Bush’s Convention: Amazing TV Triumph, Infomercial for Ages

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, when President George W. Bush introduced his wife at the Republican National Convention via satellite from Gettysburg, Penn., you could see, over his left shoulder, a softball game going on.

But if you looked a little closer, you saw something odd: All the batters whacking pitches into the air had the number “43″ stenciled on their jerseys in bright white print.

“It wasn’t a regularly scheduled game,” said Russ Schriefer, the media consultant who produced the convention. “It was a way for us to go in and reward some supporters, a local Republican organization, with them being a backdrop for this remote.”

They were extras! But that was O.K., because the Republican convention was on TV. And that scene from the dusty campaign trail was just another meticulous production detail in the most meticulously produced campaign convention ever televised. And, perhaps, the most successful.

“I took the point of view: Instead of making it a convention, how would you do it if it were a television show? What would you do?” said Mr. Schriefer. “More and more people are watching conventions on cable television and C-SPAN-as we saw, Fox News did better than NBC. You want to program it like you program television. Instead of having six speakers right after the other, why not program it like 20/20 ? It was just a matter of time before the format of conventions would start to shift into the way it’s being launched.”

Mr. Schriefer said he and a team of White House big shots transformed Madison Square Garden into a giant TV studio, “stealing” elements from network TV newsmagazines, awards shows, David Letterman and Saturday Night Live . Mr. Bush’s intimate podium-in-the-round was designed by Joe Stewart, who has created set pieces for magician David Copperfield and Comedy Central’s The Man Show . The giant movie screen used for broadcasting video shorts and Reagan requiems was ripped directly from the Academy Awards. “We realized the big screen actually became a character in the whole thing,” said Mr. Schriefer.

The fake news standups done by jolly women-”RNC-J’s”-from the convention floor came from network news.

There was even a big, brassy Late Night band to pump up the crowd. “The style of band was something we really wanted, which was like a David Letterman –style band, as opposed to an orchestra,” he said. “It used to be, when the Senator from Oklahoma spoke, you’d play ‘Oklahoma!’ We put a ban on all that stuff.”

Mr. Schriefer said he originally wanted to put the band front and center, but he didn’t have room. “Next time I hope to put them right down on the floor, so they become much more part of the show,” he said.

Mr. Schriefer said he wanted the convention to be “hip and edgy,” a little Access Hollywood in your C-SPAN.

“We live in a time when there’s a real cross-pollination between politics and pop culture,” he said. “As Republicans, we’re often thought of as behind the curve in popular culture, and we don’t have to be, and we can certainly compete on that level just as well as the Democrats can.”

As with a TV show, he said, the Republican National Convention was broken down into bite-sized segments for easy consumption by short attention spans. No two speakers were allowed to follow one another without music or a video or an interview with a delegate in between. “That’s how people watch TV, in 15-minute, 20-minute chunks,” Mr. Schriefer said.

While Mr. Schriefer and the Bush campaign didn’t control what camera angles the networks used, they designed the stage like a TV set, to create focus.

“Whether it’s a news set or a sit-com set, you’re always struck by how small it is,” said Mr. Schriefer. “By having a smaller podium, it had more of a TV studio feel, as opposed to having a large podium, where the camera doesn’t know where to focus.”

Between the production values and Zell Miller, the mix of TV gloss and stump-speech populism made for supersized propaganda. But in a way, it was just part of a natural evolution in Republican political media. Thirty-six years ago, Richard Nixon’s media consultant, Roger Ailes, cast his nominee in a series of fake talk shows to sell him to voters. It worked, and Mr. Ailes went on to adjust the lighting for the first real-life President actor. Then he just cut out the middleman and created Fox News, which fused Republican news with entertainment. Ah-nold as Governator and keynote Terminator was just another development in the right’s political Matrix .

Mr. Schriefer’s partner, Stuart Stevens, assembled the seven-minute nominating film that introduced Mr. Bush on Thursday, Sept. 2. It was series of photographic stills depicting the President as a hero after the Sept. 11 attacks: his bullhorn moment at Ground Zero; running with a soldier who lost his leg; hugging a girl whose mother perished in the attacks; and his opening pitch at Yankee Stadium for the stirring post–Sept. 11 season opener-the only moving video image.

