To hear the pundits or other politicians tell it, Jimmy Carter has been ducking the 1980 primary campaigns hiding in the White House. In fact, Carter has been into every living room in every important primary state, thanks to the efforts of Gerald Rafshoon.
Rafshoon is the advertising man with this year's most visible client. His job is to resell Jimmy Carter to the American electorate. He will do this primarily with snippets of videotape that play beside soap and deodorant commercials on the nation's television screens.
In his own words, Rafshoon's ads give Carter "a presence" in the state primaries "so he's in each state in some way."
So far, the Carter campaign has spent about $400,000 buying time for Rafshoon's ads. And Rafshoon Communications Inc. has spent another $400,000 producing radio and television commercials.
This staggering sum reflects the 100 percent inflation that has hit the TV commercial industry during the four years since Rafshoon last sold Jimmy Carter to the American public. It also reflects Rafshoon's high ambitions this time.
For the money, Rafshoon has produced a series of 30-and 60-second spots and several five-minute commercials whose purpose is to evoke good feelings about this president, and occasionally to provoke some bad ones about his principal Democratic opponent, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The commercials generally picture Carter in presidential poses, using film clips from high point of this presidency and scenes from a campaign film about Carter made by media man Robert Squiers.
In every ad the voice of announcer Larry Lewman delivers a brief message to make the key points. Lewman has a wonderfuly authoritative, clean-sounding voice, for which he is paid (like any other commercial announcer) every time one of the Carter ads runs on radio or television.
In one 60-second spot now running in New York, where the large Jewish population is a special Carter target, Lewman's voice begins the ad while a picture of the White House appears on the screen:
"More than a century ago, Abraham Lincoln called the United States of America the last best hope on earth."
The video switches to film of Carter walking at Camp David with Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menechem Begin of Israel. Lewman continues:
"That idea has never been far from the minds of men who have been president since Lincoln. In some way it is part of almost every big decision they make. President Carter has been alert for every possibility to encourage exchanges between free men, for these exchange can often lead to genuine peace."
The ad then skips to film of Carter in shirt-sleeves in the Oval Office. "To get peace in the Middle East is more important than my being reelected," Carter declares. "We've made everybody angry in the process at one time or another, but we've made steady progress. Now we've got a prospect for peace."
Then there is film of Begin, Carter and Sadat signing the Mideast peace accords on the White House lawn. Lewman's voice returns on the soundtrack:
"The more than most president in recent times, President Jimmy Carter has been a peacemaker. He has not forgotten that we are still the last best hope on earth."
Back to Carter, Begin and Sadat, with Carter speaking:
"And I would like to say to these friends of mine -- blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be the children of God."
Finally Lewman's last words:
"President Jimmy Carter -- peacemaker."
In an interview, Rafshoon smiled thinking about this ad. It seemed awfully timely, he admitted -- implying that it was a good response to the recent flap over the administration's U-turn on a United Nations resolution condemning Israel, a position the administration supported in the Security Council but later said it should have opposed.
But Rashoon said, the ad was made long before the vote, and even ran in New England last month. He was pleased at the good luck he had stumbled upon. That comment by Carter about angering people was "a prescient remark," -- Rafshoon acknowledged with a laugh.
The Mideast spot is typical of Rafshoon strategy this year, which is to remind voters that there are characteristics of Jimmy Carter that a large majority of them applaud (a fact confirmed by opinion polls, including Patrick Caddell's polls for Carter). Recalling Camp David in an ad "is not to get Jewish people," Rafshoon said. "It's to get people remembering one of his great accomplishments. . . . "
In another ad, the announcer reads a message meant to evoke the apparently widespread feeling that Carter is a straightforward man:
"You may not always agree with President Carter, but you'll never find yourself wondering whether he's telling you the truth."
Rafshoon believes he can sell Carter's sincerity and trustworthiness, his ability to take positions "close to the people" on big issues, his willingness to "take on tough issues," and his strong family life.
Each of these is the theme of one of more Rafshoon ads, which generally seem to be very effective. Politicians in the primary states, including backers of rival candidates, have praised Rafshoon's commercial this year as helpful to Carter's cause.
