Some things in this world are accidental, and some are deliberate, purposeful. And then there is television advertising, which exists in a realm of its own when it comes to the obsessive control and relentless tweaking of all tweakable factors.
And so, when we first got a look at Tarrant’s long-awaited scorched-earth TV ads, we were a bit puzzled. Because the spokesperson for the spot (one Marty Boyce of Randolph) wears one of the sourest, tightest-lipped expressions — on one of the dourest faces in general — that VDB has ever seen. In VDB’s entire life.
So unattractive and unforgiving is this face that we could only assume it was a casting mishap. Or maybe the Tarrant camp wanted Boyce herself for some reason, and the face was the price that had to be paid.
But then came George Cuusella, of Bellows Falls. VDB almost screamed, literally, when George materialized on the screen. So angry, so vindictive and unattractively pinched is Cuusella’s expression that Marty Boyce seems fey and soft-hearted by comparison.
George Cuusella’s is a face that will haunt the dreams of a whole new generation of Vermonters, for the rest of their natural-born lives.
And the ugly, sour, unforgiving hits just kept on coming: every spokesperson in every Tarrant ad looked like your high school gym coach after a three-day bender; the old woman who lives in the deserted house at the end of the block who chases kids away with a tarnished Civil War saber; or the evil old fart who monitors your apartment from his dank porch in the shade of a diseased elm down the street.
And that’s when it hit VDB: this is the look the Tarrant camp is after. These people look this way on purpose.
Why? Think of it this way. Removing an entrenched incumbent — or a functional incumbent, as in the case of longtime House Representative Bernie Sanders — requires a very particular sort of explosive charge. And anger is the semtex of political organizing.
So Rich Tarrant first attempted to foment and harness voter anger on the property tax issue. His approach was novel — quietly funding local campaigns in March, under the “Put a Roof on Taxes” banner — but unsuccessful.
And so now, a little earlier than they would have liked, the Tarrant folk have been forced to mix the fertilizer-bomb brand of anger: anger over sexual molestation and predation, and the marginally related issues concerning the flow of drugs into Vermont.
The angry, unforgiving faces in Tarrant’s campaign look that way on purpose, because they’re supposed to model the anger Tarrant seeks to exploit. I’m livid, the faces say, because Bernie has allowed the unspeakable.
And of course the tagline — “What’s happened to Bernie?” — goes a silent step further, implying that Bernie hasn’t merely allowed the unspeakable, but committed it himself.
Why would Bernie oppose the prosecution of drug dealers and sexual predators, all the while hindering the creation of the amber alert system? Clearly because several terms in Congress have left Sanders himself hopelessly hooked on the thrills of drug use and molestation, and an amber alert system will only block his frantic escape when it all comes out in the press after election day.
What Tarrant’s ads suggest, then, is that Bernie has become a diseased element, an element that must be cast out to preserve the community. And in this way, Tarrant’s ad-makers have reached back to a very old, very dark chapter in New England history, the days of the Puritan tribunals, when morality dictated law, and vice versa.
The angry images you see on your TV screens come together over time to represent a jury of your peers, a jury that has decided to cast out the heretic.
Unfortunately for Tarrant, his creative types reached a bit too far.
Rather than suggesting an upright group of regular folks who have had more than they can reasonably take, the Tarrant “Fact Check” sequence has stumbled into a full-fledged re-enactment of the Salem Witch Trials, complete with self-interested witnesses (Cuusella is a former GOP Chair), a nebulous and vaguely sexualized hysteria, and finally the interests of the rich and powerful driving the process from the shadows.
In two years, these Tarrant ads will seem shrill and strangely melodramatic. In twenty, they’ll be relics of a period in which the sexual predator and the terrorist did dual service in terrorizing an increasingly isolated and fenced-off American populace.
Here is the face of Judge Samuel Sewall, whose rulings sent many innocent women to their death, only after being hounded and tortured and nearly drowned in the search for evil that didn’t exist. Sewall would later be overcome with remorse, and publicly apologize for his role in the Witch Trials.
His face isn’t so very different from Cuusella’s, after you stare at them for a minute or two. The real difference? George Cuusella will never admit to the way he and a group of cynical ad-execs have attempted to gin up hysteria in the state of Vermont, in the year 2006.
And neither will Rich Tarrant. Never in a million years.
Which leaves VDB only one option: cast Rich Tarrant into Lake Champlain, maybe off Appletree Point, where the surf gets a little choppy.
If the waters reject him, then is he guilty.
However, if the waters accept him, and he drown, then is he innocent, and free from evil entire.