The Washington Post

Who really made the Michael Dukakis ‘tank’ ad? It’s really complicated.

This post has been updated.

One of the most famous ads in political history is back at the center of a controversy -- more than 25 years after it first hit the airwaves.

Known as "the tank ad," the commercial, which was run by Vice President George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign, featured then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank -- with a helmet on. It needs to be seen to be believed.

The ad has become the stuff of legend in campaign circles, effectively portraying Dukakis as feckless on national defense thanks to that lasting image of the governor looking just plain goofy in a helmet. (Never put a candidate in a hat!) So famous is the ad that Politico did an entire short film documentary about it.

And that's where the new controversy begins. In that documentary, which won a regional Emmy award last week, Nevada GOP consultant Sig Rogich, who was the director of advertising for Bush's campaign, claims credit for spotting the Dukakis-in-tank footage and turning it into an ad. (The New York Observer's Ken Kurson first wrote about this Monday.) "I remember seeing it and thought how foolish he looked and what a great TV commercial that would be," Rogich recounts in the doc.

That's not true, according to Rick Reed, a fellow Republican media consultant. The ad was made not by Rogich but by Roger Ailes, who is now the president of Fox News Channel, and the late Greg Stevens, who died of brain cancer in 2007. Here's an e-mail Reed sent about the ad that the Observer got its hands on: "Roger wrote the Tank spot at 3 a.m. He read it to Stevens over the phone. Stevens produced the spot the next day in the edit suite at Henninger Media, where my office has been since Greg died."

"I don't understand why Rogich would try to take credit," said Reed in an e-mail to me Monday night. "It isn't the first time, but I hope it's the last."

I reached out to Rogich to get his side of the story. And, not surprisingly, it differed greatly from Reed's recounting. Here's Rogich's e-mail to me:

This ad was initially written by me and brought to Jim Weller who edited copy in my office and together we secured an 11-second snippet of film.  Roger Ailes  did not write that commercial although he called me several years ago and said that he deserves credit in part because it was edited in his studio in New York.  But Mr. Reed is simply wrong and was not part of the creation  of this ad nor the final copy and the editing that took place including the gear grinding that was added when we failed to get music we had wanted.  The late Mr. Stevens, who worked for Mr. Ailes, was in that studio because that's where he worked on political spots for campaigns he was involved with but he had virtually nothing to do with the spot.

So, there we are.  Reed says Ailes and Stevens made the ad. Rogich says he and Weller made the ad.  It's a he said-he said situation with no real way to resolve who, actually, is responsible for making one of the most famous ads in political history.

What does the fight prove? Two things: 1) The world of political consultants most closely resembles an overly dramatic soap opera and 2) success really does have many fathers.

Update, 12:10 pm.  

Another media consultant who worked for Ailes and Rogich in Bush's 1988 campaign wrote me with further explanation of who's right in this fight.  The source emailed:

Rogich saw the bit on the news and found the footage and wrote the spot with Weller. Everything had to go to Ailes who was the boss. Ailes, of course, tweaked the copy and made it his.  No one knows how much but Roger always had to lift his leg and be the last to pee on the fire hydrant.  Stevens edited the spot and made it his visually, under producer Rogich's watchful eye.  So who gets the credit?  Everybody. But there would have been no spot if Rogich had not thought of it and found the footage.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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