Stuart Stevens Discusses the Brand of George W. Bush
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NEWSHOUR: Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing. What’s your mission?
STUART STEVENS: People who know the governor have always said that if they could just spend 20 minutes with him and see a side of him we don’t get to see in a public setting, then they’d like him. And that’s true because he’s very compelling, charming, funny, a deprecating person. And so it was the goal of the film to try to capture more of that.
Get a sense of him as a person and his values.
NEWSHOUR: Can a film like this fail?
STUART STEVENS: Who knows? Yeah, sure. I think the films can fail.
NEWSHOUR: How do you measure success then?
STUART STEVENS: I really don’t know. I mean, you can’t test by market share. No one is going to leave the hall. The doors are locked. I think if people come away from it with a sense that they didn’t have of the governor that that would be a success, and a sense of some of the qualities he has as a person that makes him special, then it would be a success.
NEWSHOUR: You talked about being in Austin and various places shooting with him. It sounds like you genuinely think he’s a pretty easy candidate to package?
STUART STEVENS: Well, yeah, he resists the notion of being packaged egregiously. There’s no risk that [Gore advisor] Naomi Wolf would be working on his campaign. This is somebody who I think has a strong sense of who he is and resists any efforts to try to manufacture a moment.
And these are just interviews with him in settings that he’s in. It’s a very strong trait of his campaign in general. There’s hardly any polling in his campaign, very minimal. His convention speech is really from his heart, not focus groups, not polls. He is someone I think who has seen the downside of that approach and made sure it doesn’t happen in his campaign.
NEWSHOUR: Is it fair to say that you feel this film is unconventional then in some ways?
STUART STEVENS: I think that it brings you a little bit closer to a candidate than most of these films do to a person. You’re really there with him. You get to see a side of him. I think it’s more intimate than most of these films. “The Man from Hope,” [a 1992 bio film on President Clinton] which I think is a terrific film, was more of that. What’s interesting about that film is that it was–it didn’t mention anything he wanted to do as president, it didn’t mention anything [he did] as governor. They had one mission, which was to kind of rehabilitate his character.
NEWSHOUR: Tell me more about the aim here.
STUART STEVENS: Well, I think, first, a lot of people don’t realize that he’s from Midland, Texas. They think, because he’s the son of a president, they assumed he grew up in the White House. Midland, Texas, is a world that is, as he talks about, really had no stratas, that it was a sense of just everybody there sort of pursuing a certain dream.
And we want to give people a sense of how his policy is a function of his character and his heart. I think that that really is what is one of the main things that is distinctive about him; that he is, in policy, trying to follow what he thinks is the right thing to do here. And that comes in a sense of values, and those values come from Midland, they come from his family, they come from his experience.
More than anyone else that I’ve ever been associated with, and I think more than any other candidate that I’ve ever seen, the governor is someone who seeks to execute in policy the sense of values that he has, a personal sense of values. We want to give people a sense of where those values come from, so that it becomes more understandable, more emotional, more real, a sense of responsibility. He’s talked a lot about issuing in an era of responsibility, and people may have heard him talk about that. But here in the film you’ll get to see him talking about the origins of that really, how he began to feel that for his own personal odyssey for the first time.
And I think that that really is one of the striking differences between these two men running for president, and I think that that’s something that we want to talk about, we want to contrast that.
NEWSHOUR: You said or somebody said, maybe it wasn’t you, that there might be some “surprises” in this film. Are there really surprises and what are they?
STUART STEVENS: Well, that depends on what you’re expecting. I don’t know. I think it will be surprising to see, to some, to see him in such an informal setting. You know, campaigns being what they are, you tend to see candidates in certain set pieces–giving a speech, working a rope line at a rally. Here, you will be very intimate with him. It’s like if Governor Bush said, “Hey, let’s ride around for half an hour around the ranch and let’s just talk.” That sort of will begin to initiate a dialogue that will continue over the next few months with the American public. It’s sort of like, “Here. Let me grab you. Let me take you in this car. Let me talk to you. Let me tell you a bit about who I am, and what makes me tick, and what I love, and who I love, and why I love this country.”
NEWSHOUR: And we’ll see some of that it sounds like resonating in your regular ads as well.
STUART STEVENS: Possibly. Possibly.
NEWSHOUR: What is the role of the “Park Avenue Posse”? In this, it sounds like it’s nil. In the ads, we may hear more about outside voices?
STUART STEVENS: You know the history of these Madison Avenue groups working with political people has been both good and bad. We tried to look at it and say here, “Why has it worked? Why has it not worked in the past?” I think a lot of it is just kind of chemistry, and there’s very good chemistry here. They’ve been wonderful, this whole group. And they, you know, they’re very good. They’re very good at talking to people through this medium, and that’s really what an ad is. It’s a chance to talk to you.
NEWSHOUR: Tell me more about how people are going to see this, that you realize that the networks might dump out, and so you’ve gotten this huge screen and also speak to the Webs. Does it bother you that your art might be watched on a little monitor somewhere?
STUART STEVENS: Well, we examined how the networks have covered this before, and it seems like what they’ve done is they’ve not taken a direct feed. In other words, you can’t just give them a tape and they play it. Though, clearly, they should, but–so they cover it as a news event, from the rear of the hall, usually, as if they would cover a speaker. So in the past, in ’92 and ’96, the technology was such that the screens that the conventions used, Democrat and Republican, were checker boards of monitors, rather than one big screen. So you could get a higher resolution screen up there, and you could also have different images play on the screen.
As far as seeing this on the Web, as a Web junkie, I think it’s fabulous. That doesn’t bother me at all. This is kind of an intimate film. You’re close to him anyway. So I think it’ll be fine. I’m for people seeing this however they can see it.
NEWSHOUR: And lastly, words, there is no audio track here except for the glue that his own words provide. There’s no narrator. That can be very powerful. Why did you do it this way?
STUART STEVENS: Well, I think we want it as natural as possible. We wanted a less-manufactured feel. And originally, you know, I’ve scripted something that had narration which wasn’t very good. I think that it is more in the documentary tradition not to have [a narrator].
And the most successful of these films ever probably is the one that Guggenheim made on Bobby Kennedy, which was shown the day of the ’68 convention. I mean, I think it’s impossible to see that film and not cry.
NEWSHOUR: Can you point out any films that were just dogs, that you just think fell flat?
STUART STEVENS: No, I wouldn’t want to. I think some of them are more successful than others. I think the ’92 film for Clinton, “The Man from Hope,” seemed to have been more successful than the ’96 film. As I understand it, there was some hesitancy to make a film in ’96, and they decided at the end that they wanted to do it. It kind of has that feel. I think the ’88 film on President Bush was a terrific film. That’s really a terrific film. It really set the tone for the general election campaign.
NEWSHOUR: It was very different.
STUART STEVENS: Yeah.
NEWSHOUR: You’ve given up your Senate, House and gubernatorial candidates to work on this; is this correct?
STUART STEVENS: Yes.
NEWSHOUR: This has been your life. You sound like a true believer.
STUART STEVENS: Oh, I think, you know, working on this campaign, it is, I think, for the group of people there a real cause. I mean, this is a very different person, and it’s a rare moment. I mean, I moved to Austin, Texas, a year ago, over a year ago, to do this. And it is truly a privilege, and that’s something in politics that doesn’t come around very often.
This is not a campaign that is composed of people who are drawn to the process, as much as it is people who are drawn to the person, and that doesn’t happen very often.