By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Appearing grimly unsteady from his long bout with Parkinson's disease, actor Michael J. Fox is inserting his halting voice into the campaign for the U.S. Senate in a new television commercial about the importance of stem cell research.
The ad, endorsing Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin in his race against Republican Michael S. Steele, bears witness to the actor's unmistakable decline and harnesses that physical degeneration into a political message.
"Stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans with diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," Fox says, seated in a dimly lit hotel room, staring directly into the camera. "But George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem cell research."
Coming, as it has, just two weeks before Election Day, the commercial could serve as Cardin's antidote to the much-discussed advertising campaign launched by Steele, political analysts said yesterday.
Whereas Cardin to this point has run a series of conventional ads, Steele's visually spare but upbeat spots have won praise for the way they have presented the lieutenant governor as a Washington outsider who pledges to address the worst from both parties.
The Fox commercial makes those ads seem shallow by comparison, said Paul S. Herrnson, a University of Maryland political science professor.
"I think it's aimed at cutting through all the platitudes that normally accompany campaigns and says, 'Here's an issue that affects people's real lives,' " Herrnson said. "You look at him, and you see the effects."
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research who heard about the ad said they found it sad.
"To me, this is a shame that they're exploiting someone like Michael J. Fox for something that the scientists say is not going to do anything," said Douglas Stiegler, executive director of Maryland's Family Protection Lobby.
Steele campaign spokesman Doug Heye agreed, saying he considered the ad "in extremely poor taste."
Fox, who gained fame for his roles in the "Family Ties" and "Spin City" television shows and "Back to the Future" movies, has long been open about his battle with Parkinson's and his support for the research that could lead to a treatment. But in this ad he shows a noticeable degree of decline. His speech is clear but his head and body are jerky and unsteady. The camera remains still -- nothing about the production by Cardin consultant LHKK Media appears aimed at diminishing the striking visual impact of Fox's condition.
Though Fox's illness has progressed, his political involvement has not slowed.
In addition to the Cardin ad, Fox filmed 30-second spots for Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is seeking to unseat Republican James M. Talent, and for Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D), who is seeking reelection. He has also made plans to appear at events for two Democrats, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Tammy Duckworth, a candidate for Congress from Illinois.
"He wants to take on races and get involved in races that involve a pro stem cell candidate against an anti embryonic stem cell candidate," said John Rogers, a publicist for Fox.
Cardin aides said Fox contacted the campaign after seeing news accounts of Steele's position on the research. In February, Steele told members of a Baltimore Jewish group, "Look, you of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool."
He later apologized for the remark, which was interpreted as a comparison between embryonic stem cell research and Nazi experimentation. But he has maintained his position that research on embryos is not needed, especially, he has said, because there is promising research being done on adult stem cells. Heye said yesterday that Steele opposes only stem cell research that destroys the embryo.
Fox's message, though, makes clear that he believes study on adult stem cells is not enough, saying he approves of candidates who "fully" support the research.
"It's why I support Ben Cardin," he says, lifting his hand to his heart. "And with so much at stake, I respectfully ask you to do the same."