Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bear in the Woods

"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?"

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(Yesterday I wrote about Ronald Reagan's domestic–policy commercial from the 1984 campaign, informally known as "Morning in America.")

The Reagan campaign commercial of which I wrote yesterday is the one that most people remember from that campaign. Economic issues played such a critical role in Reagan's victory in 1980, and an advertisement illustrating how much better things were (by comparison) four years later was quite effective.

But I have always thought the better commercial was the one on foreign policy called "The Bear." It very cleverly illustrated the differences in thought regarding Russia (symbolized by a bear since at least the 17th century) and how much of a threat it was to the United States.

Again, Reagan's opponent wasn't mentioned by name.

But it very neatly summarized Reagan's philosophy of "peace through strength:"

"Since no one can really be sure who's right," adman/narrator Hal Riney said, "isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?"

That is the kind of question that never really seems to go out of style. America is today the world's last remaining superpower, but it has been cutting back on its active military. Consequently, many Americans live in fear that a rogue country like Iran or a terrorist group will gain possession of nuclear weapons.

I think it is safe to say that, if the party in the White House chooses to run a foreign policy commercial in the eight weeks before this year's midterm elections, it will not focus on the president's foreign–policy successes with crises brewing on virtually every continent on the globe — even though the president is not on anyone's ballot this year.

Anyway, the 1984 advertisement did seek to define Reagan and his foreign policy record, and it did so quite well. It reassured skittish voters that Reagan was not the reckless warmonger his critics made him out to be, that he favored a strong defense as a way to keep the peace, that such an approach was prudent in the world of 1984.

That sounded reasonable to voters, who had reached their own conclusions on whether Reagan was reckless after nearly four years of his leadership. Available evidence suggested otherwise to them.

The 1984 campaign really was the most rare of opportunities for an incumbent, it seems to me. Conditions were so much better than they had been four years earlier that Reagan could define himself instead of allowing his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to define him, and frame the debates in ways that were favorable for that definition.

The "Bear in the Woods" ad is a perfect example of that. In almost every modern political campaign for an office in the federal government, an advertisement on foreign policy — by candidates in either party — will be designed to reinforce negative perceptions/stereotypes about the opposition. But in 1984, the Reagan campaign was able to focus on political philosophy and explain to voters why the president believed his policy was the wisest choice.

It really was a brilliant piece of political advertising.

The Reagan camp had months to prepare the ads, too. There was no opposition to Reagan's bid for renomination so his staff was able to fine–tune the advertisements for the fall campaign under virtually no pressure — at least by campaign advertising standards.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When It Was Morning in America ...

"It's morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?"

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(Tomorrow I will write about Ronald Reagan's foreign–policy commercial from the 1984 campaign, "Bear in the Woods.")
I often hear people — on both sides of the political fence — lamenting the absence of civil, positive campaign advertising (by which they almost always mean TV advertising). On Sunday, I wrote about what I feel was the first of the negative ads used in a presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy girl" commercial in 1964.

That was the Pandora's box that unleashed all the negative advertising that most voters lament today. They aren't exaggerating. It is true that ads are decidedly negative today. Campaign advertising almost always promotes a negative image of a candidate's opponent, seldom a positive image of the candidate himself (or herself). Candidates from both sides of the aisle apparently believe the only way to win is to tear down the opponent. It's been that way for a long time; sometimes it seems it has never been otherwise.

That is the ironic part of all this, isn't it? Candidates believe they can't win without attacking their opponents, and voters say they are turned off by such a spectacle. For the time being, at least, I am inclined to believe that we will continue to be overwhelmed by negative advertising — at least until such tactics are clearly repudiated at the ballot box.

Political advertising on television, of course, is a comparatively new form of advertising, newer than radio, much newer than print. It's been around since 1952, but, in many ways, it was still evolving when Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale faced off in the 1984 presidential campaign.

Advertising in presidential campaigns was rather primitive — but generally not negative — in the 1950s — but, by 1964, a hardball form of negative advertising emerged in the form of Johnson's "Daisy girl" commercial.

