The Importance of Bob Dole’s Erection
by Geoff Trenchard
illustration by Johnny Destructo
I WILL never forget the Pepsi commercial with Bob Dole and Britney Spears. I was 19, phenomenally unfit for fatherhood and sitting alone in a waiting room at Planned Parenthood. I had always been adamantly pro-choice, but this was the first time I was directly involved in that choice. I knew it was a good decision, but it felt so evil I thought the plastic plants around me would wilt.
The commercial goes a little something like this: Britney is lip-synching her way through a typical music video. Lots of attractive people are drinking Pepsi, and having fun doing it. Glitter sparkles. Dancers undulate. Pepsi is swallowed. The camera pans back to show that this is in fact a commercial being watched by Bob Dole and his golden retriever. He sits in a Barco lounge chair in an otherwise empty room, drinking a Pepsi. His golden retriever sits attentively at his side. As the camera switches back to the music video, the screen is filled with Britney’s breasts and the lower half of her face. The dog barks excitedly, and Dole pats it on the head with a knowing, “down, boy.”
This was way back in the ’90s, when the Internet was going to save the world and White House cover-ups only cost taxpayers an intern’s dry cleaning bill. Before Britney got pregnant and shaved her head and lost all credibility as an effective marketing nymph. She did the 51 percent virgin/49 percent whore shtick for as long as she could, but once the tabloids knew for certain she’d had sex, it just didn’t jibe. High-fructose corn syrup is wholesome business, and it can’t be promoted by just anybody. It’s almost sad to recall her first free-fall from grace: ejected like an empty shell out of the bolt-action rifle that is pop music for the sin of actually practicing some of the sex she sold. In the same fluid motion, the next plastic-mold-injection-ready teen princess graduates from the under-12 beauty pageant circuit. That, however, is a topic for another essay.
This essay is focused on Bob Dole’s erection. An erection sponsored at the time by Viagra, hence the subtext of the joke. This was just after his family-values mobile lost the race for the presidency of the United States. I sat there in the Planned Parenthood lobby, feeling male privilege and Jewish guilt churn in my stomach, and wondered why it was OK to imply that Bob Dole, and presumably his dog, wanted to fuck a teenager.
Before September 11 and the ultra-conservative wash over American culture, I believed it was just the cult of personality surrounding Dole that made this commercial somehow acceptable. Years ago, Nixon was considered the only politician who could go to China for diplomatic conferences. His political life, after all, was mostly spent leading communist witch hunts. He of all people could be trusted to be near the red menace and not catch the proletarian fever. Maybe, by a similar logic, only Bob Dole was conservative enough to be the hype man for a hard-on-inducing drug.
But aren’t two keystones of the American conservative movement the notions that sex is for procreation and not recreation, and that it should never be spoken of in the public arena?
Surely Dole’s wife has gone through menopause. If sex is for baby making, and old-people sex makes no babies, and you should never talk about sex on television, why are conservatives so pro-Viagra that they don’t mind one of their leaders pitching it? Not to mention he’s implying he’d use it to help him fuck an adolescent while he drinks Pepsi. How does this ad campaign and its well-paid spokesman stay dry under the conservative rhetorical umbrella?
This commercial went so unnoticed because it blended in with the other mediated sights and sounds of sex in our culture. Also, old white men can make babies till they die. Old women can’t make babies; conservative logic would dictate that Dole should sow his seeds in a fresher field. Bob Dole’s pharmaceutically maintained living-room erection, and the direction in which it was pointed, reminded us that it’s a man’s world. Specifically, it’s an old, white, rich man’s world and everybody else is just the staff. Bob Dole was just being populist when he confirmed that he knew what it’s like to get aroused by an attractive woman on television, even if she’s young enough to be his granddaughter.
When my girlfriend and I got back to the apartment we shared with three generations of a cockroach family, the power had been shut off. When deciding what bills we could afford to pay, we figured that PG&E doesn’t put a padlock on anything if they don’t get their due. Shortly thereafter we broke up and within six months we had completely drifted out of each other’s lives.
It’s been 10 years since then, and Bob Dole looks like a moderate compared to the rampant machismo of the Bush administration, Viagra-induced hard-on or no. Britney is more likely to do a commercial for Natural Ice than Pepsi these days. The Internet didn’t save the world, and impeaching someone for getting head is as absurd now as an orange alert would have seemed then. I never got another woman pregnant and cannot, for the life of me, forget this commercial.
Geoff Trenchard is a spoken word artist based in Oakland, CA. He has been a guest lecturer at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, New College of California, Cal Poly University, and San Quentin Penitentiary. He is currently a mentor with Youth Speaks, the national youth poetry, spoken word, and writing program. He continues to write and tour with the performance poetry trio the Suicide Kings.