CHS alum rises to top of political advertising field. Worked for McGovern, Harold Hughes, counts Biden as friend
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Joe Slade White has remarkable range as a political consultant. He’s done campaigns in foreign countries (Costa Rica) and has worked for Seattle’s first African-American mayor, Norm Rice, and the current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, a former professional basketball star. White’s firm does the national public policy advertising for AT&T as well.
In a career spanning four decades, Carroll native Joe Slade White, one of the nation’s leading Democratic political advertising professionals, has molded messages for more than 400 candidates and causes.
He even earned himself a valued spot on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies” list in the early months of his life in politics.
The White House is decidedly more friendly to White these days. The 1968 Carroll High School graduate, now living in Buffalo, N.Y., counts Vice President Joe Biden as both friend and client.
“Joe Slade White is a pre-eminent storyteller,” Biden said in a statement. “He makes voters want to listen — the essential ingredient for a candidate’s message to be heard. He understands how to win the tough battles, without losing the war. He is smart, honorable, and very much a team player.”
It is a fellow Iowan, though, who gave White, now 60, his start in politics in the hurly burly 1960s. In the fall of 1968 White enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and soon made his way to the 1972 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes, D-Iowa.
“Now, young people say, ‘Well, how did you get started?’” White said. “And I say, ‘Well, I ran off and joined the circus.’”
He added, “It couldn’t have been a more interesting time.”
An English major (“which meant I had no job skills whatsoever,” he joked) White literally walked off the streets of D.C. into Hughes’ office, armed with no other connection except his Iowa roots, and landed a job audio-taping events and speeches for Hughes. The recordings were later sent to radio stations in a format that came to be known and popularized in politics as “radio actualities.”
“I’m theoretically the father of radio actualities,” White said.
Hughes’ stay in the 1972 contest was a short one. The senator’s decision to extract himself from the race is tied to some of the Iowan’s eccentric beliefs. Hughes, recalled White, was somewhat into the occult and held a séance in which he reportedly contacted his deceased brother and asked for advice about the presidential race. The verdict from the dead brother: get out of the race, Harold.
“When you lose your very first job in politics based on the political advice of a dead brother, nothing a candidate ever does can surprise you,” White said.
He quipped that the result of the séance was “probably good advice on the dead brother’s part.”
What would Harold Hughes have been like as a president?
“He was clearly very influenced by Bobby Kennedy, who took him under his wing when Hughes got there (to the U.S. Senate),” White said.
But White says it is an open question as to what kind of president Iowan Hughes would have made.
“As onerous as the primary process is, it does sort of test people,” White said. “That’s not saying Harold Hughes wouldn’t have been a great president. I think sometimes we’re not sure who will be a great president until they’re president.”
For his part, White has compiled a winning record of over 75 percent. Clients have included presidential candidates, U.S. senators, governors, members of Congress, and mayors, as well as statewide and local initiatives, throughout the country.
In the summer of 2008, White, and his firm created the nationwide campaign of television ads for Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens (The Pickens Plan), to promote use of wind power and alternative fuels to lower the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. In 2004, White developed the media for the presidential campaign of Gen. Wesley Clark and won a national Pollie for one of the ads.
White is a son of a Ed and Denise “Denny” White of Carroll. Ed, a Harlan native, attended the University of Iowa School of Law with Bob Bruner, who would later serve as Carroll County attorney. The two men came to Carroll in the late 1930s after Bruner, a Waterloo native, and White toured western Iowa searching for a town in which to start a practice. They liked Carroll but received no encouragement from the officials then with the Chamber of Commerce, said Barry Bruner, one of Bob’s sons.
One Chamber official, according to Barry Bruner, told his dad and Ed White, “Boys, there are way too many attorneys in this town. I’d recommend you just go someplace else.”
“That just teed dad and Ed off,” Barry Bruner said.
Ed White for a time served as an assistant attorney general in Des Moines. Bob Bruner, a Democrat, made one of his early runs for Carroll County attorney on the same ticket on which Franklin Roosevelt was the party’s candidate for the presidency.
The Bruner family and White remain close, with White having returned to Carroll, first to visit the late Bob and Lorraine Bruner and now interacting with Barry Bruner, a Carroll attorney. The elder Bruners, who passed away five years ago, functioned as White’s “as if” parents on some visits after his own parents were not in Carroll, he said.
“We had lots of fun together,” Barry Bruner said. “That’s for sure.”
White attended Carroll community schools kindergarten through senior year.
“I have nothing but warm memories about what growing up in Carroll, Iowa, meant in my life,” White said. “It really was great growing up in Carroll, Iowa.”
In the 1960s White was inspired by a young humanities and English teacher at Carroll High School, James Knott, who went on to become provost of the Carroll campus of Des Moines Area Community College before retiring.
“He was one of the better students I’ve ever had,” Knott said in a recent interview. “He was outstanding in inquiry and wanting to learn.”
White’s experience with Knott has led to a lifelong philosophy about teachers.
“I always say, ‘All one needs is one great teacher’ — and Jim Knott was my great teacher,” White said.
Politics were very much a discussion topic at the White home. White’s grandfather, Ed White Sr. was a state senator from Harlan.
