- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2000

There hasn't been such a fuss about rats since the Pied Piper.
One-thirtieth of a second, four letters, an imaginary rat and multiple accusations have provoked a political flap of near biblical proportions for one day at least.
The Democrats believe a moment in a Republican campaign ad makes them out to be rats; the Republicans find the whole thing quite cheesy.
Both Al Gore and George W. Bush are dismayed by the situation for different reasons, but needless to say, the scurry is on.
"It sounds like happy hour at the Gore campaign lasted a little too long," Mr. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told the Associated Press yesterday. "If you play the ad backward, you hear the words 'Paul is dead.' "
Paul McCartney, that is. A notable urban legend back in 1969 claimed several Beatles records contained clues revealing that Mr. McCartney was dead. He wasn't, of course.
Now a hidden message has sparked the tempest du jour between political parties on the campaign trail.
First raised by the Gore campaign in a story specially tailored for the New York Times and highlighted yesterday on the front page, the tale of the rat drew some serious spinning.
Mr. Gore somberly allowed during an Ohio campaign stop that he found the campaign ad "disappointing," and later vowed: "I will never run a negative personal attack."
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, assured reporters that his campaign did not "need to be manufacturing subliminal messages to get my message out," a method the Texas governorcalled ridiculous.
"I want to put people's minds at ease," he continued. "This kind of practice is not acceptable."
But the presidential candidates are not referring to libelous smears and character assassination. This is about what some think they saw.
On Aug. 28, a new Republican campaign ad critical of costly prescription drugs began running in 33 cities. The dialogue was spare, the images minimal and the message simple enough: George W. Bush would remedy the problem with a new Medicare benefit.
One retired viewer in Seattle, however, read more into this little spot than that.
As graphics unfolded on the screen, Gary Greenup, 64, saw the word "bureaucrats" momentarily expand on screen into just plain "rats." He felt compelled to tape the ad, slow it down and review it again.
Did it contain some sort of wickedly subliminal message?
Mr. Greenup called the local Democratic Party with his theory, which in turn notified Al Gore's campaign handlers and a crisis was born.
"Democrats see, and smell, rats in GOP advertisement," stated the New York Times after Democratic officials gave a Times reporter their own miniproduction: a slowed-down video clip of the ad in question.
The Times expanded upon it with various experts who wondered if the moment was deliberate or accidental, and if it was "subliminal advertising" a subtle manipulation, which is considered counter to the public interest, but not illegal, by the FCC.
Rats were everywhere by noon yesterday as reporters took the story and skittered off with it.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos labeled the rat flap "more like a sophomoric prank than a dirty trick" while CBS' Bryant Gumbel called it "a new low." The BBC announced, "Democrats smell a campaign rat." CNN discussed the rat problem all afternoon.
Mr. Bush's aides, at least, were entertained, noting that Republicans were not "trying to get the rat vote" and that the ad also transformed the word "with" into "wit" on screen.
"Of all the cheesy stories I've dealt with in a long career, this has to be the most bizarre," Bush campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes said.
The spot's very creator was grilled about his work.
Veteran ad man Alex Castellanos shrugged it all off as more a matter of style than substance. He, too, sat down and watched the spot in slow motion with Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson at his side; neither could deduce a hidden message.
The shifting letters, Mr. Castellanos said yesterday, was a "visual drumbeat," an attention-getting device for viewers accustomed to the clutter of the media marketplace.
Ironically, the rat story is not new. Brit Hume of Fox News noted yesterday that he too had observed the revolving rat phenomenon in the campaign ad two weeks ago, and had frozen the moment on the screen for viewers.
Mr. Hume called the New York Times with the story twice, but got no response, he said.
"Perhaps the New York Times should change its slogan to 'all the news that's fit to reprint,' " Mr. Nicholson said yesterday.
Bemused veterans of election-year machinations dismiss the rat flap as the product of a slow news day. The point, though, is moot. The ad already has cycled out of its scheduled rotation and is no longer on the airwaves.
"We're ready to move into a post-rat world," said the RNC's Mark Pfeifle yesterday. "The real rat race is between AL Gore's one-size-fits-all prescription-drug plan, and Mr. Bush' plan, which gives people a choice. And that's a trap Mr. Gore does not want to address."

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