PR and Punching Pixels for President

At the current pace, it seems likely that the millennial presidential race will continue its rollicking progress, although the battle has shifted from the polling booth to the sound booth and into the dual courts of law and public opinion. Far from an indictment of the democratic process, the bumbling events that began to unfold the Tuesday after Election Day seem to prove how resilient capitalism can be in the face of ineptitude, calamity, confusion, and arrogance.

For it is capitalism that will prevail, regardless of how the count works out in Florida. The old market saw “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” has been modified somewhat, but the underlying truth prevails. The business of America, often enough, is business, and even the dark forces of nationalism and religious hatred are no match for the American dollar and the cell phones, computers, DVDs, and related electronic gadgetry it can buy.

While there is ample evidence from China to the Middle East and the Balkans to support this thesis, we prefer to think of ourselves as spiritual, idealistic folk. We coat our purely materialistic drives in the kind of Seussian pap that makes it palatable for our kids and some mythic conception of future generations.

This is the key to the PR positioning that has been underway during the past two weeks as rival political camps battle for the hearts and minds of the public. Vice President Gore can make a 6:30 p.m. prime-time statement offering the olive branch of statesmanship following a judicial judgment that favors his position. Governor Bush can counter with a 10:30 p.m. rebuff. Both candidates, taking opposite positions, have spoken in the name of fairness and equity to the American people. Even after all the votes have been cast, this election continues to be a battle of brands, a PR struggle, in the words of the media.

Why PR has been elevated to this level after being much maligned by the same media for hyping products and companies has to do with the object of the exercise. This time, it’s about creating public opinion.

It is no small matter since, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, without public support, it will appear the election has been stolen, one way or another. For example, a full-page ad in Friday’s USA Today, in reverse type, proclaimed “Nothing Is Worse Than a Sore Loser.” Aside from the fact that I can think of many things worse than a sore loser, it surprised me that the source of the ad was not identified by anything other than a small slug line that said “advertisement.”

As an indication of how weird things have become, I first thought the ad was taken by the Gore campaign, since the vice president had 262 electoral votes nailed down and 200,000 more popular votes than his opponent. Then it occurred to me that this rhetoric was more typical of the Bush campaign, which has been trying to claim victory ever since Gore more or less conceded Florida on election night, with its spokespeople determined to ride a quick and flawed count all the way to the White House.

While some lessons of political PR may not be universally applicable to the more sober practice of corporate public relations, one lesson most certainly is. What’s going on in Florida might be a bit of the usual machine politics, but the specter rising above it all is the bony analog hand of the past — rising from the earth in a cold grasp of ancient reality. Punch cards and creaky, dull-edged voting machines implement an electoral system that was devised in haste back in the 18th century. Together, these anomalies have created a situation in which a single, highly partisan voice in perhaps the most nontypical state in the American Union can determine the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth.

When they look back on these days, students of American history will see not only a deadlocked election but the total breakdown of an analog, antique technology that isn’t worth jack… dimpled, hanging, or otherwise.

But does it matter after all? And is it such a bad thing that we have no clear successor for president at the moment and a likely weakened presidency? Considering the efficiencies of corporate America, what need is there for more scandalous behavior in the Oval Office? Like the reputation of that manufacturer whose tires blew out under the pressure of an overloaded vehicle, the American brand of democracy may be tarnished temporarily, but there’s a good and healthy outcome.

There was once a congregant at a downtown temple who was famous for his contempt for rabbis and the whole institution of the rabbinate. When the temple’s rabbi didn’t show up for the morning service, this congregant was asked to say the blessing over the traditional repast that follows the service. “Gladly,” he said. “Seeing there is no rabbi present, let us give thanks.”

Amen to that.

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