GOP Consultant Takes Credit for Classic Ad That He Did Not Create UPDATED

"Tank War," featuring a grinning Mike Dukakis and subject of an Emmy-winning documentary, was the brainchild of Roger Ailes, not Sig Rogich

Publicity Shot of Michael Dukakis, Dukakis-Bentsen 1988

Publicity Shot of Michael Dukakis, Dukakis-Bentsen 1988

This story has been updated to include quotes from Mr. Rogich and the spot’s editor, Rob Henninger; a second update has been added to reflect comments from an interview with Sig Rogich.

A well-known Republican image-maker has been accepting credit for a classic ad that he did not create.

Do a Google Image search of Michael Dukakis and one of the first hits will be the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee emerging from a tank and manning a rifle. The Dukakis campaign created that footage in an effort to project strength, seeking to offset the impression of the Massachusetts governor as an eastern liberal weak on defense.

Instead, his opponent, Republican nominee George H.W. Bush used that footage to create one of the most devastating spots in presidential history. “Tank War” took the Dukakis footage and ran simple, narrated text over it. With his goofy smile and unease atop this land destroyer – the gov was wearing a shirt and tie along with his helmet – “Tank War” was a masterpiece of political jujitsu – taking an image one’s opponent had created and using it as a brutal attack.

That spot is the basis of a documentary called “Dukakis and the Tank: The Making of a Political Disaster.” Produced by Politico’s Matt Sobocinski and Denise Wills, it promises “The inside story of the worst campaign photo op ever.” In May, the short but gripping film (gripping for political ad junkies, anyway) won a regional Emmy award.

The film quotes Dukakis insiders who realized there’d be consequences the instant they saw the footage, with Matt Bennett from the candidate’s team saying, “Our reservations all were about awkwardness. … One cardinal rule of advance is never, ever put your candidate in any kind of hat, or headgear.” Mr. Bennett, who went on to work for President Clinton and co-found the centrist think tank Third Way, tells the filmmakers, “I remember Sam Donaldson laughing … I knew we were in trouble.”

According to the documentary, someone else knew it’d be trouble for Mr. Dukakis. Veteran GOP ad maker Sig Rogich, director of advertising for Bush-Quayle 1988, is credited with having seen the footage on the news and leaping into action to make the ad. “I knew it was a mistake on their part the minute I saw it,” Mr. Rogich says in the film, in an audio interview that plays over a still of Mr. Rogich walking alongside Mr. Bush.

In a story last week about the documentary and its Emmy win, Mr. Rogich told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I saw him in a helmet and I thought it was the worst depiction of a presidential candidate I could imagine … He didn’t look the part. … I saw him and I thought, ‘What a great commercial.’” Later the article says “Rogich eventually produced a devastating spot.”

There’s just one problem.

Sig Rogich didn’t create that ad. He wasn’t anywhere near it.

Roger Ailes conceived and wrote it. The late Greg Stevens, who “lost a valiant battle against brain cancer” seven years ago, produced it. Rob Henninger was the video editor. Rick Reed was in the edit room.

In the documentary itself, Mr. Rogich is the only person from the Bush side who is interviewed. He doesn’t quite assert that he made the spot – his quotes about “I knew it was a mistake” are generic enough. But in the interview with the Review Journal last week, he accepted full creative credit, with the story calling him “the ad’s creator” and “He’s the person who crafted the delightfully simple spot” and even “He set to work immediately” on producing it.

That’s just not what happened, according to all who were close to the events.

According to an email written by Rick Reed and obtained by the Observer:

“I was Greg Stevens’ business partner from 1993 until his death in 2007. For years before we had been good friends. In 1988 Greg worked for Roger Ailes (The Media Team), and now, of course, President of Fox News.

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. The night Greg was working on the spot — with Ailes often on the phone from NY — I was to meet Greg for dinner. He told me he had to cancel as he was working on this spot with Rob Henninger as the editor.

So I came by Henninger and went into the edit suite to say hello, and watched them produce it.

There was no audio and only about 11 or 13 seconds of video…so Greg had to slow down footage, reverse it, use zooms, etc. to stretch it into a :30. The sounds of the tanks tracks were done in audio mix (sound effects) that Greg supervised.

Sig Rogich had nothing whatsoever to do with this spot.”

This version of events was confirmed by Ailes biographer Jon Kraushar, who told the Observer in an interview, “I worked for 13 years with Roger and during that time I was aware of every political spot he made. Roger saw the Dukakis news footage on the evening news and wrote the copy for the spot at 3 o’clock in the morning. He called Greg Stevens up and gave him not only the script but very specific editing instructions.”

Mr. Ailes himself also confirmed Mr. Reed’s version of events. His spokeswoman Irena Briganti told the Observer, “Roger wrote and created the ad in its entirety — it’s a bit offensive for anyone in the business during that era to claim otherwise.”

It is not known why Sig Rogich has taken credit for an ad that he did not create. (At the time of publication, Mr. Rogich had not responded to the Observer’s email or phone messages; he since has done so, as seen in the UPDATES below.) A longtime Nevada operative, Mr. Rogich rose through the GOP ranks as an adviser to former Sen. Paul Laxalt, which got him on President Reagan’s re-elect team in 1984. He was a key “pioneer” fundraiser for George W. Bush in 2000, and a major supporter of John McCain in 2008.

