Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fear and politics: Remembering the "Daisy" ad 

As previously reported, I'm making my way through Clinton advisor Lanny Davis' quite balanced book Scandal: How "Gotcha" Politics Is Destroying America, which I took up on Monday night to help prepare for the Pajamas Media panel discussion on partisanship. In looking for the roots of today's vicious politics, Davis surveys the history of hardball scandal-mongering and personal attacks, among them the "Daisy" ad run by the Johnson campaign during the campaign of 1964. Through the magic of YouTube, we can see that ad just like it was yesterday:

Turn up your speakers for the full effect.

Here is what Davis wrote (pp. 50-51):

TV political ads were still relatively new, with a few having been used in presidential campaigns as far back as the 1952 Eisenhower-Stevenson race. But many people believe that this ad remains one of the most successful negative-attack ads in U.S. history. It is also probably one of the nastiest and most devestating ever. The anti-Goldwater ad started out with a little girl standing in a beautiful field counting as she pulls petals off a flower (thus the "Daisy" moniker)....

The ad ran just once, during the "Movie of the Week" on September 7, 1964, but its impact was immense. News broadcasts replayed it, political pundits commented on it, and, using today's parlance, it gained "traction" in multiple national and local media. There was little doubt then, and no doubt today, that this ad was unfair, inaccurate, and over-the-top. Goldwater did not favor nuclear bombs to fight the Soviet Union. The danger of nuclear war if he had been elected President could not responsibly be suggested as greater than if Lyndon Johnson were reelected, but that is exactly what the ad suggested...

The ad could have been a key factor in turning an inevitable defeat into one of the greatest landslide defeats in U.S. history. American campaigns would never be the same. In fact, it could be argued that today's gotcha culture, using innuendo-based TV attack ads, began with this ad. We Democrats may have celebrated the ad and rationalized that it resonated because of the public's serious doubts about Goldwater's judgment, but Republican leaders -- and not just Goldwater partisans -- also took note, as did their media and political consultants. "Fair game? Well, our turn will come," they must have thought. There will be payback time, and, as we know, there was.

If Davis is right -- that the "Daisy" ad deepened the landslide that buried Goldwater -- then it also pushed the Republican party permanently to the right. Republican rules at the time allocated delegates for the nominating convention among the states according to the proportionate vote in the prior general presidential election. Because so many northeasterners abstained or voted for Johnson in 1964 out of paranoic fear of Goldwater (my grandparents, staunch "Rockefeller wing" Republicans, were among them), the more conservative south and west gained outsized influence within the party in 1968 and thereafter. Since the Goldwater debacle, no northeasterner has won the GOP nomination, and all Republicans elected to the presidency have come from California or Texas. Blame him or credit him, Lyndon Johnson and the "Daisy" ad may bear primary original responsibility for the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980. That's some serious blowback.


By Blogger Papa Ray, at Fri Sep 29, 01:06:00 AM:

We need some "serious blowback" now. As I don't watch much tv (Fox, once in a while) I don't know what has been going on. But I do listen to the local radio stations and the ads for the Texas Governor's race are lame beyond concern.

Of course, with the candidates available and the congressvarmits records, I'm not sure if any AD agency could help them.

Besides, what are you going to show, someone getting their head cut off, or a mall being blown to bits?

How about a jet airliner hitting a skyscraper?

No, all of those are over the top and are not P.C.

Papa Ray
West Texas

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 29, 02:51:00 AM:

Christ, I was maybe 5 at the time and I remember seeing it constantly on the news. And that's the key. The ad was only run once, and the media reshowed it a hundredfold for free - a lesson learned by some of the more inflammatory publicists of the left, but not available to the right.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 29, 09:36:00 AM:

TH -

I would quibble with the implicit claim that GHWB was not from the Northeast. Granted, he lived in Texas at the time - but he is about as "Northeast" as politicans come.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 29, 11:21:00 AM:

I second the Bush quibble. And I think poor Bob Dole is feeling ignored and forgotten.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Sep 29, 12:51:00 PM:

The Bush quibble, as it were, reinforces my point. He had to launder himself through Texas to have a shot.

