The Magazine

The Rethinking Man’s Candidate

Meet Jon Huntsman

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Covering political campaigns can be a dull, remorseless duty, but at least the reporters who gathered in Liberty State Park, New Jersey, on June 21 to see Jon Huntsman announce his presidential candidacy have this compensation: Someday they’ll be able to chuck their grandchildren under the chin and tell them, “Yes, kids, I was there when the Huntsman campaign peaked.”

Huntsman Picture

Thomas Fluharty

The setting for the announcement was meant to be highly inspiring. A small, flag-bedecked stage had been built at the tip of a vast lawn jutting out into the Hudson River. The skyline of lower Manhattan and, more symbolically, the Statue of Liberty rose just beyond, through a scrim of early morning haze. By my rough estimation, newsfolk outnumbered normal people, who in turn narrowly outnumbered the political consultants, low-level politicians, and other hangers-on that always attend the launch of a presidential campaign, when the breezes still carry the springtime scent of fresh, unspent money. 

Among the campaign’s consultants was the adman Fred Davis, a veteran of various John McCain campaigns who most recently gained fame for the mysterious “demon sheep” ad he produced for the California senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina last year. (The ad featured a pasture full of sheep and a guy in a sheep’s costume and was, of course, catnip to bored-stiff reporters but less appealing to voters, whose sensibilities haven’t yet evolved into postmodernism, even in California.) I see that the 2012 Political Reporter’s Stylebook requires that upon first reference Davis must be called “unconventional,” although “maverick” is allowed as a substitute under some circumstances. True to form, the scene Davis staged for Huntsman’s announcement was unconventional in the conventional manner. 

The event had the feel of an unsubtle satire dreamed up by some snotty 1970s aging-hippie movie director—Robert Altman, say—to prove that political candidates are just pretty-boy airheads engaged in a show-biz sham. In addition to the lifted lamp of Lady Liberty and the overdone backdrop, there was the handsome candidate and his excellent hair, tossed Kennedily by a gentle wind off the river. There was the lovely wife wreathed in smiles, accompanied by a raft of offspring who looked as if Madame Tussaud’s “Brady Bunch” exhibit had sprung wondrously to life.

Large speakers played a boneless soundtrack of soft New Age rock, part Kenny G, part early 1980s porno. On a video screen across from the stage, solitary words shimmered in and out of focus against a western landscape: Vitality. Comfort. Home. Tough. Calm. (You’re getting sleepy, sleepy .  .  .  ) A recorded voice familiar from a dozen car commercials read the words as they appeared. Then another voice directed everyone’s attention to a point 100 yards away, across the endless lawn. The cameras turned. And there they were: a line of grinning Huntsmans, lined up and holding hands. At a cue from an inconspicuous advance man, the family began walking, slowly, slowly, hand in hand across the lawn. All that stood between them and the massed rank of cameras was a towering monument in the center of the field, dedicated to the veterans who had liberated the death camps in World War Two. 

The music thrummed. The Huntsman flotilla drew closer still, at the pace of an old Clairol commercial. And just as the little voice inside everyone’s head was silently screaming, “Don’t do it, please don’t don’t don’t don’t do it,” they did it: The entire family paused in front of the statue and gazed heavenward, some with their arms around each other, some bowing their heads. And then, toeing a line of masking tape the advance men had laid down for them just out of sight, they resumed their march toward the stage, into the bright dawn of America’s tomorrow. It took forever. 

When at last he reached the podium, Huntsman began his speech with brief bio notes: He’s been governor of Utah, ambassador to China and Singapore, a businessman, and now, as of this minute, a presidential candidate. He then let out a series of boldly phrased, unvarnished assertions that no one in his right mind would disagree with. “What we now need,” he said, is “leadership that knows we need more than hope, leadership that knows we need answers.” “We must make the hard decisions.” “We can and will own the future.” The future holds challenges, sure, but also possibilities. “We’re choosing whether we are to be yesterday’s story or tomorrow’s.” It’s time to choose. “Now it’s our turn.”

And: “Our problems are no bigger than our opportunities.”

Mr. Altman? Is that you?

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