memo saying, "It would be a grave error to be seen as taking political advantage of such an unfortunate situation." And, until that morning, not a single challenger had broken with this unofficial policy.

"Let's be the skunk at the garden party," Hawke said. Despite fears of reprisals from Washington, they all began to shout out ideas, scribbling them down on a pad: "Christian values," "character counts," and "get picture with Clinton and Etheridge side by side." Now it was Elsass, the skeptic, who urged them on. If we're going to do it, he said, we might as well do it before Clinton testifies and anyone else does it. "Maybe: we'll end up on CNN," he said. It was only then that the candidate walked into the: room and saw everyone smiling. Hawke glanced at his Mickey Mouse watch. "Sorry I'm late," said Page. Hawke grinned. "Let's go get some barbecue." Politics and advertising have always had the slight whiff of the con. "Truth doesn't matter as much as the perception of the truth," Hawke likes to say. In The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss observed that the American voter demanded the "illusion that the men he chooses to lead him are of finer nature than he." But, even though campaigns have marketed this illusion for more than four decades, the Page ad that came over the fax the very next day was something different. It was no longer the selling of the candidate. Rather, it was the selling of the scandal.

At once nervous and excited by their own audacity, Hawke, Jones, and Page scrutinized each line in the ad:

(Scene starts with slow motion, black-and-white footage of the president.)
Voice over: "His is the most corrupt administration in American history." (Headlines of Clinton scandals. Use the best of the worst.)
"Dishonoring our heritage." (Clinton footage slow motion. Freezes.)
"And who stands with Bill Clinton, even now?" (Photo of Etheridge and Clinton together.)
"Liberal Bob Etheridge." (Same photo. Zoom in on Etheridge. Graphic: "Liberal Bob Etheridge.")
"Etheridge gives Bill Clinton a standing ovation." (Washington Post article highlighted to show "greeted with a standing ovation.… "Pull line in article out to large scope and highlight it over a picture of a smiling Etheridge. Same graphic: "Liberal Bob Etheridge.")
"Applauding Clinton's values, not ours." (Headline from USA Today or other magazine Time/Newsweek … showing Monica Lewinsky and negative headline.)
"What kind of man stands silent while corruption triumphs?" (Simple morph shot of Etheridge changing to Clinton.)
"Who will restore our Christian values?" (Warm shot of a country church at sunset.)
"Senator Dan Page." (Footage of Dan Page. Strong close-up. Graphic: "Conservative Senator Dan Page.")
"Dan Page believes character counts and morality matters." (More footage of Dan and family. Graphic: "Dan Page: Character Counts. ")
"Because we are one nation under God, not men." (Shot of country road and fence at sunset. Graphic: "Conservative Dan Page … Standing Up for Our Values.")

They argued over each word. Jones opposed the phrase "Christian values." "Does that mean we're against Jewish values?" he wondered. Hawke worried that "the most corrupt administration in American history" might be too subjective. And Page didn't like the morphing idea. "I don't want to suggest that Etheridge is Clinton," he said.

Satisfied after several revisions, they sent the copy back to the Strategy Group, where one of the producers later noted: "Anything that uses less words and allows for more image is great with us."

But, when Hawke informed party officials in Washington of his plan, he was chastised so severely he began to question himself. Trying to appease his doubts, he dialed his friend Carter Wrenn, who in 1990 masterminded one of the most infamous and effective TV spots in campaign history: the "white hands" ad for Senator Jesse Helms, which Helms's black opponent labeled racist. "Am I doing the right thing?" Hawke asked. Wrenn said he couldn't figure out why no one had done it yet--which was all Hawke needed to hear.

The candidate, however, still had qualms. A reserved, devout Baptist who had stumbled into politics just a few years earlier and prayed before each meal, Page worried the ads might be unchristian. Several hours before they were to air, he called his preacher at the Central Baptist Church, Tom Wagoner, and read him the script. "I don't want to be assassinating anyone's character," Page said. Wagoner listened quietly. "Sometimes," he explained, "the truth hurts."

