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Mark Bennett Opinion

September 19, 2013

MARK BENNETT: ‘The voice of the Democratic Party’

Lary Lewman’s voice-overs defined modern presidential campaigns

TERRE HAUTE — The ad stands as a campaign classic. Its scenario is part of history. Its narrator would be familiar to millions of Americans, yet anonymous, too.

Political insiders knew Lary Lewman’s name, though.

His voice graced election-season commercials for candidates for the U.S. House, Senate and, yes, the Oval Office. The list includes the 1992 TV ad for Bill Clinton in his first race for the White House against incumbent George H.W. Bush. The 30-second spot pins the president on his infamous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Citing several deviations from that vow, the narrator, Lewman, closes with, “Now George Bush wants to give a $108,000 tax break to millionaires. Guess who’s going to pay? We can’t afford four more years.”

Lewman became a pioneer of the modern era of political ads, beginning with Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. His easy, mid-range tenor worked so well in that season, campaign consultants kept calling.

“And that’s how he became the voice of the Democratic Party,” his son, Lance Lewman, said Wednesday. “Everybody had to have Lary, and it really exploded in the ’80s and ’90s.”

His voice perfectly fit the party’s desires. As Lewman told the Washington Post in 2000, “Traditionally, Republicans tend to like the voice of God. Democrats tend to like the voice next door.” Thus, he considered himself “the guy next door, Joe Sixpack.”

The label matched Lewman’s Hoosier roots — “a small-town country boy who came to the big city,” as his widow, Nancy Lewman, put it Wednesday. Born in Clinton, raised near Montezuma, educated in Terre Haute at Indiana State University, the newly wedded Lewman left the Wabash Valley in 1959 with Nancy and a degree in English and drama to put his skills to use in “the big city” — the Washington, D.C., beltway market, specifically Baltimore, Md.

This Saturday, a celebration of life will unfold in a church near Baltimore, where hundreds will remember Lewman’s talent, poetry, humility and likable nature. He died July 11 in his Clarksville, Md., home after an 18-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 76. Baltimore saw him as an icon, from his leading roles on local TV shows to his spring and fall readings in a city park as the Shakespearean-attired “Poetryman.” Washington’s powerful Democrats cherished his vocal gifts, able to translate the complex and controversial into an easy-going, common-sense, half-minute message.

His admirers were many. Nancy has heard a steady stream of remembrances. “The number of men who have cried, talking on the phone about him, is amazing,” she said.

Bill Clinton remains grateful. This week, the former president sent Lewman’s family — which includes Nancy, their two children and three grandchildren — a letter to be read at Saturday’s celebration of life.

“I got to know Lary when he did really fine voice-over work for my presidential campaign ads, and I had the pleasure of commemorating his retirement in 2000,” Clinton wrote in the letter. “He used to say he had ‘the voice next door,’ and he was right — there was something about the way he spoke that just made sense to people. His legacy will live on through his remarkable work, and I know he will long be remembered as America’s town crier.”

Clinton did a role reversal in that 2000 retirement dinner in Washington’s Capitol Hilton. Lewman had chosen to end his voice-over career as the early stages of Parkinson’s emerged, and that evening he was to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Mid-Atlantic chapter of SAG-AFTRA, a union for professional actors and broadcast artists. Clinton, still the sitting president, narrated a biography video — like a homespun, get-to-know-the-candidate campaign ad — on Lewman.

“So we played that at his retirement, which he could not believe,” Lance recalled. “That was huge.”

Lewman routinely deflected attention. “He was a very humble person,” said his brother, Mike Lewman, who lives in southern Parke County. In that 2000 Post interview, Lary insisted, “I’m just an anonymous guy. I’m just the voice.”

People listened.

At one point, the Post reported, he earned $500,000 a year through voice-over work — a job that included 12-hour days in presidential years.

Surprisingly, Lewman was largely apolitical, though “as time passed, he was definitely Democratic,” Nancy said. The party never asked his leanings. “He was just a voice,” his wife said. “He could do what they wanted him to do. He could read cold [with no preparation], because he was an actor.” He often nailed the ads in one take.

A few times, Lewman rejected requests to do voice-overs, including ads for the National Rifle Association, a stealth bomber and nuclear power plants. In his days as star of the popular Baltimore kids show, “Pete the Pirate,” he was handed a candy commercial saying, “If your mom loves you, she’ll buy these candies,” Nancy said, “and he refused to say that.

“He was a very principled man,” she added, and “a family man.”

Lewman expressed, and exemplified, those principles, Nancy said. Each spring, for 38 years, he wrote a new poem and mailed it to 600 people. One of the recipients told Nancy, “He was just the kind of person you don’t see much of any more.” He gave those “Poetryman” performances as a way to “give back to Baltimore,” a city Lary initially found too big and busy, Nancy said, compared with Terre Haute.

And then there was a woman who heard Lewman deliver her high school commencement address years ago and contacted Nancy after Lary’s passing. She never forgot his message “to work hard, believe in love, trust in God, and never give up,” Nancy said.

“I have tried to live by that speech, and I have tried to pass it on to other graduating students,” the woman wrote. “I wanted to tell you that, because he affected the lives of other people, some he didn’t even know.”

Clearly, Lary Lewman was more than “just a voice.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

To watch and hear a 1992 campaign ad for Bill Clinton,

narrated by Lary Lewman, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-U0wFoYAXk

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