“You keep pitching, no matter what,” intoned actor and former Senator Fred Thompson, in a baritone to match Morgan Freeman’s-who narrated John Kerry’s Democratic nomination film. “You throw, and you become who you are.”

The script was by former Reagan and Bush speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.

After it aired, Mr. Bush appeared magically-speaking of David Copperfield!-onstage, passing through two sliding video screens with American flags on them, and walked down the runway to the circular dais, which effectively became his pitcher’s mound.

“Sort of like a performance piece or something,” said Mr. Stevens. “Like the Academy Awards.”

In effect, here was seven minutes of soft-focus muscularity meant to counter-program the seven minutes the President spent reading My Pet Goat after the Sept. 11 attacks in Fahrenheit 9/11 . And while the networks may have skipped the film, it was Fox News that won the ratings that night, and they aired it.

Originally, the nominating film was to be made by Hollywood screenwriter and director Lionel Chetwynd, who wrote the screenplay for the Bush-glorifying Showtime biopic D.C. 9/11: Time of Crisis , which starred Timothy Bottoms as Mr. Bush. “We were going in a certain direction, and we decided to go in different directions,” Mr. Schriefer said by way of explanation.

Instead, a new film was hastily assembled by Mr. Stevens and a New York production company called Dogmatic, located at 419 West 14th Street, starting the Sunday before Mr. Bush’s speech. It wasn’t completed until 6 p.m. on the day of the President’s acceptance speech. Mr. Stevens said they opted for a sequence of stills because it was difficult to create something emotionally compelling from the heavily scripted footage you get from the campaign trail.

“The Kerry people would tell you the same thing,” he said. “It’s very frustrating when you see this person you admire and like, and you feel like you can’t capture all of the sides of him. There’s such a formulated quality to press campaigns-a Kabuki play, tarmac to tarmac, event to event. It’s very hard; it’s frustrating.

“If you think about what images you have in your head from the Kennedy years, it’s really not video-except one awful piece of video,” he continued. “It’s stills. They deliberately modeled the West Wing intro after that; they’ve modeled it after these famous photos of Kennedy, standing by the window and stuff like that. They clearly studied this. These are the images you have of the Presidency. So in that sense, if you’re trying to elicit an emotion more than tell a linear narrative, stills can work-with great words.”

The movie also used “rotoscoping,” the technique used in the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture , that allows moving 3-D elements to be added to still photos. For instance, in the images from Yankee Stadium, they made the flash bulbs flash. They also used natural sound, “like a radio play,” said Mr. Stevens, “like an NPR story, so you’d hear these live sounds. You hear their breath and their footsteps. We wanted to get the other voices of the people in there-the firefighter. Those are obviously their real voices.”

According to Mr. Schriefer, chief political advisor Karl Rove didn’t micromanage the production, but he did vet the speeches, the videos and the scripts to the videos, as did White House press officials, including Bush confidante Karen Hughes, who was also reported to have written the Bush daughters’ Olsen-twins banter-the one glimpse at the limits of the TV-politics fusion.

“I thought they were charming and funny and really a breath of fresh air,” said Mr. Schriefer.

In addition to the speeches and songs, printed messages like “A Nation of Courage” and “A People of Compassion”-written in a font similar to the swooshy Fox News “Fair and Balanced” logo-were billboarded around the Garden, placed unavoidably within camera-shot.

“It was impossible for that message not to get out,” said Dorrance Smith, former ABC News producer, former Baghdad Green Zone media director, Bush buddy and the TV consultant to the Republican National Convention. “From the moment the cameras went on to when they went off, it was a meticulous effort to make it work for television.”

In Iraq, Mr. Smith had created another Bush administration TV invention: the so-called “C-SPAN Baghdad,” a broadcast link created to bypass the mainstream networks and feed “good news” stories from Iraq to local TV affiliates around the country. Some called it “propaganda”; Republicans called it news.

Tonight, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly shows the delightful spicy cheek that inspired churning mobs to surround the CNN platform in Madison Square Garden and begin to chant: “WATCH FOX NEWS! WATCH FOX NEWS!” [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 9

$ Tonight, you can experience firsthand what it’s like to spend a night watching TV with the Bush twins: the premiere of NBC’s Friends spinoff, Joey . [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Friday, Sept. 10

)# And you thought that finely honed Gideon Yago impersonation you spent five years practicing in the mirror would never pay off. Today, you can head down to New York University and apply to be a “digital correspondent” for Al Gore’s new younger-than-thou cable news channel, IndTV. “We think television can be better,” states a press release. “Much better.”