Bob Dole lost, and in any case came from Kansas, a conservative western state. Had he won, the same basic point would obtain.  

By Blogger viking kaj, at Fri Sep 29, 02:55:00 PM:

Please note my previous post, it is my theory that Goldwater was the most influential politician to not win the White House in the 20th century. It would be difficult to imagine the Republican dominance of the late 20th century without Goldwater. He set the agenda for Lee Atwater's great tent and Kevin Phillip's coming Republican majority. The key was the disintegration of the Solid South which showed that new coalitions were possible.

The "daisy" ad is typical of Lyndon's tactics. He was also not above stuffing a ballot box or two, if I recall correctly he stole his first senate election in a court case with some phony write-in votes. Basically the man would do anything to win. Read a biography sometime, the man was scary. There is also a book out there by Johnson's former counsel which indicates that he was behind the effort to kill Kennedy. The motive was to supposedly quash an ethics probe that would have removed Johnson from office. Given Johnson's utter lack of scruples, I would not be surprised if this were true.

That said, I'm not sure anyone could have derailed Lyndon in 1964. He was running on the Kennedy "legacy", although I would make the argument that Jack Kennedy was actually much more conservative, and perhaps closer to Rockefeller, than either Lyndon or his brother Bobby. Given Jack's history of cautious decision making, I'm not sure we would have seen intiatives like the "Great Society" progam or the Civil Rights of 1964 coming out of his White House.

The Johnson and Nixon presidencies were arguably the most destructive in the history of American politics. These were two basically insecure men who would stoop to any trick to win, whether they needed it or not. But they really introduced the notion of modern mass media smear campaigns over substance that we continue to live with today.

By the way, I sincerely disagree with the notion that Dubyah is an "eastern establishment" republican. His father and grandfather were, that's why is dad could never win an election in the state of Texas. Dubyah is a different animal altogether. While he draws on his father's eastern cronies for support, his avid courting of the evangelical wing of the party, and his strong affiliation with Texas via the Rangers and the Governorship, make him a different beast altogether. The man is immensely popular in Texas in a way that his father never was and never could be.  

By Blogger viking kaj, at Fri Sep 29, 04:12:00 PM:

Sorry, my bad, I didn't note the the comment above pertained to Bush Senior not Dubyah.

Oh, and I agree with everything TH said about the laundering of GHW's eastern roots. Wouldna been electable without it.  

By Blogger viking kaj, at Fri Sep 29, 04:21:00 PM:

The interesting thing about Bob Dole is that, again, a westerner garnered the Republican nomination.

So let's run through the early part of the century. Teddy Roosevelt was eastern, or was he (rough riders, South Dakota)? Taft and Harding, both Ohio, somewhere inbetween? Eisenhower, Kansas, western. The last arguably truly eastern Republican to have a shot was Rockefeller, and he couldn't nail down the nomination.

Maybe we could make the argument that the strong streak of Western individualism has been an important factor in all but a few Republican victories in the last century?

Just a thought from the Goldwater camp...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 29, 06:16:00 PM:

And it was LBJ who got us cuaght up in the mess in VIETNAM along with WALTER KRONKITE a legacy of a failed president  

By Blogger Buce, at Sat Sep 30, 01:33:00 AM:

I do remember the daisy chain. I also remember the bumper sticker on my old Nash Rambler: it showed a mushroom cloud and said "Up And Out With Goldwater." I felt a little sheepish about it then, and try to write it off as a youthful excess now.

I also remember the one showing the big black (Cadillac?) speeding down the dirt roads of a Texas ranch, throwing beer cups out of the window. Not a lot of civility in that one, either.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Oct 12, 04:34:00 AM:

Interestingly, I set up this Texas gubernatorial poll using Range Voting, and Kinky is kicking butt on it. I think this proves how much our current plurality voting system sucks. This is why we should be lobbying for Range Voting.  

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