“I was raised by Republicans,” Joe White said. “My mom had a strong dislike for LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson).”
“I was raised with these values and they were pretty progressive values,” White said. “I just translated them into becoming a Democrat.”
He added, “I never felt I was raised in this rabidly Republican family. But they supported Richard Nixon, and they supported Eisenhower.”
When he was 12, White’s older sister Martha died in a head-on, two-car accident at Lake Okoboji as she was driving to church. “It’s a mystery as to what happened,” White said. “No one survived the crash and no one witnessed it.”
White’s brother, Tim, is a lawyer in Cedar Rapids.
‘Pounding the marble’
After his stint with Hughes, White moved to the campaign of then-U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.
White handled radio actualities and other duties for McGovern, and for a time, was one of a few traveling staff members at the presidential candidate’s side, a fact that Nixon cronies picked up on when developing the “White House Enemies List.” White, and others, would find out about this in the fallout from Watergate.
White decided to make the move to consulting — at age 23. And he didn’t join an existing firm. He started his own. In Washington, D.C.
“The really neat thing about being 23 is that you have an excess of stupidity and arrogance,” White said. “I left a safe U.S. Senate staff job that people twice my age would have killed for in order to start my own company with no real prospects that it could possibly succeed. If I had been five years older, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it.”
After “pounding the marble” in the corridor of power in the U.S. Capitol and its adjacent House and Senate office buildings, White landed his first client. And it was a big catch. Mo Udall, an Arizona congressman and one of the wittiest men to ever serve in Washington. In fact, Udall penned a famous book, a must-read for young speechwriters, titled “Too Funny to Be President.” Udall sought the presidency in 1976, the year in which Jimmy Carter was the eventual Democratic nominee. White kept Udall as a client in Congress.
“Then I would go around and say, ‘Well, Mo Udall is doing it,’” White said.
Initially, White used Joe White professionally — Joe White & Associates, etc.
“Joe White was a very easy name that was easy to forget,” White said. “So I popped the Slade in there.”
“Slade” is his bona fide middle name, connected to his mother’s side of the family.
Breaking into New York
White’s New York connection came in the 1970s as he linked with political media guru Tony Schwartz, who worked in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. Schwartz created one of the more famous political spots in American history — Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Daisy ad (which aired only once) that dramatized a comment from Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater about nuclear weapons.
Joe Slade White & Co. is based in Buffalo, N.Y., where White, a divorced father of five children, ranging in age from 38 to 12, lives. White has three daughters and two sons: Sarah, 38, a Web designer in Singapore; Kate, 27, an ad executive in New York City; Eliza, 25, a teacher in Washington, D.C.; Michael, 15; and Noah, 12.
With Schwartz, White learned an approach to advertising known as the responsive chord, a communications theory that holds that the message is inside the audience. Effective ads don’t force the message but rather make the audience find it.
“That, to this day, is the theory that I use in my advertising,” White said.
The standard (and generally poor) political ad will, for example, in an effort to portray a candidate as honest, run with speaking points along the lines of “I’m honest. I’m so honest. You can’t believe how honest I am. I’m really, really, really honest.”
The reaction to those ads is counter-intuitive. People will trust the candidate less than before seeing the spots because of the oversell. Me thinks thou doth protest too much.
In this situation, where the goal is to build voter trust, White would use a story to show how the candidate had faced a choice, and opted for the “honest” one, perhaps paying a personal or political price for taking the ethical road. Screenwriters often call this a “Sins of Moses test.”
“I ask questions, I bring voters along — and I don’t tell them how to think,” White said.
A Carroll connection
made in Illinois
White has remarkable range. He’s done campaigns in foreign countries (Costa Rica) and has worked for Seattle’s first African-American mayor, Norm Rice, and the current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, a former professional basketball star. White’s firm does the national public policy advertising for AT&T as well.
“Someone said, ‘How can you possibly do a campaign in a country you didn’t grow up in, in a language you don’t speak?’” White said. “The ads I did in Costa Rica are not so much different than the ads I do anywhere else.”
People, as they say, are people.
“My name is Joe White,” White said. “I am white. I am from Carroll, Iowa. I don’t know the African American experience in Detroit, Michigan. But I do know television, and I do know stories.”
His approach yielded surprising results in the 2010 elections — a year in which the GOP generally swamped Democrats. White served as the media consultant for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who won election to office in his own right after ascending to the top spot in Springfield, Ill., following former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s much-publicized troubles.
Ben Nuckels, a son of Steve and Marsha Nuckels of Carroll and a 1997 graduate of Carroll High School, served as campaign manager for the Quinn campaign.
Recently, Nuckels signed on as a vice president with Joe Slade White & Co. He will work out of Wisconsin.
Both White and Nuckels take great pride in the fact that two Carroll products were at the helm as Quinn captured the office with the narrowest margin for a gubernatorial race in Illinois in three decades, 46.6 percent to 46.1 percent or by about 20,000 votes.
But when asked to name his top client White doesn’t hesitate. He just talked to the man a few days before this interview.
“The vice president is a very, very cool guy, and we talk and will continue to talk,” White said.