The impact of political endorsements is hard to measure. But for about 200 people who packed Burlington’s nightspot Nectar’s on Tuesday in support of President Barack Obama’s re-election, the backing of a single person was enough to spark both cheers and donations.
His name, Jonathan Goldsmith, is not that familiar. In the past, as an actor he was sometimes one of the supporting bad guys on classic TV show like “Bonanza,” “MacGyver,” “Knight Rider,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The A-Team” and “Dallas.” What has made him a minor player in the 2012 election, however, is his starring role for the past five years as “the most interesting man in the world” in popular commercials for Dos Equis beer.
The elaborate ad campaign, filled with faux-documentary footage and a clever series of “biographical” insights, is based on the premise that he is someone who has done and seen just about everything. “His personality is so magnetic he is unable to carry credit cards,” one ad offers. Another one notes that “mosquitoes refuse to bite him, purely out of respect.”
The ads usually end with a signature line. In some, Goldsmith explains with a slight accent, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.” But the catch phrase that has worked its way into popular speech is “Stay thirsty, my friends.” The campaign has been an enormous hit, credited for helping to fuel a 15 percent increase in U.S. sales for the beer in 2009.
Goldsmith won the role in a “cattle call” audition. In 2009 he recalled the process with entertainment writer Steve Lewis. “There were 400 people that looked like Juan Valdez sitting there. And I said, ‘Oh my God. Why are they sending me out for this?’” Nevertheless, he got the part, and he credits the persona he has developed to Fernando Lamas, an old friend and sailing partner.
Now that Goldsmith is an advertising legend, Democrats hope the “most interesting man” can use his commercial charisma on behalf of Barack Obama. He recently endorsed the president’s re-election bid.
At the Burlington event, he briefly provided some reasons.
“I don’t want to go back,” Goldsmith said. “I want to go forward.”
Passion and hope
Goldsmith’s remarks began with a reference to Clint Eastwood, who recently made news with his improvised appearance during the Republican National Convention. He appeared with the star more than 40 years ago in the western film “Hang ‘em High.”
In the movie Eastwood hunted Goldsmith’s character down after being lynched by a vigilante gang. It was time to “get even,” he joked.
He also mentioned his debut TV role, a brief appearance on “The Doctors.” His single line was supposed to be, “Doctor, she has a contusion on her ankle.” But Goldsmith went blank under pressure and flubbed it.
It was an inauspicious start, he concluded, “but this is a new beginning.” The problem is that “so many people are complacent.”
Goldsmith’s recommended solution, which he described as a simple battle plan, is to “go out and find that person who has not made up their mind.” This fit in with the purpose of the event – recruiting some volunteers to campaign in New Hampshire, a likely swing state this November.
Then Goldsmith turned to Obama’s famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Tears welled up in his eyes as he explained how he felt “passionately about one America,” and he said that the president “is really the hope he talks about.”
His brief appearance ended with another joke, this one related to both the event’s location and the ad campaign that has made him an iconic figure. There’s a rumor circulating, Goldsmith warned, “you have run out of Dos Equis.”
Billed as an Obama Victory Fund event, the evening was organized by state Rep. Kesha Ram, Goldsmith’s second cousin. The price of admission ranged from $20 for guests to $500 for sponsors.
Democratic officials in the crowd included Sens. Dick McCormack, Philip Baruth and Sally Fox, Burlington City Council President Joan Shannon, and John Tracy, state director for Sen. Pat Leahy. The host committee included Shannon, Melinda Moulton, Carolyn Dwyer, Mary Sullivan, David Scherr, Jared Carter, Rep. Jill Krowinski, and Rep. Jean O’Sullivan.
Following a few songs by Justin Levinson and The Valcours, Ram took the stage to introduce the speakers.
“Are you fired up?” she called out. “Ready to Go? Fired up? Ready to go?” The same phrases are often used by Obama to stir up crowds. In this case Ram turned them into a brief, spirited call and response moment.
After the event, she explained that the evening had been especially emotional for her “because Jonathan and Barbara are family.” It took months to plan, she said.
Mayor Miro Weinberger appeared relaxed and enthusiastic as he gave brief remarks. “On one hand we have a president who has delivered,” he explained. “On the other hand we have a candidate who can’t go a week without putting his foot in his mouth.”
Expressing confidence that new online tools may give Democrats the edge nationally during the final organizing push, he nevertheless warned about “a cloud” hanging over the election – the power of enormous sums of money that will be spent before Nov. 6.
New Hampshire Youth Voter Director Ben Wessel and UVM organizer Eliza Kelsten were next, trying to mobilize any students and young voters in the audience for the big New Hampshire push.
The final speaker before Goldsmith was House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat from Morristown. He focused on the importance of the election’s outcome for Vermont’s progress on health care, renewable energy and education.
A brief and strange encounter
Before his moment at the microphone Goldsmith made small talk with selected guests and posed for photos in a secluded VIP section. Despite the image projected by his commercial persona, however, the “most interesting man” had little to share with local media.
Tweeting to followers during the event, Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway wondered why “he is off limits 2 press.” Even the right to take photos of him was selectively restricted.
Shortly after 6 p.m., before Nectar’s security closed off access to the VIP zone, Goldsmith raised no objection and flashed his trademark killer grin when I sat down next to his wife, Barbara Goldsmith. She is also his agent. After living for a while on his sailboat in Marina del Rey, the couple moved from California to Manchester, Vt., last year.
One question begging for an answer was about the hottest story of the day: What did the most interesting man in the world think of Mitt Romney’s recent video revelations? Another was about Goldsmith’s recent description of Vermont as “heaven on earth.”
With luck it might even be possible to verify rumors that he has done some “interesting” things in real life beyond acting. For example, has he actually rescued a stranded climber on Mount Whitney and saved a drowning girl in Malibu?
But our encounter was too brief to get the answers, and actually more strange than interesting.
Despite being merely four feet away Goldsmith claimed, a bit unconvincingly, that he could not hear the questions. Instead, he referred them to his wife. She then explained that any interview requests had to be cleared in advance with James Weir, an agent at the California office of Anderson Group. Although contacted days in advance, Weir did not respond to calls and emails.
Photos were also a sensitive subject. For donors or others who made it into the VIP area to pose with the main attraction there were no problems. But permission to snap press photos, even from 20 feet away, also had to be approved in advance. If this rule was violated and you were not on the correct list, explained a young member of Nectar’s security team, the result would be physical ejection from the premises.
Asked to intervene Ram told the bouncer, who identified himself as “none of your business,” to permit photos from a reasonable distance. But he vetoed that idea, saying he just did not feel comfortable about it. Ram explained that such decisions were really up to Nectar’s and any problem with security was beyond her control.
The restriction on shooting photos evaporated once Mayor Weinberger offered to help and Goldsmith took the stage. But the real reason is probably that cameras sense his wishes and instinctively obey. Unfortunately, we may never know.