The Gray Geezer Sinks to the Bottom to Stay on Top
Randy Bechtel
Sinking to the Bottom to Stay on Top

My last chance to be voted President-Elect of my Rotary Club would be two months from now. After that, I would become unelectable because everyone would learn that I had retired. In my club, members fall into a hierarchy of three categories. At the top are club leaders, who are associated with the titles of President-Elect, President or Past President. Next are members professionally active, who are associated with their professions. At the bottom are retirees, who are associated with their most notable medical conditions. If not voted President-Elect, I would go from Public Relations and Marketing Consultant Randy Bechtel to Randy Bechtel with hemorrhoids.

To maintain a professional facade, I agreed to lunch with fellow Rotarian and tax attorney E. Godfrey Hurlbut and his son-in-law, Ted.  E. Godfrey told me that Ted was a candidate for county supervisor and in need of free advice on what to do and what not to do when appearing on television. E. Godfrey, I learned, was Ted’s campaign manager.

Until then, I had thought E. Godfrey apolitical aside from his resembling Woodrow Wilson stretched horizontally in a funhouse mirror. Yet the man who insisted on being called “E. Godfrey” even by his wife was now telling me that his “flair for politics” had wowed his son-in-law, a politician “destined to become one of the great millennial visionaries.” Ted’s being wowed by E. Godfrey wowed me until I learned that Ted was a podiatrist. Not even in my days as a newspaper political reporter did I hear of anyone rising from the ranks of podiatry to become a politician, let alone a visionary.

Before Ted joined us at the restaurant, E. Godfrey told me that I needn’t consult his son-in-law on message. E. Godfrey and his “staff” were handling that. All Ted needed were tips on how best to deliver his messages on television. E. Godfrey’s political flair did not extend to television because, as everyone knew who knew E. Godfrey, E. Godfrey did not watch television. I had media trained CEOs, company spokespersons, attorneys and professors during my career, but no one since my business focused on Internet communications some 20 years ago. No matter. Television is television. My challenge was not knowing what to say, but remembering to say it. 

“This 12-year incumbent, Mrs. Madison, will be a stern test for us,” E. Godfrey said. “Fortuitously my firm patronizes Mrs. Madison’s printer, so we managed to receive a preview of her campaign poster. Her tagline reads: ‘Marla Madison, Pro-Family, Pro-Taxpayer.’ Well, you can see our problem!”

“Yes—I suppose—if you mean it implies Ted is anti-family and anti-taxpayer, which I assume he’s not, that being a platform not likely to resonate with voters.”  

“Exactly!” E. Godfrey said. “It all goes to one marketing principle . . .”

What E. Godfrey said next did not register because I was preoccupied with trying envision an anti-family anti-taxpayer politician. However, I’ve no doubt that E. Godfrey spouted a version of something he had babbled about for weeks, e.g.:

“If you advertise something consumers want, whether you can deliver or not, consumers will come to you thinking you are unique if none of your competitors advertise they do the same thing, even if they do. Case on point: Focus groups told my firm that the foremost grievance of consumers of legal services was that attorneys do not return their phone calls. All our literature now proclaims we return phone calls on the same business day, a claim no other firm makes. It’s a promise we violate daily, but which indubitably was key to our generating a 4.8 percent increase in new clientele last year.”

“Good—yes--very good, E. Godfrey,” I said absently.

E. Godfrey stood and said, “Ted, my boy, welcome!” As I stood, E. Godfrey said, “Randy Bechtel, I’d like you to meet our next county supervisor, Ted Buntee!”

“Ted Bunnn . . . ?” I said shaking a freckled hand.

“Buntee, yes.. I get that all the time,” Ted laughed. “People have to wonder how an unknown like me can run for county supervisor.”

“People won’t be wondering for long!”  E. Godfrey said, pointing to Heaven. I could not help but glance up.

“E. Godfrey, you better tell Randy about our survey of Sacramento County voters,” Ted said as we sat.

“Yes, well, we wanted to pierce the voter veil,” E. Godfrey said, “so we commissioned a telephone survey. Of course, not wanting respondents to know Ted’s campaign was behind the survey, our callers said they worked for The New York Times.”

“No harm, no foul,” Ted interjected.

E. Godfrey continued: “The first part of the survey asked respondents whether their impression of a politician’s name was positive or negative. Our list consisted of Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Pence, Joe Biden, Marla Madison and Ted. Ted was the only one to receive all negative responses. The obvious explanation, of course, is that he is the only one of the group completely unknown.”

“But not for long!” Ted said. He snapped his fingers. “Which reminds me, E. Godfrey: What about my brochure saying, ‘Ted Buntee, 100% Pro-Family, 100% Pro-Taxpayer?’ It should force people to wonder whether Mrs. Madison is a full 100 percent on both.”

“An interesting idea, indeed, Ted!” E. Godfrey enthused. ”One I think too good to pass on. But Randy is with us now not to talk about message, but to discuss how you should perform on television. And especially for your debate on Public Access.”

I had gone from media training movers-and-shakers for interviews on “NBC Nightly News,” “60 Minutes” and “Frontline,” to training Ted for a debate on Sacramento Public Access. No wonder I was retired.    

The waiter came.  

