Monday, June 16, 2008

Political Gold

Tony Shwarz died today. You have probably never heard of him and yet he has had a profound affect on your life. He created the single most famous political advertisement ever made. It was in 1964 and in the United States Lyndon Johnson was running for President against Barry Goldwater. Johnson was the incumbent by virtue of the death of John Kennedy and Goldwater was that creature that would one day run the US, a radical conservative. The Republican Party, whose banner Goldwater carried, had been something of a mildly socially conservative party with a strongly conservative fiscal policy. From a liberal point of view they had some attractive qualities - such as a reasonable approach to race relations compared to Southern Democrats. Goldwater, however, was something else. A crusading anti-Soviet hawk, he was known to boast of his willingness to wage nuclear war against the US's greatest enemy. Schwarz created what is known as "the Daisy ad". In it, a little girl pulls petals off of a daisy, counting them as she does so. A stentorian man's voice, treated with a slight echo effect, superimposes itself and we realize he is counting down rather than up, in contrast to the little girl. In the background we see the image of a nuclear weapon exploding. This ad, which ran once, is still considered the threshold moment of so-called negative politics. There was such a reaction to it that it was pulled immediately. If you have never seen it , you should, it still carries a hefty wallop. Though it was attacked as beyond the pale, Johnson went on to win the election in 1964 by the largest margin ever.

We are about to enter another general election here in the US and I am waiting with baited breath for the ads. I like to think of myself as someone who is not swayed by such messages, but that's probably because I make my mind up very early and do not waver. Admittedly, had Clinton won the nomination I would be voting Green, but I'm a reliable liberal Democratic voter, so it's Obama. What if I were undecided though? What would influence me? Would Schwarz's ad have made me think Goldwater was a nutcase? I watch that now and think about the "coding" in it, the unspoken nuance, the perceived message. Will I see and hear ads that are coded references to Obama's race? Already there is blatant reference to McCain's unsuitability because of his age. Is that fair? As someone pointed out recently, given the choice between two candidates, one of whom had been a Representative for five terms, a Senator for ten years, Secretary of Stae and Ambassador to Britain, the other a member of the Illinois legislature, whom would you choose? The first describes James Buchanan, one of the worst Presidents ever, the second describes Abraham Lincoln. The opposite might equally be true. What if Obama really is an empty suit? There's a notion - which actually holds true to some degree - that really bright people make bad presidents. Roosevelt, for instance was no intellectual and Woodrow Wilson was. Obama is very, very bright. I hope he's also smart.

I am always wrong in my political predictions but I'm going to risk this anyway - the moment John McCain lost the 2008 Presidential election occurred on Tuesday June 3rd. He gave a very bad - and badly received - speech. The Great Losing Moment was when he began complaining that Barack Obama was calling a McCain Presidency "a third Bush term". McCain complained, "why does he insist on saying this over and over?" Here's something Lyndon Johnson understood and John Kerry didn't - he complained about the "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" ads - never, ever, complain about the opposition's ads or their comments about you. Always respond with a more vicious and more wounding ad or comment. And, so,ladies and gentlemen, I give you President Obama by a landslide.