The Etheridge camp had expected some sort of negative campaign all along. In a June 5 fundraising letter, the incumbent warned that Page would be ready with attack ads they couldn't even imagine: "No matter what people say, when that mud hits, it sticks." Etheridge knew this as well as anyone. In 1996, he had won in part because of a TV spot that essentially accused his opponent, GOP Representative David Funderburk, of lying about a car accident. While the camera showed black-and-white footage of the stretch of road leading to the crash that injured several people, an announcer intoned: "The congressman says he wasn't driving. But five witnesses say he was … Congressman David Funderburk. Why won't he take responsibility?"

Now Etheridge was faced with something even more stunning: an attack on his character in the form of an attack on someone else's character. "By making my character an issue this way," Etheridge said, "they have shown their own real character." The local papers agreed. In an editorial headlined, "TAKE HIGH ROAD, PLEASE, SENATOR," the Rocky Mount Telegram denounced Page for "running against a soon-to-be lame duck president" rather than his opponent. Other papers noted that the photo of Clinton and Etheridge had originally included five North Carolina law enforcement officers and was taken at a ceremony touting legislation that provided police with more bullet-proof vests. The biggest rebuke, however, came from the state and national Republican parties, which publicly derided the ads and, according to Hawke, even broke off a previously scheduled fund-raising planning session. "This is not the time for us to be taking partisan benefit from this," the Republican National Committee's communications director, Clifford May, told The Washington Post.

But, within days of the president's testimony and semi-apology, something unanticipated happened: $18,000 flooded into the Page campaign, not including a $5,000 PAC donation from the National Federation of Independent Business. As the first Republican to break his party's silence in a TV spot, Page was soon fielding calls from CNN. And CBS, and ABC, and NBC, and MSNBC, and The New York Times, and The Washington Post. For the first time in his life, the former GOP county chairman appeared on national television, doing an interview with Chris Matthews on CNBC's "Hardball." With the new money, the campaign at last commissioned a poll: 46 percent of the voters were so upset by the scandal that they were "extremely" or "very likely" to use their congressional votes to send the president a message. Suddenly, the NRCC, which had only weeks earlier derided the ad, boasted to reporters that "Page knows better than anybody in Washington what will work with his voters and district." And the committee announced it was considering expanding its list of top targets to include the once seemingly invulnerable Etheridge. Meanwhile, as media outlets played 'the $30,000 spot over and over for free, other GOP candidates began to seize on the scandal as well. In Alabama, Gil Aust unleashed an even harsher ad; in California, gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren aired a spot poking fun at the White House. More significantly, the NRCC broke its long silence and launched "Operation Breakout"--a million-dollar advertising drive centered on the very theme from Page's campaign: "Honesty does matter."

When I finally arrived in North Carolina late last week, Page was already preparing his second TV spot. Outside his house in rural Coats, one of the consultants was darting through the yard, issuing orders. "We need one shot by the fence with the kids, one with the family playing in the field, one of the minister by the church, one walking down the street.…"

Page sat under one of the boom mikes. "I'm not very good at this," he said.

"Just relax," said Hawke, powdering his face. "We want to get the essence of Dan Page."

"Do you want his whole body?" asked one of the cameramen.

"Just the shoulders up," said Elsass.

"You have a hair," said Hawke, pointing to an unruly locke on Page's forehead.

Once the cameras were rolling, Elsass began to ask Page about his beliefs and values. Sometimes, Page would stop and stutter, and start again. Finally, Elsass asked him about the scandal. As .Page echoed the slogans from his first script, his voice became louder. "When will Bob Etheridge stand up to Bill Clinton?" he demanded. Hawke clapped his hands. "That's it!" he shouted. "That's it!" It didn't seem to matter that his candidate still lagged far behind his opponent. The ads were no longer just about the Second District or Dan Page or Bob Etheridge. "This whole thing," said Hawke, "has gone national."