May 29th, 2006

The Novelization of Rich Tarrant

by Philip Baruth

It’s Memorial Day, and I was in the office with work to do — but why not blog a little first, I told myself.

And somehow I found myself doing what I’d yet to do thus far in this campaign cycle: watching Rich Tarrant’s 10 campaign commercials back to back, as they were meant to be watched.

It was a surprisingly sobering experience.

Why? Well, VDB hasn’t been bashful about deriding the commercials in the past. We’ve argued consistently that the spots are too glossy, and biography-heavy. And we’ve argued that the palpable quality of the ads contrasts disastrously with the actual mechanics of the campaign.

From late January, in which we compared Tarrant to the Bumble from Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer (it’s a long story):

“Much money has been spent on planning these images, and the relationship between them. Much money.

“More than I make in a year, more than you make in a year, just on planning, drafting, story-boarding these long imagistic sequences. Leaves, lay-ups, long shots of a tall gentle man surrounded by children.

“It’s against this backdrop that Rich Tarrant seems so breath-takingly clumsy thus far.”

You get the picture: Tarrant is destined to lose, we’ve argued, not in spite of the commercials, but in a sense because of the commercials — because they inadvertently advertise his wealth, and the image-only quality of his campaign.

But watching the sequence in its entirety this morning, from 1-10, I had a much better sense of the strategy, and it gave me serious pause.

Why? Because I’m a novelist, and the commercial sequence is not an ad campaign in the conventional sense. It’s a novel, told in serial form.

Before film, novels were the technology best suited for placing readers in the point of view of another human being, and they used long, attenuated narrative lines to mimic the slow passage of time. In other words, you lived another person’s life in something that felt oddly like real time.

Tarrant’s campaign uses film to accentuate that effect, to make it happen in the span of sequenced minutes, albeit minutes repeated endlessly over the space of months.

All of Tarrant’s commercials begin with a scrap of connective text in the upper left-hand corner, linking the viewer to the last “episode”; each ends with a teaser for the next episode. And all of the episodes are designed to strengthen and deepen the overall, cumulative experience.

And that’s where my shiver of doubt originates, with the cumulative effect. Like any novel, the sequence is designed to lay hold of the reader’s emotions early, and keep them moving through the unfolding events. But those events conspire to produce a stronger flash of empathy — and a flash of understanding, an epiphany — at some point not too far from the final page.

In other words, we might expect that flash of empathy from the viewers, the voters, any time now — assuming that Tarrant’s wizards have gauged and focus-grouped their targets accurately.

Which leads to a fairly unsettling conclusion: the next major poll will almost inevitably show a dramatic tightening of the race — or a tightening of the race the Tarrant camp will be able to credibly portray as dramatic.

If Bernie is up now by 35%, we might reasonably expect that lead to dwindle to anywhere from 15 to 20%. And of course, this new campaign dynamic, and the stories it generates, feed back into and reinforce the long storyline put forward in the commercials.

Again, this entire line of thinking is driven by a faith I can’t help but have in the process of novelization itself. Maybe that faith is misplaced; I’ve been writing the things for 20 years, after all, and it hasn’t put me in the Senate, or on Easy Street.

But watch the sequence back to back, if you have a few minutes this week. It will remind you that Bernie is not a lock; there’s no such thing in the race for a United States Senate seat. Much work still remains to be done.

And the nail-biting won’t stop before Election Day: if I were writing the Tarrant novel, I’d have a special, climactic installment prepared for that last crucial week. Something to bring all the previous narrative elements into play, elements hundreds of thousands of Vermonters are now carrying around in their subconscious minds, each elegantly crafted, each painstakingly sequenced.

And each rounded off with the bittersweet strains of a fiddle, playing somewhere away inside the red barn that always hovers just to one side of Tarrant’s tanned, smiling face.

20 Responses to ' The Novelization of Rich Tarrant '

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  1. on June 7th, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    […] But yesterday an alert reader forwarded something strange and untoward: the Tarrant campaign’s June 5 glossy email-roundup (“Greetings from the Campaign Trail!”), featuring among other coverage VDB’s May 29th post, “The Novelization of Rich Tarrant.” […]

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