Nothing’s Off Limits

Much has been said lately regarding whether families and potential First Ladies should be off limits or fair game during Presidential elections. Shortly after his wife appeared on ABC’s “The View,” Barack Obama proclaimed that would-be President’s spouses should be off limits. Quickly, the McCain camp agreed.

As an entrepreneur and taxpayer, I can’t help but feel that those disingenuous claims are tantamount to me saying I feel like my personal expenses should be fully deductible on my Schedule C.

Frankly, the idea is both ridiculous and unrealistic. I’m disappointed that both candidates would espouse an approach that is neither grounded in history nor reality. Only James Buchanan, the 15th President, did not have to deal with the issue in some form or another, being the only bachelor to ever earn the job.

Presidential spouses have long been central figures in the public eye, the term “First Lady” dating back to President Zachary Taylor’s 1849 reference at Dolley Madison’s state funeral. By the late 1870’s, media reported frequently on the activities of the tremendously popular First Lady of the era, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. And a 1911 comedic play titled The First Lady in the Land popularized the position further. Since then, the First Lady’s conduct has been scrutinized during her tenure and beyond. The position has become a powerful one both in the White House and perhaps moreso in the bountiful years that follow. It is a position that can be used to accomplish public good. With it comes great responsibility. And prior to being bestowed with that public trust, why shouldn’t the American public – with the media as its intermediary -interview the candidates for the most high-profile, non-elected, lifelong position in the pantheon of American politics? (After all, we pay the expenses of their offices, travel and staff.)

Where there are benefits, there are risks. Where there is promise, there are potential pit falls. The proof is in the pages of history.

Martha Washington’s wealth may have provided the means that enabled George Washington to leave the colonial arm of the British military, prior to rising to prominence as a leader in the movement for independence.

Dolley Madison became a national folkhero for salvaging treasures including state papers and a painting of George Washington from the White House before it was burned by the British army during the War of 1812. Remaining a popular figure long after her husband’s presidency ended, she was the only private citizen to be allowed to sit in on Congress, on the congressional floor, while it was in session.

Mary Todd Lincoln was pilloried in the press for her spending to renovate the White House after Buchanan’s bachelor years, her inaccurately perceived pro-slavery inclinations as she hailed from the South, and her mercurial temperament. Later, after President Lincoln’s untimely death, she was briefly relegated to an insane asylum.

Eleanor Roosevelt shaped modern perception of the First Lady as the President’s political partner, being extremely outspoken on the key issues of her time, fighting for the minimum wage, an end to child labor, women’s and civil rights, and supporting the formation of the United Nations, eventually becoming the first Chairperson of the UN’s Human Rights Commission.

Jackie O: Enough said.

Betty Ford: Supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was hailed Woman of the Year by Time Magazine. When her husband lost his voice, she delivered Gerald Ford’s concession speech to Jimmy Carter following the 1976 election. In 1978, after a family intervention prompted her to face her own chemical dependency, she invented celebrity rehab, her name becoming a brand linked to the public reform of privately tortured figures. In the opinion of The New York Times, “Mrs. Ford’s impact on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than that of her husband…”

Nancy Reagan cared for an icon in his waning days with every measure of decorum, discretion and grace that would be expected from someone who could be trusted implicitly to stoically carry the burden. Hillary Clinton stood by her man, steadying the Presidency while it was under fire for infidelity and the lies that followed. She did her best to leverage her post for healthcare reform, children’s health initiatives, a Senate career, and a bid for the Presidency itself.

So how can anyone deny the opportunities and the challenges, for today and for posterity, that come with the post of First Spouse?

If it didn’t matter, if these were private positions whose holders should be handled with kid gloves, they would not be marked by history.

Surely, both McCain and Obama understand this. Their bluster must be little more than husbandly posturing. But I wish they were more forthcoming about reality. The media will do their jobs. Reckless commentators will sling questionable mud. And people will google their wives. The truth will be laid out for everyone to see and know. What we as voters and conscientious citizens can’t tolerate are lies and innuendo.

