Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mystery men

They said it would get ugly, and they were right.

At first, it looked as though there was more bluster than action. We hadn’t seen so much hype and talk about an imminent assault since, well, since all the chatter about “shock and awe” right before the attack on Baghdad one year ago. This year, the chatter in major media reports and “expert analysis” was all about the Republican attack machine and how John Kerry was about to experience a torrent of negative advertising. I heard all the chatter, but I never suspected just how ugly things could get.

At first, the actual Bush campaign ads seemed anemic compared to their ominous advance press. Kerry is wrong on defense. Kerry is wrong on spending. Yadda, yadda. Ho hum. But then, where I least expected it, on the internet, the real assault began. I am, of course, referring to the Bush campaign ad on the RNC web site. It hasn’t played on television yet and never will, although the media picked it up and reported on it last week, showing excerpts to viewers of the evening news on the major networks. To see it in full, you have to go onto the internet. It is not a grim, serious warning about what will happen to America if a Democrat gets a hold of the White House again. Instead, it is a humorous parody that would not have been out of place on Saturday Night Live in its heyday. The spot is a spoof of the Austin Powers movies, in which Kerry (rather than Mike Myers) is cast as the “international man of mystery,” with all the psychedelic 1960s trappings. The aim is clearly to identify Kerry with the Swinging Sixties and the “counterculture” of the time, reminding people of his participation in the anti-war movement, but also to have a bit of fun over Kerry’s incredible assertion that certain unnamed foreign leaders had told him that they desperately wanted him to replace Bush as U.S. president.

Now, I can’t imagine what possessed Kerry to mention in public that foreign leaders would like to see him beat Bush in November. This was a totally silly thing to do, for at least three reasons: 1) it only invites more questions, which he cannot answer, 2) everybody already knows that every foreign leader in the world wants George W. Bush to lose, and 3) most problematically, there are quite a few Americans who have the quaint notion that maybe they should be choosing the president and that the opinions of foreigners (especially foreign politicians) are not particularly relevant. Now, there may actually be countries in the world where people are willing or even eager to elect a government that comes recommended by foreigners (Spain), but I don’t think the U.S. is one of them. Helpfully, soon after Kerry’s remarks, the new Socialist premier-elect of Spain endorsed Kerry, as did the autocratic, openly anti-Semite former president of Malaysia. As far as I know, North Korea’s Kim Il Jong has yet to weigh in. Still, the smart money isn’t on any of those to be the ones who personally gave their moral backing to Kerry. I think I know who it might be, but discretion and journalistic propriety prevent me from speculating on it publicly. (Okay, Jacques Chirac.) But if the French president did give his blessing to Kerry, it’s reassuring to know that Chirac isn’t always squeamish about regime change in foreign countries.

But I digress. Back to that internet ad. Now, maybe the ad was the product of some anonymous marketing firm, operating behind the scenes. And maybe the concept was cooked up in a brainstorming session in a corporate high-rise on Madison Avenue. But somehow I doubt it. As readers of this web site know (as well as readers of a book by Frank Bruni and of The Sunday Times of London, which printed excerpts), W. himself is a huge fan of the Austin Powers movies. Can this be a coincidence? I think not. Clearly, W.’s fingerprints are all over this. And it must have been very important to him to do this spot, when it risks creating more domestic problems for his closest foreign ally, Tony Blair, by riling up the British public when they are reminded of the Austin Powers movies. Watch for retaliatory attack ads from the Kerry campaign. I predict that the response will be swift and ruthless, perhaps a deliberate homage to immortal Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. It may take the form of a grim black-and-white ad with a George Bush look-alike playing a game of chess with Death. In a subtitled conversation, the two of them will be discussing how many innocent civilians they can manage to exterminate in the “bungled” war on terrorism. Or maybe there won’t even be subtitles. Maybe you will have to be fluent in Swedish to “get” the ad.

Okay, I’m having a bit of fun here at Kerry’s expense. But it is worth remembering that, in this year’s election, we have a real choice between two clear alternatives, and everyone should take the time to study the differences between the two. On one hand, you can vote for a rich white guy, who graduated from Yale in the 1960s and who supported the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. Or, on the other hand, you can vote for… oh darn, it’s happened again!

Anyway, it’s too soon for me to be making up my mind about which candidate I’ll be supporting in November, and I think I speak for all of us when I declare just how lucky we all are that we have more than seven more months to listen to and watch these two candidates and their campaign ads. Speaking for myself, I still don’t have enough information to make an intelligent and informed decision. To do that, of course, I will need to see a list of John Kerry’s favorite movies.

-S.L., 25 March 2004

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