Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who has managed each of Biden’s campaigns, watched reels sent in from 17 different firms but couldn’t get past the fifth one she saw — a two-minute biographical spot for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) that was produced by White.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be able to translate my brother emotionally on film,’” said Biden Owens, who calls herself “the demanding sister from hell” when it comes to Biden’s campaigns.
In late October 1996, with just more than a week to go, the team learned there would be a large independent expenditure ad against Biden on Philadelphia TV. Despite internal polling that showed Biden up 32 points, the campaign felt it needed to make one more media splash.
“So my brother and I called Slade White at midnight at my house — he’s on the living room phone, I’m on the kitchen phone,” Biden Owens said.
They told White they wanted an ad on Philly TV, a top-five media market, with 1,500 gross ratings points. Biden Owens said they would have agreed to 2,000 points if White wanted. Instead, he told them he could do it for 750 points and would have a script to them by morning.
“After we talked for a length of time, we hung up, and my brother and I are meeting back in the hall,” Biden Owens said. “He looked at me and said, ‘If I didn’t trust that son of a gun so much I’d be absolutely positive he was sabotaging us.’”
The ad, which Biden Owens called the “Star Wars spot,” featured only Biden’s photo at the end, and instead of narration, White used moving text set to dramatic music.
Biden went on to win with 60 percent of the vote, and a few years later, White hired Biden Owens to serve as executive vice president of his firm, a post she’s held for 12 years.
“You have 27 seconds in a 30-second commercial to get your point across, so every word has to count and every picture has to count,” Biden Owens said. “He takes all his information from facts, research and polling. His methodology is that you have to engage the voter or audience emotionally.”
White said he tends to work for “progressive” Democrats who are behind in money and polling, which was true last cycle of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who hired White in August 2010 and trailed in polls taken for the duration of the contest but ended up winning by less than a point.
“That campaign was fun because there was no way we were going to win. There was no possible way,” White said.
Other memorable clients include the late Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.); the late Rep. Peter Rodino (N.J.), who led the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon; former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who defeated then-House Minority Whip David Bonior in the Democrats’ 2002 gubernatorial primary; Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign; and the late Rep. Mo Udall (Ariz.), one of White’s first clients.
After the 1972 McGovern campaign, White joined McGovern’s Senate press office. The 23-year-old then left his stable job to start his own media consulting firm.