Clearly both Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama live on a public scale in their own right. Mrs. McCain, running a major corporation that has yielded a personal fortune of over $100 million, is a de facto public figure because with wealth comes responsibility not to mention influence on leadership and policies, particularly since her enterprise prospers within a heavily regulated industry: alcoholic beverages. Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, likewise has led a visible life on a regional level, serving major institutions like the City – and University – of Chicago while being a passionate community advocate. Neither are perfect. Both have worked hard for second chances, whether those were required due to private stumblings turned public by the inquiring press or public pratfalls due to ill-conceived comments on the national stage. Both deserve second chances, surely. What they don’t deserve are free passes or false accusations. I’m confident that – given the chance – either would fulfill her job competently. But at the same time, both are as human as their husbands and as the First Ladies before them. As with anyone we put in the White House, they bring promise and risk. And we should evaluate these within the grander scheme of heavier factors that must weigh into our national decision. So let’s stop blowing smoke, read their bios, ask our questions, and leave it at that. Why create distractions that aren’t there? And on the other extreme, why pretend that they don’t matter? Americans will vote for a new President in November. They’ll get more than one person in the deal. They deserve to know the value of the full package. That’s something nobody should deny, because one thing’s for sure: history won’t.

Brazen Branding

Americans love brands. And the rest of the world typically follows suit. Our brands are among our most powerful exports. Coke, Apple, McDonald’s, Nike, and Google are a few that bubble top of mind. People embrace brands because they’re compelling, simple and memorable. We trust they’ll consistently deliver. And we become attached to them because they say something about who we are and who we aspire to be in the eyes of others.

But today branding in politics is being taken to a whole new level: good and bad. On the positive end of the spectrum, candidates are branding their campaigns with genuine messages designed to engage and motivate constituencies. Barack Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In” campaign has spawned a movement that has drawn new voters into the debate and inspired many citizens long on the sidelines to jump into the game. When done right, political branding can make a world of difference. In the case of Obama, authentic, consistent brand messaging has helped establish a little known Senator from Illinois as a viable candidate for the Presidency in a matter of months. When done wrong, political branding can reflect campaigns and candidates in crisis. Contrasted against Obama’s steady theme, the Hillary Clinton campaign expressed a revolving door of constantly changing motifs. The only thing you could count on was that she’d have a new slogan the next time you saw her. In the end, the delay and difficulty her campaign evinced in defining and articulating her brand position undermined her ability to compete.

Most disturbing though is the brazen and misleading manner in which strategists and the media are negatively branding their opponents to serve their own ulterior agendas. In recent Presidential campaign history, Al Gore was branded as “wooden” by the media. John Kerry was labeled a “flip flopper” by the Republicans. And this year Barack Obama has been positioned as an “elitist” while Michelle Obama has been tagged as both “unpatriotic” and – insidiously – “ghetto” when referred to as “Obama’s Baby Mama” on Fox News Channel.

Obviously, political strategists understand that given the short attention span of most American consumers, the easiest way to undermine a lifetime of accomplishment and a complex nuanced platform of intelligently devised policies and positions is to burden the opposition with a catchy, memorable and repulsive brand identity.

Kudos to the Obama campaign for sticking to the high road. Otherwise, John McCain would be portrayed not simply as a “War Hero” but as a “Kept Man,” for this patriot’s path to prominence has been paved by two generations of admirals and his wife’s millions. Cindy McCain might be cast as the Queen of Vice. After all, she’s a pill-popping heiress who admitted stealing meds from the non-profit she founded and whose fortune is built on America’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol. And finally there would be the sitting President himself, whom I’d brand with a reference from my own cultural arsenal: “El Hijo de Papi.” Meaning “Daddy’s Boy,” the label disdainfully describes annoying rich brats who act as if the whole world is theirs for the taking thanks to their lineage. George W. Bush is the paragon of an “Hijo de Papi,” treating the Middle East like his frat house backyard while American soldiers, their families and hard-working taxpayers pay the price.

But as an optimist, I’d rather stay positive. I applaud the Obamas for sticking to the high road. And rather than dwelling on the negative, I’d like to focus on debunking the contradictory brand warfare being waged against these two Americans and their family.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann points out that repeated efforts are being made to designate the Obama’s as “too different, too un-American” for the White House. It’s no surprise that the opposition is generating a range of labels to see what sticks. One moment Obama is an elitist; the next his wife is ghetto. They’re both proclaimed unpatriotic with claims about absent flag lapel pins, reluctant pledges of allegiance, and misconstrued quotes. The truth is that if you take the time to read these folks’ biographies they are jaw-dropping examples of human vision, perseverance and excellence. Between the two of them, they have four Ivy League degrees and over three decades of public service. They weren’t legacies. Barack Obama is the son of an immigrant and his wife the daughter of a municipal pump operator. They didn’t inherit their success; they earned it. They embody the American Dream. And their stated mission is to ensure that an ever-expanding community of diverse Americans continues to have an opportunity at achieving their Dream.

