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Veteran of Democratic fights now molds Bush ad strategy

After leaving politics for a while, Mark McKinnon says the Texas governor helped him see politics differently.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas -- Mark McKinnon sat on a couch in the bunker, quietly firing one-liners in the windowless basement command center of George W. Bush's advertising team.

Staring back at him were televisions turned to CNN, MSNBC and other networks. Up popped Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate. McKinnon interrupted himself.

"He got 8 percent in the latest poll," confided McKinnon, sipping a Diet Pepsi and dressed in faded jeans and a light-weight pullover sweater. "This guy is going to be a factor."

Up popped Vice President Al Gore. McKinnon turned up the sound on the remote control and shook his head.

"Now that he's seen it's a good idea from Bush," he said of Gore's positions. "Me too, on Social Security. Me too, on tax cuts."

This does not sound like an advertising consultant who previously worked only for Democrats, including former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. Or one who turned down several invitations over the years to join Bill Clinton's team. Or one who became disillusioned and got out of politics in the mid-1990s.

McKinnon, a former teenage runaway who revered Jack Kerouac and an erstwhile folk-rock singer who once wrote songs for Kris Kristofferson, said Bush helped him see politics differently.

"I had been drinking Democratic Kool-Aid for too long," he said.

This week, McKinnon is serving up another flavor at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. It is the ultimate sneak preview for the work he oversees at Maverick Media, the firm whose sole job is to handle advertising for Bush's campaign for president.

McKinnon has produced a video for Bush and another for the Texas governor's wife, Laura. He has helped guide other tributes filmed of the living former Republican presidents, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

There's more.

McKinnon also has overseen the filming of "Profiles in Compassion" videos aimed at putting faces and places on Bush's theme of compassionate conservatism. The stars include a multiethnic elementary school in El Paso, a Boys' and Girls' Club in California and a private assistance center in a Hispanic neighborhood in Cleveland.

In all, there will be about a dozen videos of five to 10 minutes each that are aimed at rounding out Bush's portrait and themes for the party faithful.

After Clinton's well-received video at the 1992 Democratic convention, The Man From Hope, such film clips have become less like home movies and more like cinematic works of art. McKinnon said the goal is to tell a story about Bush in a different way that may offer new insights.

"We want to reflect his life, humanity and philosophy," he said.

Convention videos are routine. There is nothing conventional about McKinnon.

He is a veteran of dozens of Democrats' campaigns whose all-time favorite political ad is the 1984 spot for Ronald Reagan that featured a hunter and a brown bear in the woods, symbolizing the Soviet Union.

In a cutthroat business, McKinnon takes it as a compliment when he's told his rhetoric doesn't stack up with Republican attack artists such as Alex Castellanos or Arthur Finkelstein.

He was secure enough to bring into Maverick a veteran Republican consultant, Stuart Stevens. After once writing that corporate advertising firms could not sell politicians the way they sell soap, he recruited his own "Park Avenue Posse" of ad executives to informally advise the campaign.

"They know as we do that if something looks political, people probably aren't going to pay much attention to it,' said McKinnon, even as he rejected the notion of selling Bush like a brand name. "This is a person. It's not a product."

In Austin, some consultants and activists who once worked alongside McKinnon for the same issues or candidates fault him for switching political brands. They can't fathom how a lifelong Democrat can be working for a Republican named Bush.

"He's really drunk the water," said Samantha Smoot, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, which bills itself as a counterbalance to the religious right. "I really think he's been seduced not only by the governor but by the fame and celebrity of his current position."

For most of his life, McKinnon's priorities and politics were far removed from those symbolized by the Bushes.

The son of a doctor, McKinnon grew up in Denver and was determined to be the next Bob Dylan. In high school, he grabbed his guitar, hitchhiked across the country and landed in Nashville trying to break into the music business. He missed a semester of school and didn't talk to his parents for about five months.

Even now, there are no regrets.

"Oh God, no," said McKinnon, a 45-year-old father of two daughters. "It was one of the best things I ever did."

He returned home, finished high school, and returned to Nashville the day after graduation. He stayed there three years, living in Kristofferson's apartment and searching for that million-dollar sound. By 1976, though, he'd had enough.

On a trip to perform at a music festival, McKinnon found himself in Austin and enrolled in the University of Texas. He became editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Texan, achieving momentary fame when he was jailed for a day after refusing to give police unpublished photos of Iranian students who were demonstrating while American hostages were held in Tehran.

After graduation, McKinnon got married and started working for Texas Democrats alongside such future Clinton team members as Paul Begala and James Carville. In another twist, he was a member of the same New York advertising firm in 1988 that worked for Michael Dukakis' failed effort against Bush's father.

By 1990, McKinnon was working for a smaller firm and was communications director for Ann Richards' successful campaign for governor. He will say little about Richards now, though he reportedly still voted for her over Bush in 1994.

It was during the early '90s that McKinnon's ads won attention in Texas for daring to be different.

In 1991, he moved in with former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier during Lanier's first campaign. On impulse before filming one commercial, McKinnon told Lanier to keep on an old sweater he wore around the house instead of changing into a business suit.

