Who Says You Can't Mix Art and Politics? Filmmaker/Adman Bob Squier Leads a Double Life
Robert Squier leads a kind of split-screen life. On one side, he is one of the nation's hottest media merchants, an image-making pol-pusher whose former clients include Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart and Ed Muskie. On the other, he is a maker of quality films for Public Broadcasting, trying to do for America what the BBC does for Britain. Lately he's been working both jobs in Massachusetts. On the political front he guided a gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Michael Dukakis, to victory in a tough Democratic primary. "We were outspent 3-to-1," says Squier, "so we built a counterpunch strategy of using radio ads instead of TV." Differing over current strategy, Squier and Dukakis have since parted company, but the filmmaker is still in the Berkshires. He is shooting a PBS documentary about 19th-century novelist Herman Melville. Somehow Squier, 48, manages to find harmony in his two careers. "They feed each other," he says. "The creativity comes from doing the longer films. It charges my batteries."
The director is seeking Melville among the western Massachusetts hills, where he lived for 13 years from the age of 31. Among the locations are the spot where Melville picnicked with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1850, and Arrowhead, the Pittsfield farm where Melville wrote his masterpiece, Moby Dick. The dean of Melville fans, Henry A. Murray, 89, stopped by to visit, sporting a scarf dotted with sperm whales. It was Murray, a Harvard psychologist, who gave Freud his first copy of Moby Dick in 1925. "Freud said the whale was obviously a father figure," he reports. Murray was interviewed for the show, as was Ray Bradbury, who wrote the 1956 film Moby Dick. Reports Squier: "He told us he thought his script ending was better than Melville's."
After filming in the South Pacific and New York, where Melville spent his last 19 years in obscurity as a customs inspector, Squier will get his show ready for PBS airing in January 1984. After that, he is to embark on docubiographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.
Meanwhile, Squier is making video spots for five candidates this fall, all Democrats. "We always work for the best candidate," he says innocently, "and it just turns out they are always Democrats." He's already being courted by 1984 presidential possibles Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart—all willing to pay his $50,000 campaign fee. He's keeping his options open. "I'd do it for the right candidate," he says. "I'd like to win once." Squier has had his failures—Sen. Birch Bayh and New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (both in 1980) among them. "I despise losing," he grumbles. Until he met those twin setbacks, Squier had a hot streak going, with his candidates winning 24 out of 25 races.
Raised in Minnesota and Iowa, Squier set his mind and body on becoming "the best swimmer in the United States." He was a scholarship athlete at Iowa State University when "one day, I walked into the wrong campus building for a class and my eyes just peeled back." It was a TV studio. "I didn't know anything like that existed and got myself a nonpaying job." The next year he "broke the swim coach's heart" and transferred to the University of Minnesota to learn TV. In his senior year there, he produced and directed his first film, The Family of Man, with Edward Steichen, which won him a job in public TV. At the same time, he took charge of TV commercials for Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman's 1956 reelection campaign (Mondale was the campaign manager). Squier worked for public TV until 1968, when Lyndon Johnson arm-twisted him into handling his TV campaign. Two days later, Johnson decided not to run. "My first job as a full-fledged political consultant lasted 48 hours," Squier moans. Then he transferred to Hubert Humphrey's losing campaign. "I really loved the man," he says. "You can't stand any loss, but that loss was very, very sad."
Today, Squier runs two concerns—his profitable Communications Company with seven staffers for political ads, and the nonprofit Film Company for serious television documentaries—near his home on Washington's Capitol Hill. He and his second wife, Prudence, also have a country house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of his two sons, Mac, 20, works for him part-time, writing music for many of the ads.
It is a mark of Squier's success at living two lives that he manages at the same time to maintain an eternal tan. "Nobody," he orders employees at his companies, "can be funnier or tanner than the boss."
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