Robert Squier is the glib Democratic media consultant known around town for his innovative 30-second political commercials, his perpetual tan and his instinctual ability to give a reporter facing deadline the right quote at the right time. Journalists covering the last Republican National Convention will not soon forget his answering his phone in Dallas with, "Democratic quotes here -- Shameless speaking."
What few beyond a tight political coterie also know about Squier, 51, is that he is considered a talented filmmaker. Tonight at 9 on Channel 26, a sample of his nonpolitical portfolio, "Herman Melville: Damned in Paradise," will premiere.
"I started thinking about this as being very different from a political campaign," he says, "and it turns out to be very similar in the sense that the most important decision you make on candidates is who you're willing to work for. Once you've made that decision, you try to help them make their case to an audience.
"It turns out that's exactly what we're doing with Melville . . . We have picked an author where the jury is in -- there is no question that Melville is a great -- so the only question is: Shouldn't more people be reading him? Of course, more people should be reading him. So in a sense, you're saying to Melville, 'I'd like to do your campaign.' "
Squier has spent four years and $600,000 (most of it funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Memorial Trust and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) directing the project, which guides the viewer through 90 minutes of Melville's works, from the South Pacific to the Bronx, from "Typee" through "Moby Dick," and concluding with "Billy Budd," which was discovered hidden in an attic months after Melville's death.
It also covers the author's literary rise and subsequent banishment, as seen through Squier's innovative lens, rare family correspondence and photos, and the voices of the biographers and critics who have made Melville's life their own life's work.
"Melville is probably the most misunderstood of our authors," says Squier, who has reread most of Melville's works. "Everyone generally reads only one book and that's 'Moby Dick.' They read it too early, and they really don't have the equipment to bring to it. They don't know they're allowed to see the humor in him. They don't know the dark side of him. So what we want to do with this is say, 'So you think you know Melville? Give us 90 minutes and when we're done you will really understand this man, and hopefully go back and read him again."
All of the footage was filmed on location, including in the Marquesas Islands, where Melville jumped ship in his early twenties and was held captive by a cannibal tribe; Egypt, where Melville's father-in-law sent him for a rest, a trip that inspired him to write the brilliant poem, "Clarel"; and the Berkshires, where he met and developed a long and intimate friendship with novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In one memorable scene, Squier brought famed poet Robert Penn Warren down to the battlefield of Shiloh, in Tennessee, to read some of Melville's Civil War poetry, including one of his best, "Shiloh."
Squier and his coproducer, Karen Thomas, also took care to give the narration a sentimental touch, having it done by John Huston, director of the 1956 film "Moby Dick." Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus") is the voice of Melville through his readings.
This is Squier's second effort at delving into the life of a great American author. In 1978 he directed "William Faulkner: A Life on Paper," a two-hour biographical film, which won him the gold medal at the New York International Film and TV Festival and the DuPont-Columbia Award for Outstanding Journalism. Squier has already started working on a third about Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe.
During the rest of the off-election year cycle, though, Squier remains a classic Washington political junkie who emerges in full form every two years to play the odds and get drunk on the potential for power. He talks fast, trades in bipartisan gossip, and looks like a cross between one of the Beach Boys and Robert Redford's brother. His firm, the Communications Co., has handled such high-profile candidates as Jimmy Carter, Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown and Sen. Gary Hart.
His campaign ads are legendary.
When former Mississippi lieutenant governor William Winter had a formidable woman opponent in his 1979 gubernatorial race, Squier developed a series of ads showing Winter shooting a gun in a firing range and talking tough. The voice-over noted that a governor was also "commander-in-chief" of the state's national guard, subtly raising the question of whether voters could trust a woman in matters of national defense. The ads were devastating to his opponent and Winter won the primary.
During this last election cycle, he marketed then-Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who was running hard for the Senate against incumbent Charles Percy. In one powerful ad aimed at emphasizing Simon's work with missing children, Squier's footage showed a little boy running down a lane and then the camera fading out on him, only to show the child running back and reappearing, ostensibly as a result of Simon's work on Capitol Hill.
"I think he's one of best guys they've got," says Lee Atwater, a longtime GOP strategist and deputy campaign manager for the Reagan-Bush reelection effort.
"Take the Robb- Marshall Coleman race," says Roger Stone, a partner in the GOP consulting firm of Black, Manafort and Stone. "Coleman should have won that race and Squier is one of the reasons he didn't. We don't take it lightly when we see his name on a campaign."
"He did the first and best response to the president's State of the Union for us," says Christopher Matthews, spokesman for House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill. "He did man-on-street interviews which really told the story . . . He made Chuck Robb into the Virginia tradition -- and it worked."
Squier started his film career while in his home state at the University of Minnesota, where he produced his first film, "The Family Man." After graduating in the late '50s, he worked for WGBH-TV in Boston, and produced and directed various specials about Boston, such as "The Boston Symphony." The following years took him through a Texas television station, WNET in New York and a job as chief of television for the U.S. Information Agency, all the time making documentaries on subjects ranging from the civil rights movement to the Supreme Court.
He decided to start making partisan films because, he says, it was becoming more and more difficult for him to be objective about some of his topics. He joined Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign in 1968.
"It was really hard during that period to show two sides of a story," he says. "I came to politics out of the frustration that a lot of people felt who were filmmakers in the '60s. You were sent out to do a show on civil rights, and it wouldn't take you 15 minutes to figure out what the story was. But you had to come back with, quote, 'both sides.' You found yourself interviewing segregationists about why their arm hurt so much after beating up on blacks. To work in politics is a chance to work for people you really care about and take what you know about television and put it right at someone's service."
But like all else in life, too much of anything is stifling. And in the rapidly moving world of national politics, even the junkies burn out.
"In politics, you are forced to the 30-second format," he says. "If you're out there working on films, you're still developing your ability as a filmmaker. If you're limited to only 30-second spots, that's a very big limitation. But if you have other outlets for your creativity, it helps. I think you could take the position that making media in 30-second segments is what every filmmaker ought to do at least once in their lifetime. It certainly gives you respect for that time period. I just didn't want to live the rest of my life in 30-second clips."