Republican consultant Sig Rogich (Wikipedia Commons)

Republican consultant Sig Rogich (Wikipedia Commons)

Mr. Rogich shocked the party by endorsing Democrat Harry Reid, a longtime friend, in 2010, when many thought the GOP wave could dethrone the Majority leader. He has allowed the Tank legend to persist for years; when the Reid endorsement made news, Mr. Rogich’s bio often included that as a highlight, such as on “My Direct Democracy” which credits him with “coming up with ads like the one featuring Michael Dukakis in a tank.”

According to Mr. Kraushar, “We’ve known for years that Sig has been claiming credit for this. Remember, coming out of the Dem Nat Conv Bush was down something like 17 points. And here’s Dukakis in a tank looking like Alfred E. Neuman. So this spot that Roger seized upon was yet another legendary Ailes turnaround. From conception to script to editing instructions, it was pure Roger Ailes.”

Rick Reed told the Observer that he was motivated to set the record straight by his connection to the departed Mr. Stevens. “The fact that someone else would claim credit for producing the ad is disturbing. I don’t know Mr. Rogich personally. [But] I was Greg’s business partner for 14 years and friends with him years before I joined the firm. He’s been gone 7 years. If I had produced the spot and he were alive and I was gone, I know damn well he would set the record straight.”

UPDATE 1: The Observer reached out to Mr. Rogich for comment at 10:27 am on Sunday morning but had not heard back from him by the time of publication at 3:30 pm Monday. After publication, the Observer received an email from Mr. Rogich asking for a return call and stating “What was said here is simply not true.” Meanwhile, Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post received an email from Mr. Rogich disputing the version that Mr. Reed, Mr. Kraushar, and Mr. Ailes all told the Observer. Mr. Rogich’s email says, in part,

“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.”

Subsequently, the Observer also spoke to Rob Henninger, who according to Mr. Reed’s version, was the editor of the spot. Mr. Henninger confirmed the Ailes-Reed-Kraushar version, saying, “It was Greg, Greg Stevens and myself. Greg was on the phone, it was a late-night effort. It was a full night’s work. The Politico piece filled in gaps for me – I had never heard the Democratic side of this story. I remember very, very clearly working on that with Greg, it was him and me, with Roger on the phone in New York.”

It is also worth noting that Ad Age magazine, in a 2012 piece on the 10 best political spots of all time, written by former GOP pollster Pete Snyder, also lists Roger Ailes as the creator of the Tank spot.

If the Observer hears back from Mr. Rogich, this story will be updated again to reflect his further remarks. But as Mr. Cillizza concludes, this spat proves that “success really does have 1,000 fathers.”

UPDATE 2: After the Chris Cillizza story appeared, an unnamed consultant emailed him with an update that both attacked Roger Ailes personally and also offered a “hybrid” theory of the spot’s creation:

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.

That doesn’t jibe with the recollection of the four people contacted on the “Ailes-Stevens” side — all of whom agree that the spot was Mr. Ailes’ idea and that Mr. Rogich was nowhere near it and certainly didn’t have a “watchful eye” on it.

Then the Observer received a call from Sig Rogich and Jim Weller, a well-regarded ad man who was the “creative director” on the campaign. (The “hold music” at The Rogich Communications Group is “Take Love Easy” by Ella Fitzgerald, which is nice.)

Mr. Rogich: “The creative process started with me. I brought it to Jim Weller; he worked on the script and re-wrote it and he’s the one who produced the commercial…”

Mr. Weller: “…Parts of it. Sig and I worked in the same office. We later did the Lee Greenwood ‘Proud to be an American’ spot. Sig came in and said I have a great idea. He brought in the copy and nothing happened for a week — we couldn’t get the footage.”

Mr. Rogich: “The networks were not helpful in giving it to us.”

Mr. Weller: “At any rate, I didn’t know about Roger writing any part of this spot. I went over to produce the spot and Roger sent me over with someone from New York and he brought with him a voiceover that someone had produced — perhaps Roger, not me — and he brought these cue cards for supers. I personally never did commercials with supers. But Roger liked supers. We went to the studio with the produced voiceover and at that point I started doing the editing of the commercial. The line that Sig wrote was ‘And now he wants to be our commander in chief…'”

Mr. Rogich: “… And then it closes with ‘America can’t afford to take that risk.’ That’s copy that I wrote.”

You get the point. These are two completely incompatible versions of the story. They cannot both be true.

The Observer is not in a position to adjudicate which of these origin stories is correct. The large number of individuals who confirm the Ailes-Stevens version, as well as the specificity of the details in their versions, gives the “ring of truth” to that story, but Mr. Rogich and Mr. Weller seem equally persuaded that their version is true. There’s been murmurs of physical evidence that would settle this mystery, but by this point, both sides will presumably go to their graves believing their own side deserves the credit for what all agree was one of the great spots in political advertising history.