Behind the Lines: Smile, spinners, you're on screen

A film documenting the elections gives an entertaining look at the campaigns' soft underbelly.

peretz campaigning 298.8 (photo credit: Associated Press)
peretz campaigning 298.8
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Tuesday was a fun day in the Knesset. Groups of politicians, journalists and spin-doctors sat around in the cafeteria comparing impressions of the previous night's documentary, All the Campaign's Men, on Channel 10. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a family reunion after the screening of a home video of the previous summer vacation. Despite the incessant complaining during the elections that it was a boring and aggravating campaign, everyone seemed to have enjoyed the 75-minute documentary that gave a close-up of the inner machinations of the main parties' election teams. Well, almost everyone. Those who had been "caught" by documentary film-maker Anat Goren's camera weren't so pleased - for example Likud MKs Yuval Steinitz and Yisrael Katz. One particularly embarrassing moment in the program - one that won't inject much goodwill into the already fractional faction - was a scene from the Likud headquarters on election night capturing Steinitz saying to campaign manager Gil Samsonov that "if we've got only 12 MKs, it's better that we go down to 11." Katz was number 12 on the list, and ended up being the last Likud candidate to scrape through. PR man-turned-lobbyist Ronny Rimon, who had led Labor's effort, walked around beaming. Unlike his colleagues in Kadima and the Likud, he hadn't allowed Goren access to his inner strategy meetings - a tactic that now seemed to have paid off. It's a pity he didn't pass it on to his client Amir Peretz. Ironically, it was Reuven Adler - one of the most successful advertising executives in the country, a close friend of Ariel Sharon and creator of the Kadima brand - who said on screen, "Nobody's ever regretted an interview he didn't give." Perhaps he should have taken his own advice, instead of baring himself and his work to the camera. Indeed, he was the main protagonist of the film. And his over-confidence, evident from the early stages when he was shown saying that "the Pensioners Party is going to give a free car to each of its voters, there are so few of them" proved to be his undoing. Two months after the elections, the well-edited and highly entertaining documentary afforded a useful perspective on what was one of the weirdest elections in memory. There are no great scoops or new insights in the film. But it serves as the most effective illustration of the way professional spin-doctors try and take over what should be an ideological debate over the future of the country. The main themes were widely reported during the campaign: how Adler and his partners in spin - Eyal Arad and Lior Horev, who had won two landslides for Sharon - tried to do the same thing for Ehud Olmert, but were frustrated by their new customer's headstrong independence; Gil Samsonov's near-heroic attempt to salvage Binyamin Netanyahu's disastrous public image as enemy of the poor; and Peretz's resistance to being managed by the professionals hired by Labor. IT'S A decades-old chestnut. Are the spin-doctors and press advisers to blame for obscuring the politicians' real message? Is substance the victim of presentation? Does the public vote for ideas and programs, or is a snappy slogan and some deft media manipulation all it takes to win the elections? All the Campaign's Men obviously supplies piles of ammunition to those who claim that western democracy has been hijacked by cynical PR people, with politicians and journalists acting as willing accomplices. In one of the most damning scenes, MK Gideon Sa'ar, head of the Likud's propaganda team, is seen briefing Ma'ariv commentator Ben Caspit on the phone. Cut to Caspit reciting the same message word-for-word on a morning radio show. Goren used the same trick with Netanyahu, splicing his calls from Samsonov with his speeches, creating a puppeteer impression. But the main criticism on the day after the screening was reserved for Adler and Arad. The advertising guru - whose name has become a term in pol-speak - "Adlerism" - was roundly attacked for cynically creating Kadima as an artificial and virtual ruling party. Arad's crime was the blatant hatred he showed for Netanyahu. In one of Kadima's strategic meetings, he was shown saying, "Bibi's blood is in the water and now it's time for the shark to attack; we've got to smash his mother." To illustrate his point, he pressed his neck, showing how he would "squeeze, squeeze, squeeze" Netanyhu's blood supply. It all made great television, but actually there's nothing new in it. Adler's predilection for swathing his candidate in colorful opaque wrappings is well-documented, as is Arad's unquenchable thirst for revenge on the Likud leader who cast him aside in 1996 after serving as one of the architects of his meteoric rise again to power. BUT THE real message of All the Campaign's Men is in its closing scenes, which show the limitations of the spin-doctors' power. The final verdict of the 2006 elections is that the professionals in the pay of all three large parties ultimately failed. Before a campaign manager can get down to business creating and exploiting a media image, he's got to be sure that he's got his client under control. The best-made plans of PR people can be totally torn asunder by a single sentence in a candidate's speech or interview. Just take, for example, the scream at the end of a victory speech that ruined Howard Dean's chances of capturing the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Amir Peretz proved totally unmanageable during the campaign, and a series of press-handlers and strategists, including an expert brought in specially from the US, proved powerless in bringing the firebrand from Sderot under control. In the first few weeks after replacing Sharon, Olmert was compliant with Adler's and Arad's demands that he continue his predecessor's low-key tactics, but reverted to his true form in a short time. The revealing of the "convergence" plan in a series of interviews two and a half weeks before the elections was against all their well-paid advice. Whether Olmert and Peretz would have achieved better than their below-expectation results had they remained on message is questionable. The only clear conclusion is that in their cases, the politicians' instincts triumphed over the professional instructions. It's no coincidence that the postscript to the documentary is the departure of Adler and Arad from the positions of political and financial influence they enjoyed throughout Sharon's reign. Netanyahu remained Samsonov's obedient customer throughout, but the Likud cause was a losing battle nonetheless. And no media campaign could have overcome the deadly public sentiment against Bibi. No one should be under the illusion that spin is exhausted as a political weapon. The doctors are here to stay. But if there's one positive lesson to be learned from these elections and the documentary that chronicled them, it's that hiring the best professional help on the market is never going to be enough to gain the public's confidence.