One of the greatest things the Obama’s have going for them from a marketing perspective is that branding must be authentic to endure. With that said, I’ll place my money on the American Dreamers any day. Let the false labels fall away and let the truth shine. The result will be a new wave of leadership and a new global brand that we – and the world – can mutually embrace.

Why I Hope You Read My Column

My name is Rudy Ruiz and I approve this message.

I’m not running for office but I am competing for your time. And in the race of ideas, I’d appreciate your consideration.

Why me? Why should anyone listen to what I have to say? It’s only fair I answer those questions if I expect anyone to cast their vote of attention to my words. After all, that’s what any candidate must do to compete in a public forum. It’s what any brand or product must do to survive in the marketplace. It’s what any purveyor of ideas must prove incessantly to hold an audience’s attention in this crowded landscape of voices.

That’s where my case for an audience begins. I believe that – even though it’s hard to hear ourselves or each other as dozens of shouting heads trample each others’ words on cable TV and thousands of opinionated entertainers flood the Internet – there’s still room for more voices to be heard. It’s not because there aren’t enough voices striving to tell their story. It’s that there aren’t enough different voices cutting through the din. In fact, I believe there are precious few and they fall into a limited number of categories: Washington insiders, political pundits, liberal and conservative advocates, activists and journalists. As a lifelong student of politics, I enjoy listening, learning and reflecting on the debates they wage. But increasingly, I find myself responding to radiowaves in my car on the way to work or talking in vain to the TV screen after a long day at the office, frustrated by missed opportunities to elucidate situations with what seem like obvious but overlooked arguments. I feel the debate would benefit from more diverse perspectives, including my own. My voice is that of an outsider looking in. In that sense, there are many people out there that might sympathize with my views. All too often, pundits and journalists become so steeped in their subjects that they lose all sense of relativity. They embrace opinions formed from the insular view of the Beltway as universally held platitudes. So being an outsider gives my voice meaning and brings a “common-sense” take to what are often age-old dramas being rehashed for the umpteenth time.

But by no means do I believe being an outsider is enough to qualify me for your attention. Being an educated thinker is also crucial to my insights and commentary. There are many whom I wish to engage and bring to the table through my presence, but I would only dare do so if I felt I could speak the language and understand the context within which these ideas exist. As an honors graduate of Harvard College with a degree in Government specializing in International Relations, and having earned a Masters in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I believe I am prepared to not only bring fresh vistas to the national conversation, but also to frame my opinions historically and politically while rooting my arguments in the very principles that have made America a vibrant democracy.

But that’s not all, as any good hard-sell late-night cable TV commercial would assure you. There’s more! Order now and get two for the price of one, or four for the price of two! I’m not only an informed outsider; I also offer increasingly relevant professional and cultural perspectives.

Professionally speaking, I’ve dedicated 13 years to building one of the nation’s leading public sector, non-profit and cause-related marketing firms. I have branded ideas to motivate behavior change. My work has made a positive impact on the lives of diverse audiences. In fact, that’s my company’s mission statement. We have developed innovative campaigns to promote preventive health practices, smoking cessation, breastfeeding, infant immunizations, better nutrition, water conservation, financial literacy, public education, minority entrepreneurship, women’s economic independence, and more. In a sociopolitical marketplace whose currency is brands, one-liners, and sound bites, and where the good of the many is often sacrificed for the enrichment of the few, this dimension will add value to my commentary.

Culturally, I ask you to listen not because I’m Latino but because including qualified thinkers who bring diverse cultural experiences to the forum is imperative to the successful evolution of our public debates. The face of America is changing rapidly. Latinos comprise the largest ethnic minority and the fastest growing segment of the population. In some states, Latinos comprise over half of all children! As debates rage about immigration, workforce development, education, health disparities, race relations, human rights, foreign policy, and the use of our military (which is disproportionately composed of minorities), it’s vital that all kinds of Americans be represented. All voices, even those with a Spanish accent, should be heard.

I ask for you to let my thoughts play a role in the public decisionmaking process. Based on the path I’ve walked and the one I see ahead, I’ll do my best to leave no stone unturned. And because I’m an optimist, I trust our shared journey will be much the richer, regardless of our final destination.

Rudy Ruiz is a published author, social advocate, and President & CEO of Interlex, one of the nation’s Top 20 Hispanic Ad Agencies.