As Mr. Gore told NYTV last May, they’ve got “some unbelievably fantastic ideas.”

Most of them involved handheld digital-video cameras. Tonight, while you still can, check out Newsworld International, the channel Mr. Gore plans on gutting for bandwidth. [NWI, 103, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, Sept. 11

b Before Hannity and Colmes , there was Archie and Meathead. [TV Land, 85, 10:30 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 12

# If your appetite for Presidential strutting-in Texas, they call that walking-isn’t quite sated yet, this is your week.

On Sept. 7, Showtime released the DVD of its 2003 biopic film, D.C. 9/11: Time of Crisis , the commemorative action thriller featuring Timothy Bottoms as President Bush who slams his fist on the Oval Office desk and declares, “If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I’ll be at home waiting for the bastard!”

Wasn’t that in that convention film?

The film is shameless right-wing propaganda. And the director is the first to admit it. “On the one hand, it was certainly written as a love letter to George Bush,” said Brian Trenchard-Smith, the man behind Leprechaun 3 and Leprechaun 4: In Space .

“And this is how they would like to see themselves. I actually think that propaganda serves a useful purpose: It says a lot more about the propagandists than they realize.”

Yes, it does. For instance, the producers’ choice of this oddball English-Australian film director. Last year, Quentin Tarantino named Mr. Trenchard-Smith his favorite unsung director, telling Entertainment Weekly he was a “big fan.” Mr. Tarantino really dug Mr. Trenchard-Smith’s ultra-violent 1989 Vietnam film, The Siege of Firebase Gloria , and a “really terrific movie,” his 1986 Dead End Drive-In , about a dystopian future in which drive-in movie theaters are concentration camps for bad apples.

What was it about Mr. Trenchard-Smith’s films that Mr. Tarantino liked so much?

“Irony,” said Mr. Trenchard-Smith. “He likes my outrageous sense of excess. Sometimes I’m satirizing the genre I’m making. My films reflect a certain suspended adolescent state of mind.”

But Mr. Trenchard-Smith disavowed any G.O.P. loyalties on the part of his inner adolescent. The director said he hoped John Kerry would be elected. And he went out of his way to make President Bush into the swaggering, cartoonish cowboy requested by the film’s right-wing Hollywood screenwriter, Lionel Chetwynd.

The film does gloss over the parts of Sept. 11-such as the first seven minutes after the attacks, when Mr. Bush looked more like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2 than John Wayne. But Mr. Trenchard-Smith said that he feels no pangs of conscience.

“I don’t feel that I took 30 pieces of silver to make an evil propagandist document,” he said. “The reverse: I have great faith in the American public, that it will be vindicated in November to look between the lines and agree or disagree and say, ‘That’s absolutely not true’ or ‘That’s true.’”

Especially, he said, if they watch it on a double feature with Fahrenheit 9/11 .

Despite his reputation as an ironist, Mr. Trenchard-Smith said he didn’t want to overtly parody a sensitive subject like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But he argued that he got his jabs in. He pointed to his depiction of Attorney General John Ashcroft as arrogant and above the law. “I photographed the actor playing Ashcroft in one scene so his nose and chin stuck in the air, so we got a sense of where he stands,” he said. “Within the parameters, I did what I could to put a little more balance into the piece than was there in the script.”

Tonight, Mel Gibson goes to war in The Patriot . [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 13

& NYTV has learned that Howard Stern’s ABC talk show, which was tentatively slated for November, has been postponed until 2005. Mr. Stern was getting nowhere with his requests for a sit-down with John Kerry. The Green Bay Packers take on the Carolina Panthers tonight. [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, Sept. 14

D, T Tonight, you can re-create the feel of the Republican National Convention by watching AMC’s broadcast of The Terminator , followed by HBO’s Sept. 11 baseball documentary Nine Innings from Ground Zero . Or by screaming out the bedroom window, “WITH WHUUUT ? SPITBALLS?” [AMC, 54, 8 p.m.; HBO, 32, 10 p.m.]