By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-30-08
In what is looking more and more like a campaign of nearly perfect pitch, Barack Obama turned in another virtuoso performance Wednesday night with his prime-time infomercial. Apparently weeks in the making, the infomercial pulled out all the stops. We saw snippets of Obama’s classic 2004 Democratic National Convention address. We saw photos from the Obama family album of Obama’s parents – and canned footage of World War II workers to help evoke the all-American lineage of Obama’s grandparents. We heard testimonies from Michelle Obama, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Dick Durbin, and a retired Brigadier General patriotically named John Adams about the candidate’s wondrous qualities. We saw the candidate at rallies and we heard him giving the voters a more direct – and uncharacteristically subdued — pitch. But we did not need to hear the candidate – and potential president – as narrator, telling the stories of a handful of Americans tossed around in today’s economic crosscurrents.
I confess when I first heard that Obama was buying thirty minutes of prime time, I assumed it was for a traditional, thirty-minute closing campaign address. I was excited in that evoked the mid-twentieth century campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. I was curious to see how Obama – with his extraordinary oratorical skill — would pull it off.
Of course, the campaign producers needed to produce a more varied, even herky-jerky, thirty minutes to keep the modern viewer engaged. And most of the half hour was compelling, although it was surprisingly sobering. The Obama campaign responded to the criticism that his earlier speeches were too lyrical and vague by setting their man in a mock Oval Office and having him talk substantively and directly into the television cameras, with a far more subdued tone. In fact, it was refreshing to hear him not speak in his trademark singsong.
The message also was a bit of a downer. The background music tended to be slow not stirring. And, following the recent economic meltdown, Obama chose to go with the more unnerving message that the nation is in crisis which upstaged his usual uplifting message that we can solve all the world’s problems by working together.
The infomercial was less effective, however, when Obama started narrating the stories of regular Americans in distress. This was what we might call the Joe-the-plumberization of American campaigning taken to yet another extreme. It started, in many ways, with Ronald Reagan’s ritual of pointing to one or two representative Americans during his State of the Union addresses. It led many candidates, especially this year, to insert moments of faux intimacy into their speeches and debate appearances wherein they told the story of one voter by name, whom they had met and supposedly bonded with on the campaign trail. In the third presidential debate – and subsequently – John McCain took this technique even farther with his deification of Joe the plumber. (Of course, following the natural course of American celebrity, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, now has a Wikipedia entry, and a manager).