“Figure of Speech”

Figure of Speech,” Radar Magazine, 25 September 2008.

The GOP’s super-secret weapon does his best work in his PJs.

When Marvin Bush, the youngest son of George Herbert Walker and Barbara Bush, celebrated his 50th birthday in 2006, party planners commissioned a short “mockumentary” to entertain guests in the White House ballroom. Here was Marvin in college; there was Marvin in Texas! A prominent basso voice narrated each moment from the little Bush’s life. Seated near the celebrant’s mother was Rick Reed, who, when not making Bush home movies, is a partner in Stevens Reed, the GOP media firm that brought America “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” As the parody wrapped to loud applause, Barbara reportedly leaned over toward Reed and exclaimed, “That was just wonderful. Was that Walter Cronkite?”bob_225.jpg

That voice she heard was actually voiceover actor Bob Jump. Over the past nine years, Bob has found favor with powerful GOP ad men like Reed through his accelerating support for Republican candidates and causes. He’s cut ads for conservative congresspeople such as Mike Pence, Jim Jordan, and Marilyn Musgrave, the Republican National Committee, and right-wing organizations like Focus on the Family and the Economic Freedom Fund. You may have heard Bob’s voice before, perhaps sassing liberal opponents for “talkin’ the talk but not walkin’ the walk.” To hear his impassioned, sometimes indignant delivery in 2008 is to hear a man—and the conservative movement he’s pledged to speak for—refuse to go gently into the good night.

“You’re the first person I’ve ever had in here,” Bob confesses, with a sort of wonder, as I enter his home recording studio in Norfolk, Virginia. Inside his fantasia: a boom mike, remote transmission equipment, and soundproof walls. Every nontechnical item is purple or red, from the lava lamp to the swirling circular rug. Are the kitschy colors political? I ask. “I was on acid when I designed this place,” he jokes, with a six-shooting finger. We laugh. Bob is like that.

During his time as a commercial voiceover, he’s been caught “pushing the limits of friiiiied chicken” for Popeyes, hawking Smuckers, and lending gravitas to the Jason Bourne franchise (“He tried to warn them. … They should have listened.”) So shame is hard to come by. His website has a separate page featuring a comically mustachioed “Cowboy Bob,” who affects a rural twang for companies like Caterpillar or Chevrolet. As Bob walks and talks me through the rooms in his capacious home, it’s startling to hear his hammy warble leaped straight from the movie trailers. (As one satisfied producer in Arizona put it: “We love Bob’s voice so much because when he says words like ‘divorce’ and ‘bankruptcy,’ it doesn’t seem so bad.”)

When it comes to today’s increasingly nasty, say-anything political messaging, such guileless dissembling has never been in greater demand. Bob once cut campaign ads for all comers. But in the wake of a thumping victory for President Bush and congressional Republicans in 2004, Bob made a steep bet as to where the political winds were blowing.

“There was something calling me to the Republican Party,” he says, with a hint of pride. “I was being told to take a stand.”

So an ad Bob cut in Arkansas in conjunction with Family Council Radio whipped votes for an anti-gay ballot amendment that “keeps imitation marriages like same-sex civil unions from being recognized.” In Michigan, he hammered a female candidate for attorney general as soft on crime. You get the idea. Conservative ad writers play for regional votes—jingoism in the mountain West, “family values” in plains states, and “a lot of God and religion” in the South, Bob says—and he serves it all with a smile.

Kind of like now. Our early morning session is in service of two GOP congressional candidates from Utah and Colorado. Standing before the microphone in his home studio, Bob’s frozen teeth and open stance match the image in his half-page ad in the Hill newspaper (which I’ve brought along), promising “the right voice now.”

Javier, a technician with the Florida company that’s producing the ads, pipes in on speakerphone. Soon Alex, the director of both spots—and brother of the Utah hopeful—calls in. Bob, ever the consummate actor, has diligently marked up his script. After a few ball-busting jokes, he launches into five takes of the first ad, a 30-second radio spot for a challenger for the retiring Tom Tancredo’s seat. Bob treats the boilerplate language like he’s reciting an Elizabethan soliloquy: A $9 trillion debt dragging down the economy. A record-busting federal budget. And now Washington liberals want higher taxes. After each sentence, he sucks his breath sharply. Mike Coffman’s proven he’ll fight for balanced budgets, lower taxes, and a stronger economy.

