Courtesy of Tigerhawk; I was alerted to what my blogging cousin calls a "Wagnerian" campaign ad on behalf of a Tea Party candidate in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district. As a piece of political theater - strong on symbols, short on substance - it is an intriguing approach to candidate marketing. Given the paucity of decent films based in the Revolutionary period, it may be too much to hope for the sort of Memorial Day blockbuster the ad is designed to evoke, but it does offer the opportunity to deconstruct the history on parade.
Whoa, Nelly! Let's go right to the storyboard.
"1775" - (fade to Revere's engraving of the (1770) Boston Massacre) "Americans pushed to the brink"
(fade to image of British grenadiers and condescending or possibly conciliatory officer standing between them and a ragged working class mob armed with cudgels) "Tired of not being heard" I do not know the provenance of this image, which looks like a late 19th century magazine illustration.
"Drained by taxes from Britain" (fade to image of a Revolutionary era protest demonstration complete with drum and bugle, effigies hanged and otherwise, various urchins, a pipe smoking female spectator and a sign in the background that reads "The Folly of England and the Ruin of America". The image is reminiscent of the style of a 19th century political cartoon, and in fact depicts a protest in New York against the Stamp Act of 1765 and comes from The Story of a Great Nation by John Gilmary Shea, published in 1886.
(fade to a close up of King George III in sumptuous ermine and the words "Angered by the Oppression"). This is Allan Ramsey's 1762 ceremonial portrait of the British monarch, and like all of these images it has been subtly enhanced for dramatic effect. Comparing the original to the version used in the campaign ad indicates that the lips have been altered to appear more parted.
(fade to a close up illustration of the Congressional committee members lead by Jefferson, Franklin and Adams who drafted the Declaration of Independence) "A small band of Americans" This looks like a 20th century illustration, presumably one in the public domain.
(fade to the Trumbull painting of the same committee presenting the Declaration before Congress in 1776) "Determined to Shrug off Tyranny"
(fade to a close up of the Preamble to the Constitution (1787) "To Provide a New Government"
These seven scenes occupy the first 14 seconds of this 1:41 minute campaign ad. Now it picks up the pace and the images come too quick to register other than subliminally. Let's break them down.
- a late 18th century or early 19th century depiction of the Boston Tea party complete with realistic "Mohawks" and well dressed spectators and the word "They"
- an image of Capt. Parker's Minutemen confronting the British Light Infantry on Lexington Common with the addition of the word "Rebelled". This is a modern image by Don Troiani and therefore cannot be reproduced without permission. It is called "Stand Your Ground" and was painted in 1985 and the original is owned by the National Guard Heritage Painting, Department of the Army, National Guard Bureau.) Hope the private property copywrite was respected.
- An image of what looks like a successful British bayonet and cavalry charge against a routed and martyred band of patriots. In fact, it depicts the death of General De Kalb at the Battle of Camden, one of the greatest patriot defeats in the southern campaigns or indeed in the entire war. It is an engraving based on the painting by Alonzo Chapell (1828-1887).
- John Singleton Copley's famous painting entitled "The Death of Major Peirson" (1784) depicting a British engagement against the invading French in the the Channel Island of Jersey, which did not involve any Americans and which prominently features a black soldier in the uniform of the Royal Ethiopians. This loyalist regiment was not present at this battle, which was won by the British against America's ally.
- A color painting of undetermined origin of a Continental army firing line wearing the red facings prescribed under Washington's regulations of 1779 for battalions from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. It features a green flag with the red and white stripes of the Sons of Liberty in its upper left canton. Possibly a rifle regiment, given the green, but they have bayonets, so who knows. They are certainly well accoutered and very clean limbed.
- Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, with close focus on Washington.
The phrase "They rebelled" is sustained for nearly all of the 4 seconds that it takes to flash through these six images.
(Zoom out from Edward P. Moran's 1911 painting of Washington at Valley Forge) "The turning point came at Valley Forge" This ought to play well in Pennsylvania, although folks at Saratoga might quibble.
(Another image of the Valley Forge encampment from a 19th century lithograph in the Granger Collection, NY, featuring an African American lighting a fire in the lee of a stump while Washington and Lafayette survey the scene.) "Bloodied and freezing"
(Washington and Steuben inspecting the troops at Valley Forge, in a rather poor color engraving after noted Pennsylvania illustrator Howard Pyle's 1896 black and white version for Harper's, and incidentally also housed in the Granger collection) "They increased their training."
(A bas relief Valley Forge National Historic Park plaque entitled General van Steuben drilling Washington's Army at Valley Forge) "and hardened their resolve". Are you catching the virility in these verbs? "Increased, hardened?" Coincidence? I think not.
(Trumbull's (1797) Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown) "Bringing them victory"
All this, in 30 seconds. The scene now shifts to an apocalyptic present, to a frowning troika of Obama, Reid and Pelosi: "Now we face new tyranny". Then there is an image of the Statue of Liberty suffering from an extreme case of sea level rise (does the candidate believe in global climate change?) but with the confusing title "We see overtaxing cap & trade". Another closeup of Pelosi and Reid follows with the tag line; "Overlegislating heathcare" (though those starving, ill-clad patriots dying of disease at Valley Forge might have benefited from a little socialized medicine). Then we learn from a black and yellow sign on an arid landscape that an "overreaching" congress created (this) dust bowl (through the Farm Bill, perhaps?)
It is 8 seconds of hyperbole in the best bait and switch tradition of political advertising, but is it good history? Is President Obama an unelected imperial despot akin to "German George", abetted by a parliament that was not elected by the people it governs? Is cap & trade another Intolerable Act that will do to private enterprise what the vindictive Crown did to the port of Boston? Is the Statue of Liberty really destined to slip beneath the stormy seas? Is the answer really blowing in the wind of that alleged dust bowl?
No time to linger on these thoughts; there is another full minute left to run! Here comes handsome Scott Brown riding out of Massachusetts like Lady Godiva Paul Revere (in his old pick up truck, one assumes), and now it is time for the dominoes to fall revolution to come to Pennsylvania. Here are the modern heirs to the tax resisters who founded this nation raising their fists before the nation's Capitol: "We will tell Washington We are in Control." Mind you, there were a number of mutinies by the Continental Line where they tried to say that to the actual Washington but those didn't turn out so well; see also Daniel Shays revolt and the Whiskey Rebellion for other early examples of the suppression of counterrevolutionary activity in America.
At this point the ad verges toward parody of the blockbuster trailers that were its thematic inspiration, percussively launching one word at a time at the viewer as the unintelligible generic choral music swells. I did catch the word "Liberty", which is less in vogue today than in the Founders' day, having been replaced by "Freedom" in Reagan's. It will be interesting if we see an increase in the use of of "Liberty", which is not precisely synonymous with "Freedom", in the future.
1:22 seconds into the spot, we reach climax - a short but sadly realistic time frame for such activity - and we finally learn the identity of the candidate we are in bed with. The self-styled "Pennsylvania Patriot", reminds us, almost as a post coital aside, that "Freedom is the only gift we must earn", so perhaps he is having it both ways after all, etymologically speaking.
Was it over the top? Does all that virile, throbbing sound and fury really signify nothing? Frankly, I thought it was somewhat understated and restrained. I mean, where is God in all of this? Why no image of Washington praying at Valley Forge (whether the deist CinC really did so or not)? Why no Molly Pitcher or Betsy Ross, both (allegedly) Pennsylvania heroines? Aren't there women in the modern Tea Party movement? You think all they think about after Scott Brown is "Where's the beefcake?' Why not pull out all the stops? When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.