The ad man who changed politics


Today I bid goodbye to an esteemed individual who left his mark, indelibly so, at the intersection of media and politics.

No, not Tim Russert again. I am speaking of Tony Schwartz.

His passing on Saturday in Manhattan at age 84 will not get 24/7 coverage on MSNBC, but he's surely worthy of a mention here - if only because he was the brains behind the first TV attack ad in American political history, and thus blazed a trail for all the negative craftsmen who have flourished ever since.

In a sense, it's unfair that Schwartz will be remembered primarily for the infamous "Daisy ad" that he created in the late summer of 1964 - a cleverly subliminal 60-second attack on Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, at the behest of his client, President Lyndon Johnson - because he worked in virtually all forms of media for more than half a century. But the outsize impact of his work for LBJ - its likely contribution to Johnson's landslide '64 victory, and its effect on the thinking of subsquent "media consultants" - cannot be exaggerated.

I interviewed Schwartz back in 1988 about that ad, which showed a cute little girl picking petals off a daisy while an ominous voice counted down from 10, culminating in an atomic explosion. (You can watch the ad here.) Schwartz said that, back in 1964, most Americans harbored deep-seated fears about nuclear war, and that Goldwater, a hawkish conservative, was known for making loose-lipped quips about nukes. Hence, the ad - which never mentioned Goldwater at all - was designed to tap into the public's anxieties, and to link those anxieties to the GOP candidate by inference alone.

As Schwartz explained to me back in '88, "We're not packaging the candidate, we're packaging the voter. We're surrounding him with media, we're tying him up and delivering him to the ballot box." (Those remarks dovetail nicely with something he wrote in 1973: "The best political commercials are Rorschach patterns. They do not tell the viewer anything. They surface his feelings and provide a context for him to express those feelings.")

The ad only ran once - on NBC, Sept. 7, 1964 - but that was enough. The Goldwater people were furious, and their protests kept the story alive for days on end. Which was fine with Johnson and his Democratic advisors, because the flap merely underscored the caricature of Goldwater as a potentially reckless warmonger. Goldwater's angry public denials served to remind voters of the original charge. We have seen countless examples of this dance ever since.

Schwartz told me, "We used imagery that connected with what the public was already sensing." And Goldwater had indeed uttered a number of remarks that unnerved voters - joking about lobbing a nuke into the men's room of the Kremlin, riffing on the idea of using "tactical" nukes in Vietnam. People who knew Goldwater best dismissed his talk as frontier hyberole - he was a plain-talkin' westerner - but it was ideal grist for Schwartz, the ad man.

Goldwater was still fuming when I interviewed him about the ad, also in 1988. Newly retired from the Senate, we met at a Washington hotel. I brought up the Schwartz ad, and his face flushed crimson. He said: "I was depicted as a grotesque public monster. (Johnson) valued victory more than honesty. Although I did think the ad was pretty damn clever. The thing was, I was an old military man, and that (weaponry) is the last thing I would ever use. But it was very early in the campaign, and that ad sure got their message across."

(Goldwater also vented about Bill Moyers, an LBJ aide at the time, who served in '64 as Johnson's liaison to Madison Avenue and Schwartz: "Whenever I see Moyers now, lecturing us on public TV, I want to throw up.")

But it needs to be noted that Schwartz did not use the Daisy ad to launch a career in negative political advertising; he left that work to others. And by the time the Republicans were using TV ads to paint Michael Dukakis as a wimp who was soft on black rapists, he was openly concerned about the quality of our political dialogue.

As he put it in our '88 interview, "It's undeniable that the only communication a candidate controls is his own paid media. Still, because of the growing potential for demagoguery, all this increasing dependence on negative ads is going to have the effect of making this country less democratic."

And that was long before the advent of online Swift Boat videos, and viral emails. Regrettably, there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle.


The "maverick" is at it again. Now he's for off-shore domestic oil drilling, after having been against it.

John McCain is announcing in Houston today that he now supports lifting the long-established federal moratorium on drilling for oil off the coasts of California and Florida. Yet when he first ran for president in 2000, and positioned himself as the darling of environmentally-minded independent voters, he voiced support for the federal moratorium; indeed, as a senator he had voted, as far back as 1992, to limit the role of states in federal offshore drilling decisions.

So why the new McCain flip-flop? Several reasons, it would appear:

Voters are ticked off about $4-a-gallon gas, and this makes McCain look like he's trying to do something about it. He figures that concerns about the wallet trump concerns about the environment, particularly in key battleground states far from the affected coasts.

And if his announcement ticks off Californians, so what? He doesn't have a prayer of winning that state anyway. And he probably figures that his current lead over Barack Obama in Florida is large enough to withstand a June polling backlash.

But there's one other factor, perhaps the most important one: McCain, to stay financially competitive with Obama, dearly needs a bigger money influx from the GOP money men - particularly those who ponied up big time for Bush and Cheney in 2004.

So far, they have not embraced McCain. According to a new analysis by Congressional Quarterly, a mere 5,000 of the 62,800 donors who maxed out for Bush in 2004 (each hitting the legal ceiling of $2000) had done the same for McCain as of April 30. That translates into a pitiful eight percent.

There's still time to harvest those folks, of course. Which is a big reason why McCain has decided to side with the GOP's oil interests. What better way to drill for Bush-Cheney money than to shed the "maverick" image (yet again) and tell those Texans that he's really one of them?


And speaking of Texas...In case you wonder why the Republicans typically draw around 10 percent of the black vote in presidential elections, consider the slogan on this button currently on sale at the annual state convention of the Texas Republican party, according to the Dallas Morning News:

"If Obama is President, will we still call it The White House?"