If the Republican brand is floundering, admakers like Alex don’t know it. His disembodied voice comes through the speakerphone expressing approval for Bob’s delivery—but would he mind doing it once more, with feeling?

Alex: “So, Bob, on this, if you want to be a little dismayed here on the first few lines, and then positive when Mike comes on board?”

Bob: “Right.”

Javier: “And you got, like, plenty of time on this, too. Two point five seconds. You got—”

Bob: “Not pissed off, just dismayed?”

Alex: “Oh, no … Be dramatic on the first three lines … You’re a little ticked off, a little disappointed.”

Bob: “Okay.”

Javier: “Pound on ’em a little bit, Bob, pound ’em.”

And so he does. After each cut, he also fires out the obligatory “Paid for by Coffman for Congress.” That pay is how Bob maintains his well-heeled home—from home. He charges several hundred dollars for just a few moments of partisan ire (the Chaffetz/Coffman session takes 30 minutes).

“You can do this in your PJs,” he tells me.

cowboybob.jpg Campaign ads give Bob—a boomer born in Ohio in the era of Kennedys and Kings—the chance to slip into a politician’s skin. “I love political work,” he says. “If I could only do political voiceovers I would.” His hands rub and fold like an anxious candidate as he drives home the message for Jason Chaffetz in Utah. Jason Chaffetz will stand up for all of us, protect the border, enforce our immigration laws and demand English as our national language. While the tape rolls, it’s striking to see the jovial, uncle-ish Bob morph into a partisan demagogue. Soaking in his baritone (“Wellll, attorneys had their turn in Congress”), one is tempted to “pound on ’em,” too. But as he finishes the ad—destined to play in one of the most staunchly Republican districts in America—Bob reverts to sunshine mode: “Gosh, was I too fast on that last line?” he asks.

“You read the copy. Some things you agree with, and some things you go, uhhhh, I don’t know about that”A listening cynic could imagine that Bob would like nothing more than to convene a liberal-poaching party with his Second Amendment–guaranteed hunting rifle. He doesn’t; he claims to be that rare, nonideological mercenary who listens to Limbaugh and also catches MSNBC. Ironic, since he occupies such a pivotal role in Republican strategy. Of the nine Republican congressional candidates that he cut ads for in the bruising 2006 cycle, all won elections, even in swing states like Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

For a time this winter, he was the voice of GOP phenom Ron Paul. (“I even bought a little hat and a sweatshirt,” he confesses.) And just weeks after airing the blitz of ads Bob helped narrate, Jason Chaffetz took out a six-term incumbent in Utah’s Republican primary, and Coffman picked up his party’s nod in Colorado. The Hill called the Chaffetz upset evidence of “anti-incumbent mood”—but just as likely, it was the Bob Jump touch.

Of course, he recently voiced an attack ad titled “Both Ways Barack,” organized by a shadowy 527 called Let Freedom Ring. This is par for the course. Somehow, Bob finds careening from righteous indignation to neighborly charm a perfectly natural way to spend his days. But in 2008, what floats in Utah won’t fix what ails America, and—on some level—Bob knows this. “You can’t pick and choose ’em kid, you can’t pick and choose ’em,” he sighs. “You read the copy, some things you agree, with some things you go, uhhhh, I don’t know about that.” He laughs nervously.

It’s probably for the best that Bob considers himself one of the last few artistes in the hard-boiled world of political admaking. He clearly loves the thrill of minor fame (Marvin Bush proffers a prominent website “testimonial”). But treating politics as performance art may be the only way to remain convincing in the face of the dispiriting gaps in party identification and policy preference among the 2008 electorate. Bob’s baritone may be the right voice, perhaps—but for the wrong year.

Dayo Olopade

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