Who's the fairest Reagan of them all?
It's not Ronald Reagan. Nor is it Vice President George Bush.
"I'm Congressman Bob Smith," says the cheery New Hampshire Republican in the opening frames of a video played last night on about 100 television screens in his home state. "And I'm proud to support Jack Kemp for president of the United States."
The video, the first of its kind, was made by the Kemp campaign for almost $10,000, intended for a special viewing by 2,000 GOP activists, in what was billed as "The Making of the President Night" in the key early primary state. Several campaigns are considering this innovation, made possible by the proliferation of VCRs, but Kemp has earned a notation in the annals of campaign media with his eight-minute production.
MTV it isn't. It's more like the Home Shopping channel.
"Jack Kemp has been a leader for his entire life," says the voiceover, as the candidate, poised before a wall of American flags, announces his candidacy. He smiles and his wife Joanne smiles Nancy-like in his direction; the frame freezes, becomes a box and swivels to reveal a black-and-white picture of Kemp in a football uniform -- his combat service.
"As quarterback of both the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills, Kemp led both teams to championships," says the narrator.
Suddenly, Kemp appears on a football field clutching the pigskin, but attired in a dark business suit: "Since he has left the football field, Jack has had even greater success."
Back to black-and-white: Kemp with California governor Reagan, for whom he served as an aide. The Gipper of filmdom and his prote'ge', fresh from the gridiron, stare at a football as if it's about to hatch.
Kemp goes to Congress, and he's reelected nine times. In a wink, it's 1980 -- Year One of the Conservative Restoration. And Kemp is on the platform at the GOP convention as the cheering throngs carry banners reading: "Reagan/Kemp."
Above all, the commercial affirms that Reagan remains the central character in the presidential campaign. And Kemp, according to the video, is the true Reagan -- indeed, he was Reagan before Reagan:
"Jack Kemp persuaded Ronald Reagan to cut taxes ..." Supply-side economics was really Jack Kemp's new idea, not the Gipper's. An authority is cited: "Time magazine said Jack Kemp 'sold Reaganomics to Reagan.' "
Not only was Kemp Reagan first, he was Reagan even when Reagan didn't stay the course. It's 1982. Reagan is "under enormous pressure to raise taxes." Reagan buckles. But "one man," says the narrator, "stood up against his president and his party ... And Jack Kemp was vindicated for his courage and foresight." Reagan himself later acknowledges it was all a terrible "mistake," the video voice continues. Crowds cheer Kemp.
Now it's 1985. The Senate is deadlocked on a bill that would freeze Social Security benefits. Enter George Bush, to break the tie, "casting the deciding vote to freeze benefits for America's senior citizens." Two elderly women gaze at the viewer. Who can convince the Great Communicator to save them? "Congressman Jack Kemp rushed to the White House and persuaded President Reagan to abandon the plan ..." Reminded that he was Reagan, Reagan abandoned Bush.
In the ad, the torch is passed to Kemp. But it is not passed by Reagan himself. Instead, it is carefully placed in Kemp's hand by Kemp's political consultant and campaign chairman, Ed Rollins. "I feel," says Rollins, "that he's the only candidate with the qualities it takes to win ..."
Unmentioned is the fact that Rollins is the former White House political director, which gives him a certain claim to anoint his client. It may mark the first time that a political consultant has appeared in a candidate's ad.
Kemp makes a final impassioned plea, and then fades out. No slogan. The final images are the candidate's trademark helmet of hair and gold-plated tie bar.
Kemp is ranked third in the national polls, behind Bush and Sen. Robert Dole. But, says Roger Stone, a campaign adviser, he is "the earliest Reaganite. We're not saying he's personally closer to Reagan than Bush, but philosophically closer."
The Iran-contra scandal passes unremarked upon in the ad, but it may have an indirect presence. Kemp is shown as a Reaganite who did not commit a major Reagan error. That the issue happens to be taxes is convenient because it permits Kemp to avoid talking about the controversy that has consumed the administration.
Another motif is a perennial for candidates of both parties: electability. "Rollins makes that argument as a political technician," explains Stone. "It moves the politicians, but not the voters ... Remember who this is aimed at."
"They have become possessed with this winnability notion," says a source in the Bush campaign about Kemp's handlers. "When winnability is the basis of your campaign you can't lose anything. So they must think they can win every primary."
Dole's campaign also makes the claim that he has a better chance of winning than Bush. By this logic, Bush loses because he will lose.
The premise in Kemp's video is clear: Voters want the Reagan era to continue indefinitely. And Kemp's unique selling proposition is that Kemp, as "the cutting edge of this revolution," offers the solution to the third-term dilemma. The man who would be president is the once and future Reagan.