After he left, I launched into a media training introduction focused on television. Unlike print and radio, TV is a visual medium that appeals more to emotion than intellect. Often what you say can be less important than the way you say it. Such was the lesson of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate. Those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won; those who watched it on television thought Kennedy won. Physical appearance, mannerisms and voice must combine with your words to successfully convey a critical and overriding message: “I am someone you like and trust.”

It was a very abbreviated introduction timed to end before our food came, but also to enable me to ask sooner than later one burning question:  “Speaking of appearance, Ted, why do you have a flattop? It’s not something you ordinarily see today. For old timers like me, it’s nostalgic, reminding me of the 1960s and popular TV personalities like Garry Moore and Bill Cullen. But for people 55 and younger, it will beg the question: ‘What’s with your haircut?’”

“Which is the question I want asked,” Ted said. “Yes, I want to be linked to the ‘60s—to narrow black ties and white shirts with shirt-pocket pencil holders—to the iconic images of NASA astronauts and the men behind consoles with slide rules at Mission Control. America needs to begin where it left off in the 1960s and early ‘70s. It needs to make manned space exploration our top priority. It’s time we went to Mars! That’s what I stand for!”

“Yes, well, that’s fine, Ted,” I said, “but space exploration usually isn’t an issue handled by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.”

“But why not?” Ted boomed. “That’s what has to change in this country. Support for manned space exploration must begin at home. Randy, do you know what my motto is?”

“I couldn’t guess.”

“My motto is: ‘The journey to Mars will be a giant leap for mankind that begins with one small step for man leaving his house.”

“Inspiring!” enthused E. Godfrey. “That needs to go in your brochure.”

Our food came.

I next spoke about energy level. Success on television begins with projecting yourself beyond the medium’s two dimensions. This is done by maintaining an energy level that is a 10 on a scale of one to 10. People usually feel ridiculous doing this until they see how television dials down their performance from exaggerated to expressive. The trick to maintaining high energy is being demonstrative with your hands. “Talk using your hands as an Italian would,” I tell people. In a normal media training session I would have illustrated this point with clips of politicians and television personalities.

“What about feet?” Ted asked.

“Feet?” I said.

“Feet!” Ted said.

Suddenly a big bare foot shot up above the table beside Ted’s head. Its toes wiggled. Then its big toe pointed at me and wagged up and down. I was tempted to look beneath the table to see if the foot belonged to a fourth person. Ted must be double, triple or God-knows-how-many jointed to be doing what he was.

“You talk about energy,” Ted said. “People are never more energetic than when their feet are active.”

Mercifully his foot lowered and returned beneath the table to a flip flop, a choice of footwear I had failed to notice when we were introduced. God only knows what elastic material his pants were made from.

“Judging by the reaction of the people around us,” E. Godfrey said, “feet may be more effective than hands at breaking through TV’s two dimensions.”

“That’s because the human foot surpasses the hand as an incredible piece of evolutionary engineering!” Ted said. “Did you know that the greatest engineering challenge in patterning robots after human beings has been replicating the human foot?”

“I don’t doubt it, Ted,” I said. “And Ted, I also don’t doubt people like and trust you when it comes to their feet. But that said, this election will not turn on what Sacramento County can do for voters’ feet.”

“Food for thought, Ted,” E. Godfrey said.

Ted nodded thoughtfully as he rubbed his flat redhaired head.

“Think about it, Ted,” I said. “Your haircut is a flattop because you want to remind voters of the men at NASA’s Mission Control, who are emblematic of your campaign’s theme, which calls for the resumption of manned space exploration. I was alive during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Believe me when I tell you, never did anyone at Mission Control appear on camera barefoot. Every one of them, from Werner von Braun on down, wore black socks and black shoes.”

“Which is what every man worth his salt wore back then,” E. Godfrey interjected.

After this lunch, I thought, I am going alone to a bar!

I said: “Yes, well, that is because, back then, every man worth his salt was gung-ho for manned space exploration. In any case, my point is, Ted, your being barefoot will project an image that is inconsistent with going to Mars.” 

Ted’s eyes rounded. “You know, you’re right!  Whoever heard of a barefoot astronaut?”

“That’s why Randy is here, Ted,” E. Godfrey chimed. “He’s a professional!”

It was music to my ears. I could hear E. Godfrey singing my praises to Rotary Club members for two months to come. But then—suddenly--the music died.

“By the way, when is this television debate?” I asked.

“Five weeks from today,” E. Godfrey said. “And because of your help today, I’m more confident than ever that voters will stand up and take notice of the name Ted Bundy!”

A fine how do you do!  E. Godfrey would sing my praises all right, but then urge club members to witness proof of it by watching Ted’s debate! The measure of my professionalism will become the performance of a flat-topped podiatrist named Ted Buntee arguing that he should be elected county supervisor to lead mankind to Mars. In the end, I will have hidden from club members that I had retired only to give them reason to think I should retire.

“So Randy, do you think it would be counterproductive if I made one change to my motto?” Ted said. “I was thinking that instead of saying ‘one small step for man,’ it should say ‘one small footstep for man.’”

I thought: Take a giant leap, Ted!


Copyright © 2019 by Randy Bechtel

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