Rafshoon's work has not always been the subject of praise. His Carter commercials in 1976 general election, for example, were widely criticized even inside the Carter campaign as inappropriate in the race against Gerald Ford, which Carter nearly lost. Rafshoon's recent tenure (now ended) as a White House assistant charged with improving Carter's image also provoked criticism within the president's inner circle.
The media attention attracted by Rafshoon and alleged "rafshoonery" annoyed colleagues who thought that the former Atlanta advertising man was a relatively insignificant factor. While Rafshoon was in the White House Carter's popularity plummeted, one insider noted last week.
These are better days for Carter supporters, including Rafshoon. He seems relaxed, happy and a little bemused at the fact that his client now is a sitting president who political position -- at least for the moment -- is excellent. "It makes me a little nervous," Rafshoon said the other day. "We've never had a campaign where Jimmy Carter was the front-runner before."
Rafshoon believes in television commercials as a means of communicating between a candidate and the electorate. He cites surveys suggesting that voters can learn more about a candidate's stand on issues from commercials than from the TV news, which emphasizes "snafus, polls . . . conflicts" in campaigns, according to Rafshoon.
"In a 60-second spot," he said, "you can learn a lot about a candidate, what he's all about. You can judge his character by the way he represents himself. . . . [You can learn] his stand on issues. . ."
To prove that last point, Rafshoon cited one of his Carter ads on defense, in which the president declares that he will never allow the United States to be second to any nation. Watching that, "you'll find out where Carter stands on defense," Rafshoon said.
Is it a bad thing that voters are now asked, in effect, to make judgments on presidential candidates on the basis of 30-and 60-second commercials?
"I don't think it's so terrible. Prior to the advent of the mass media, voters got their information about candidates from political machines, power brokers, newspaper editors. It gives a candidate a chance to disseminate his message widely to the public without having to through intermediaries. It's up to the public to decide, by looking at those commercials , whether they like him or don't like him. . . . They may say they don't like him. It's hard to really cover up a bad candidate through good commercials . . . You can't run commercials that say something that is out of synch with what the papers are saying or what the opponents are saying or what people perceive the candidate is."
This year, Rafshoon said, his commercials are "90 percent Carter and 10 percent technique," a ratio he said made him comfortable because it meant that the president was speaking for himself. "Our job is not to mess up the 10 percent," he added.
To be candid, it is also Rafshoon's job to fashion the 90 percent to suit the purposes of political campaign. For the March 25 New York Primary, for example, Rafshoon has made spots using film clips from Aug. 8, 1978. Larry Lewman's voice begins the commercial:
"On Aug. 8, 1978, just before beginning his Camp David summit meeting. President Carter came to the steps of City Hall to sign the New York City Loan Guarantee Act because he had a personal message to deliver to the people of New York."
Then the film clips: Carter speaking up for aid to New York, then Gov. Hugh Carey and Mayor Ed Koeh praising him to the skies. The commercial ends with Lewman's voice again:
"President Carter. He keeps his word."
One Rafshoon commercial in use since the New Hampshire primary last month does not show Carter at all. The only picture on this ad is of a ballot -- for New York, a copy of the New York ballot, showing the names of Jimmy Carter and Edward M. Kennedy. Lewman's voice delivers the message:
"A man brings two things to a presidential ballot. He brings his record, and he brings himself. Who he is frequently more important than what he's done. In the voting booth the voter must weigh both record and character before deciding. Often it's not easy. And this voter winds up asking -- 'Is this the person I really want in the White House for the next four years?'"
Like the commercials emphasizing Carter's most likable qualitities, the rationale for this ad comes from polling data -- specifically, from data showing that Kennedy's "character" is what the media men call "a negative" for him.
So far, Rafshoon acknowledged, Carter probably hasn't needed his ads, except perhaps as a way of showing his flag without having to leave the White House. It remains to be seen whether Rafshoon's commercials can help the president if and when the campaign gets close or his popularity sinks.
Rafshoon said the fall campaign seems very far off now, and he hasn't had a chanace to think much about it. But there is a slogan in place, already used in some of the ads, that the American public may learn to recognize in the months ahead. Rafshoon likes it. His new associates, Harry Muheim, wrote it. In the commercials, Larry Lewman says it:
"President Carter. He's a solid Man in a sensitive job."