GOP's Nashville Billboard in Limbo

By Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:25 PM EDT

( - The status of a Republican Party billboard less than 200 yards from Vice President Al Gore's Nashville campaign headquarters remained in limbo Tuesday night after the company that sold the advertisement to the GOP refused to follow through on its agreement.

The Republican National Committee had signed a contract with Outdoor Systems to purchase advertising on a billboard some 500 feet from Gore's presidential campaign office, only to have the company refuse to accept the ad at the last minute.

The billboard showed a photograph of President Bill Clinton hugging Gore and included a caption reading 'One of Our Greatest Presidents," a statement made by Gore following the December 19, 1998 vote by the House of Representatives to impeach Clinton on two counts.

Mark Peterson, sales manager for Outdoor System's Nashville office, told that the last minute decision to cancel the contract was made by "upper management," who rejected the billboard because "we're not going to be a vehicle for negative advertising."

"We have contacted the Republicans and let them know our upper management has rejected that copy. It is not in the spirit of good advertising," Peterson told Tuesday afternoon.

The action prompted RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson to write Outdoor Systems Tuesday, saying he found the company's decision "puzzling" and asking that the company "reconsider your decision," to not accept the advertising.

Nicholson had planned on holding a news conference in Nashville November 30 to unveil the billboard and faxed his letter to Outdoor Systems, asking for "a similar courtesy as soon as possible."

The company appears to have acquiesced to Nicholson's request. In an apparent reversal, Outdoor Systems Director of Communications Tom Wisz told Tuesday evening that "In this situation, in the spirit of freedom of speech, the advertising copy was approved."

But no one at GOP headquarters in Washington was aware of the change in attitude by Outdoor Systems. An official with the RNC told that neither Nicholson nor his press staff had received such information from the company and as far as the committee was concerned, the billboard remained dead in the water.

"This is the same company that told us a few hours ago that the deal was off," said RNC spokesman Mark Pfeifle. "We need something in writing to make sure this is for real, not a voice mail message by some PR guy."

Wisz told late Tuesday that he was in the process of drafting a letter to GOP headquarters "to the effect that Outdoor Systems has approved the copy and will post the billboard as scheduled."

The Republican Party first learned that the billboard deal was off when it received a voice mail message Tuesday morning from Outdoor Systems Salesman Mark Sword, who said that selling the GOP the billboard space would "not be a good move for us from a corporate standpoint," according to the RNC.

The initial decision against selling the billboard to the RNC miffed Nicholson, who asked in his letter to Outdoor Systems "how could that image and that message possibly be seen... as something so 'negative' or 'anti-Democrat' that it deserves to be censored?"

Nicholson expressed his hope that the decision was not driven by the pending purchase of Outdoor Systems by Infinity Broadcasting. Wisz said Outdoor Systems was trying to consummate the Infinity deal by the end of this month, but could not say whether the buyout would take place before December.

According to Wisz, the deal involved the billboard company becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Infinity Broadcasting, which is owned in part by broadcasting giant CBS.

Wisz said he did not know who initially made the decision to scrap the GOP ad, saying only that it appeared to have been the result of "some miscommunications between Nashville and Phoenix." The company's headquarters are located in Arizona.

While the question of who tried to cancel the ad remains unanswered, it doesn't appear that the order came from the head of the company, who happens to be a financial supporter of Gore's presidential bid.

Outdoor Systems Chairman William S. Levine told that he played no part in the decision to cancel the billboard agreement with the RNC. "I don't know the first thing about it," said Levine.

Federal Election Commission records show that Levine has made the maximum legal contribution to Gore's primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Those same records also show that Levine has contributed to Texas Governor George W. Bush's presidential campaign, along with other Republicans and Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-GA), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO) and Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), among others.

The decision to cancel the GOP's billboard advertising in Nashville initially contrasted with the company's previously stated policy on free expression, but the revised position on the RNC ad is more in line with past practices on sensitive issues.

According to a December 11, 1992 article in The Business Journal of Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun, Outdoor Systems sold a series of 20 billboards to a homosexual advocacy group that month.

The article described the billboards for the Lesbian and Gay Public Awareness Project as "potentially controversial," and tried to determine whether the company had any reservations about accepting the account.

According to the article, "general manager George Gross said the group had a right to free speech," regarding Outdoor Systems' decision to sell billboard space to the organization. Gross currently works in the Outdoor Systems New Jersey office and would not comment on the 1992 story.