The Presidential Race of 1992 was certainly one for the history books. The two major-party candidates were joined by one very wealthy nominee, and one very chubby one. Of the four contestants, three had checkered pasts, and one wore checkered pants. Three promised a balanced budget, and one offered a balanced diet.
I remember it well, because I was the Manager in the momentous “Big Boy for President” Campaign.
In early September, I was called into the chairman’s office at Simons Michelson Zieve Advertising in Metro Detroit. I’d been SMZ’s senior broadcast writer/producer since 1979, and was now a vice president of the company.
“Jon, we’ve been given an assignment that’s an exact match for your particular talents,” said Mort Zieve, with a curious twinkle that indicated something more devious. He was like that.
“We’re sending you around the country to campaign for Big Boy.”
“You’ll go to cities where Big Boy restaurants are popular, and give a one-hour assembly at an elementary school,” Mort continued. “Big Boy will be with you. You’ll talk to the kids about the importance of voting and being good citizens, and hold a mock election where they can vote for the candidates. We’ve got you lined up to be on radio stations in each city. Local newspapers and TV stations will cover the assembly, so they might interview you.”
And then he really lowered the boom.
“The first one is next week in Toledo.”
I could only think of one word: Oy!
But the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like he was right: I WAS the man for the job. I’d been a disc jockey. I’d done tons of community theatre. I had the experience to do the radio interviews tongue-in-cheek and the others straight. And I had the sensitivity to speak to the students on their level.
Now all I had to do was figure out how to fill an hour with just a microphone and a few hundred kids staring at me.
First, I ruled out doing a medley from Fiddler on the Roof. Entertaining, but not quite appropriate. I also knew that I couldn’t drown them in election statistics; these were 4th, 5th and 6th graders.
The answer was to get out into the audience and make the kids the stars, not me. So I threw them a curve. Instead of preaching the positive, I began by asking them the negative: “What’s the dumbest thing you ever did?”
When the hands went up, I went around with the mic, and we got some funny and some frank responses. Then I tied it in to why not voting is also dumb, and we were off and running.
Everything that followed was reacting to the kids and steering them in the right direction, so every presentation was different.
I did throw in the one statistic that sticks with me to this day: John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 with what figured to be one vote more in each electoral district in the country. So if only one person voted differently—or stayed home—we would’ve had a crook in office eight years earlier. I didn’t put it that way, but the point was made.
After 45 minutes of improv, I would bring out the candidate himself—usually a restaurant busboy in the Big Boy costume—and the kids would line up to vote. We had ballots prepared listing the candidates: incumbent President George Bush, and candidates Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and our hero. It was interesting to see that most of the students took it seriously, as if they really had a voice in the election.
I was sent on a six-city whistle-stop tour, visiting Toledo, Cincinnati, Wheeling, Rochester (NY), Springfield (Mass.) and finishing back in the Detroit area.
In each city, Big Boy and I were guests on a local radio talk show. I was introduced as the candidate’s campaign manager. Here’s a sample of how the interviews went with the DJs, usually working in gags about our opponents:
DJ: Why doesn’t Big Boy speak?
Me: Big Boy thinks that Americans should be getting less lip service and more table service.
DJ: Has Big Boy had any affairs?
Me: Only the ones he caters.
DJ: Does Big Boy inhale?
Me: The only thing Big Boy smokes are sausages.
DJ: How will Big Boy choose a running mate?
Me: Big Boy’s running mate, unlike President Bush’s, must not only be able to spell potato, but bake ’em, hash brown ’em, French fry ’em …
DJ: What’s Big Boy’s #1 priority?
Me: Helping Americans. Not only helping, but second and third helpings.
DJ: Any final words?
Me: Big Boy says you do have a choice. You can go into a booth and cast one vote…or you can sit in a booth and stuff the ballot box—and yourself, too! So if you’re hungry for change, Big Boy is definitely your meal ticket!
The appearances were sensational. The kids were wonderful everywhere. We concluded the interview by plugging our school appearance, and announcing that grownups can register to vote at their nearby Big Boy.
We made the newspapers in every city. The Springfield Union-News wrote, “Katz fired up his voting audience in Geraldo Rivera/Oprah Winfrey style by pulling them into conversations.”
Campaign stops included local newspapers. It’s amazing what coverage you can get just by bringing in some bagels.
And we were covered by local television.
Here’s an excerpt.
The campaign took a sour turn, however, when I returned home for the final appearance at a school in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.
Standing at the back of the room was my boss, Mort Zieve. I was maybe 20 minutes into the presentation, when he began waving his arms in a circular motion—the TV signal to speed it up and get the hell off.
WHAT? I’m less than halfway done and I’m getting the WRAP-UP? Maybe he had to get back to the office or go to lunch, but I’ve got 200 kids in the palm of my hand and I’m supposed to stop and say “That’s all, folks”?
Here I’d gone to five other cities and represented my client in personal appearances, on the radio, on TV and in the newspapers. The kids loved me. The teachers thanked me. The media people appreciated me. I turned a little throwaway promotion into a public relations triumph. But the boss still had to pull rank and direct.
Continuing on auto-pilot, I edited the show on the fly. No one else saw the silly gesturing in the back, but I gave a small nod to let him know I got the message, and I brought the plane in for a smooth landing.
I thought the display showed a totally unwarranted lack of confidence, and obviously it has stuck in my craw to this day.
On the other hand, I must’ve made a lousy campaign manager. After all, except at the cash register, my candidate lost–REAL big.