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Lighting Up the Campaign

The mystery of Butt Man (or woman, as the case may be) continues. No one will admit to creating the 7-foot-tall cigarette that dogs Bob Dole.

July 11, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You've heard of the political yes-man, now meet Butt Man.

Or rather, don't meet Butt Man.

At the Democratic National Committee in Washington, the actual identity of the Shaquille O'Neal-sized cigarette that follows Bob Dole from state to state is a more closely guarded secret than Bill Clinton's actual weight.

"For now," said Amy Weiss Tobe at DNC headquarters, "we've decided not to reveal anything about Butt Man."

This message cannot have been easy for Weiss Tobe to deliver with an entirely straight face. In a presidential campaign season, Weiss Tobe is accustomed to fielding questions about important social policy. She probably did not go to college so she could fend off curiosity about a 7-foot-tall, foam rubber cigarette.

But Butt Man's relentless presence at a series of appearances by presumed Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole has fanned the flames of fascination. Who dreamed up this mischievous prankster? Which excessively paid political consultant actually expended brain cells on this clever concept?

"A group of people came up with the idea," Weiss Tobe confided. She would not disclose if Butt Man was conceived in a smoke-filled room, and it was clear from her tone that she would rather have been discussing soybean legislation, infrastructure, the economy, almost anything other than a guy who runs around in a coffin nail costume.

That raised additional pressing urgencies. How do we know Butt Man is a man, anyway? And if Butt Man is a woman, what is the politically correct way to address her?

Her voice polite, maybe slightly on the edge of impatience, Weiss Tobe declined to speculate about Butt Man's gender.

Weiss Tobe was equally circumspect about Butt Man's personal life. She would not say if Butt Man is married. She had no information about how Butt Man's family feels about his / her career choice. Did Butt Man receive special training for the role? Weiss Tobe had no comment. Does Butt Man earn a salary? Weiss Tobe wouldn't say. And firmly, very firmly, she put the kabosh on any thoughts of speaking directly to Butt Man.

"Butt Man is not doing interviews at this time," she said.

Fully formed--if one can apply that description to a giant cigarette with stumpy little arms--Butt Man sprang into existence last month after the candidate formerly known as senator announced that for some people, tobacco was not necessarily addictive. Dole, a former smoker, made this pronouncement during a campaign visit to Kentucky, a major tobacco-growing state.

The Republican presidential aspirant amplified his views on smoking--sort of--during a recent heated exchange on the "Today" show. "There is a mixed view among scientists and doctors whether it's addictive or not. I'm not certain whether it's addictive. It is to some people," he said.

Later, at a campaign stop soon thereafter in Birmingham, Ala., Dole made Butt Man the happiest pretend cigarette in the world when he declared, "We know it's not good for kids [to smoke], but a lot of things aren't good. Drinking's not good; some would say milk's not good."

For Butt Man, or Woman, such remarks were lighted matches. Soon he (or she) was everywhere Bob Dole was. Flapping those abbreviated arms, the oversized filtered cigarette was spotted distributing phony dollar bills featuring not George Washington, but "Smokin' Bob Dole." At the Fourth of July parade in Wheaton, Ill., Butt Man rode on the Democratic party's float.

Such a patriotic occasion was tailor-made for Butt Man. The cigarette descends, after all, from a proud and noble American tradition of merry--and sometimes not-so-merry--political stunts. In the 1992 presidential race, for example, an enormous chicken became a fixture at President Bush's campaign stops after Bush temporarily refused to debate then-Gov. Clinton. But far from an annoyance or a distraction, former Bush campaign czarina Mary Matalin said Chicken George became a rather endearing figure.

"We had dinner with President Bush [Sunday] night, and we were laughing about Chicken George," said Matalin, now a talk show host for CNBC. The chicken, Matalin said, became part of candidate Bush's campaign shtick. If by chance the chicken was missing, Bush invariably expressed disappointment.

*

True, Chicken George did gobble up way too much press attention, especially the time it got arrested and once when it was stuck in a phone booth, Matalin said. But like Butt Man, she maintained, Chicken George represented the lighter, more amusing side of a political process that these days is better known for its meanness than its amazing sense of humor.

Politics is juvenile on a good day--grown men and women wearing ridiculous hats and making promises they have no plans of ever keeping--so what could be undignified about a gigantic chicken or a big cigarette? Matalin opined.

"I think Butt Man is pretty funny," she said. "In fact, it's given the Dole campaign a chance to get off some pretty good lines."

Nor was former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, troubled by Butt Man.

"Let's face it, this is not covert. It's not Donald Segretti," said Dukakis, referring to the leader of former President Nixon's legendary tricksters.

Butt Man has not yet been photographed alongside Dole. But President Clinton's senior advisor George Stephanopoulos, a fun-loving fellow himself, hopes that day will come, and has promised a case of champagne to the first successful giant cigarette to appear in a picture with the former Kansas senator.

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