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Story pick: Demon sheep and floating heads

By Brigid Schulte

, was fully prepared to write off the story in Wednesday's Style section about Fred Davis as yet another bloviating, inside-baseball piece about preening and boring political campaign consultants. But very quickly, Philip Rucker, who spent three days with Davis - who cut his teeth in corporate image-making and consumer marketing - painted a scene at once so ordinary in the world of political campaigns and so chilling, it hooked me.

Davis is orchestrating a simple shot. [Carly] Fiorina, alone, speaks to the camera against a dark, moodily lit backdrop, her hazel eyes twinkling as commanded. A tech turns on the fog machine. In the blue light, the effect is ethereal. Fiorina, the tough, smack-talking former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, is transformed into a delicate angel.

Image. The story is a reminder about how, in politics, it's often all about image.

Davis' company is called Strategic Perceptions. He's the one who shoots glossy, high-end and out there campaign ads, casting Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell as a demon sheep and depicting California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer as so egotistic that her bloated head bursts through the Capitol Dome and floats westward like a self-important blimp. Barack Obama-as-Paris Hilton celebrity. Convicts in tutus. Oxen in lipstick. Godzilla Rat Kings. (Rucker's piece on the web includes a video with some of these choice political creations.)

The images are not only bizarre and arresting - going viral on the web - they're effective much of the time. His candidates tend to win. Truth and divisiveness be damned. Davis worked for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, but McCain reeled Davis in. Imagine if he hadn't:

On the campaign, Davis wanted to use footage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in attack ads against Obama, but McCain overruled him. "He would not allow anything that would be vaguely perceived as racist," Davis says. "That's because he's a decent guy -- and because he was so decent, we couldn't use all the tools, and that's a reason we didn't win."

I kept thinking of the Wizard of Oz, smoke and mirrors and the man behind the curtain. Not to give away too much, but the ending I found particularly haunting. Davis, Rucker and Davis' friend, conservative actor Robert Davi, are ensconsed in cushy armchairs in the exclusive Grand Havana Room, an exclusive members-only club off exclsuive Rodeo Drive.

Davi, smoking a Cuban torpedo, turns to his friend and dubs him "the Wizard of Oz of political campaigns."

"Here you have the Yellow Brick Road," Davi says. "You're creating an illusion. You're creating a world in Dorothy's head. The iconic use of the straw man and the lion. In the political arena, you're creating an illusion."

Ah. Illusion and politics. I'd like to read more about the folks on the receiving end of Davis' strategic perceptions. Just to see what the other side has to say about the powerful emerald-tinted glasses Davis has been able to create and we voters so willingly wear.

By Brigid Schulte  | September 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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