Lanier was known as a tough businessman, McKinnon said, "but people didn't know him as this warm, friendly, compassionate kind of uncle and father figure."

In 1994, McKinnon worked for Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the crusty, larger-than-life Democrat who would befriend Bush. He turned on his camera without Bullock knowing as they talked on the front porch. The result was unvarnished Bullock instead of polished fluff.

"Look, I've had all the honors, just about every honor that you could have," Bullock said in the ad. "So I'm not interested in honors. Not interested in any more plaques. What I'm interested in is building Texas. For my grandson, your children, and his children. Make it a little bit better than it was, than the day I was born at 504 Craig St. in a frame house in Hillsboro, Texas. Front bedroom."

McKinnon said: "Voters want a sense of what a person really believes in, who they are. That's what's often challenging but often the most simple thing to do."

But by 1996, he was burned out, and out of politics. He wrote his own confessional in Texas Monthly.

McKinnon wrote about the seamy side of his job, from a salacious tale about a drunken candidate hitting on a member of his film crew to coaching candidates on what convictions to hold. He vowed to spend the weekend before the November election with his family in Mexico, following the migration of the monarch butterfly.

"Maybe politics just got old," he wrote. "Maybe I just got tired."

It proved to be a temporary hiatus.

Less than four years later, McKinnon is in the biggest campaign of his life. His videos this week will be reviewed by a tough crowd at the convention, including many Republicans who think they already know everything there is to know about the Bush family. His ads, which are already airing in the Tampa Bay market, will soon be seen nationwide.

McKinnon is a key player in the Bush camp, yet set just apart. The Maverick Media office is on the other side of town from the posh campaign headquarters, and he is not a member of the "iron triangle" of top Bush advisers.

Bush often retires to his isolated Texas ranch on the weekends. McKinnon is a regular at the Club De Ville, a hot Austin nightclub where he owns a small interest and has a drink named after him (the McKinnon: a vodka martini with lemon juice "and some secret ingredients I can't reveal").

But Bush and McKinnon have connected through shared interests.

They met for the first time in 1997 at an Austin restaurant. McKinnon recalled that they clicked as they discussed a documentary McKinnon was filming about a school in a poor Houston neighborhoods.

At a private lunch at the Governor's Mansion, they chatted about their daughters. McKinnon shared with Bush some cookies one of his daughters had baked. The governor jotted out a note of thanks.

By then, McKinnon already had been impressed by Bush's efforts to overhaul public education and his rejection of anti-immigrant rhetoric used by other Republicans.

"He was doing things I thought were very counterintuitive for a Republican," he said. "He was for things against things."

McKinnon was hired to handle the advertising for Bush's 1998 re-election as governor, a landslide win that did not require a single negative ad. When he could have had any consultant in America, the governor kept the same campaign team in place for the run for president.

It is a relationship that has made McKinnon the target of jabs from Democrats in Austin.

"Nobody likes a turncoat," said Dean Rindi, a Democratic consultant and former McKinnon business partner who hasn't spoken to him in years. "There's only three reasons he could do this: fame, money or a religious conversion. He denies the religious conversion."

McKinnon said he doesn't see eye-to-eye with Bush on everything, although he won't be specific.

"Even though we disagree on some issues," he said, "I get a more respectful audience from him than I have gotten from any other candidate."

That respect helps in a pinch.

After losing to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, Bush was under pressure when the race moved to South Carolina. When McCain accused Bush of stretching the truth like President Clinton in an ad, the charge required an immediate response.

McKinnon met Bush at a South Carolina fishing camp and drove with him 8 miles into the woods. They had 10 minutes to shoot 30 seconds. Bush nailed it in three takes, then headed toward the car when McKinnon stopped him.

There had been a hair on the camera lens.

"I said, "Governor, we screwed up and we've got to do it again,' McKinnon recalled. " "Technical problem.' Then I ducked."

But he said Bush didn't get angry and quickly reeled off two more takes. The commercial was the best of the campaign so far, with Bush looking into the camera and declaring: "Politics is tough. But when John McCain compared me to Bill Clinton and said I was untrustworthy, that's over the line. Disagree with me, fine. But do not challenge my integrity."

The ad met McKinnon's goal of capturing a glimpse of a candidate's personality and emotion on film. He is not concerned with trying to overcome the perception among skeptics that Bush lacks the gravitas to be president, calling it an issue created by the media elite. And while the ads running in the Tampa Bay market and elsewhere are relatively soft sells, McKinnon and others who have observed his work say he won't be afraid to counterpunch with Gore.

"I don't think he'll hesitate," said Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network. "His decision to work against everything he's spent a career working hard for demonstrates he's a mercenary, a hired gun."

But McKinnon said he has no regrets about going to work for Bush. He swears he is "passionate about this guy as a human being." And he does not envision himself turning into another Carville on the talk shows or moving into the White House with Bush after the election.

"I am a firm believer there is more to life than increasing its speed," said McKinnon, whose plans are simple: "Get out my guitar and go write songs again."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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