That commercial only aired once, but it influenced the election in many ways — and is still discussed in conversations about political advertising. Perhaps its reputation for having helped the Johnson campaign led to the increasingly frequent use of negative advertising in the elections that followed.

I'm sure the Reagan campaign used some negative advertising in 1984, but I honestly don't remember any. That campaign is mostly remembered for two commercials that focused on the administration's record in its first four years. His opponent was never mentioned in either.

One was called "Prouder, Stronger, Better," and it was developed (in part) and narrated by San Francisco ad man Hal Riney — but it is more popularly remembered as "Morning in America," a phrase from the opening sentence.

Democrats (and I was one at the time) seethed over the commercial. I noticed that Democrats' complaints focused not on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the claims but rather on the merits of the production. They couldn't argue with the facts — compared to circumstances just before the last presidential election, unemployment was down; so were gas prices and interest rates.

Those are the kinds of things an incumbent wants to talk about in campaign commercials. It isn't necessary to focus on the negative if the incumbent can say things have been better on his watch — and the numbers back him up. Those numbers weren't particularly good — but they were better than four years earlier.

In fact, the only thing that could be called negative was the final sentence — Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

And that really was the point for which a case had been made. The commercial was saying the current administration had made good on its promises. The president's opponent had been part of the previous administration. The Reagan campaign saw the choice as being between staying the course (to borrow Reagan's famous campaign pitch during the 1982 midterm elections) and going back to the policies of the previous administration.

That was a pretty effective way to frame the choice, and more than 58% of those who voted agreed with Reagan.

It's the kind of case every incumbent would like to make — that things have been better under his or her watch than they were under his/her predecessor — but few incumbents can make.

Was Reagan lucky, as Democrats claimed? Or was he good, as Republicans insisted? I have heard it said that it is better to be lucky than good, and maybe that was the case with Ronald Reagan. A president's critics always seem to be convinced that he is leading the country to disaster, and Reagan had no shortage of critics. If he had run for re–election in 1982, there is no doubt that he would have lost. His approval ratings before and after the election languished in the lower 40s.

But conditions changed considerably in the next two years — and Reagan's approval rating just before the 1984 election was precisely what his ultimate share of the popular vote turned out to be — 58%. Reagan certainly was lucky in his timing

If "Morning in America" came across as kinda corny, well, it was. Positive ads lack the drama of negative ads. Perhaps that is the price to be paid for getting what you want.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I Beg Your Pardon?

"As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family. Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."

Gerald Ford
Sept. 8, 1974

Many presidents have been known as "His Accidency." It is a label that is generally reserved for those who were elected vice president and then became president after the guy who was at the top of the ticket when the people voted on the matter died. There have been eight presidents who died in office.

Sometimes the voters have been pleased with the accidental president's performance — well, pleased enough to give him a full term on his own. Sometimes they haven't been pleased, and they voted him out. Sometimes the accidental president sees the writing on the wall and decides not to seek a full term.

Gerald Ford was a unique case in American history. He must be the most accidental president of all because he only became vice president when he was appointed to replace the duly elected vice president in the first use of the 25th Amendment to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency. Then, when Richard Nixon resigned, he became president.

Maybe that unique role in American history was liberating for Ford. Maybe he felt he could do things differently than the three dozen men who had occupied the presidency before him precisely because he had not sought the presidency or the vice presidency.

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots," he said on the day he took office. A few minutes later, he pledged, "If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises."

The people believed him, even people who loathed his predecessor. They were willing to give him a chance. He came across as pleasant and sincere. It was a refreshing change. But it didn't last, largely because of what happened 40 years ago today.

It started out as a rather routine late–summer Sunday. Pro football would start its season a week later; college football had kicked things off with a bare–bones schedule the day before. For sports enthusiasts, the only thing of note besides baseball's pennant races was daredevil Evel Knievel's scheduled attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in the Skycycle X–2, a steam–powered rocket. He failed in the attempt, suffering some broken bones but nothing major.

But Knievel, who had been the recipient of considerable hype before the attempt, was knocked completely off the front pages. Ford, who had barely been in office a month, announced that he was pardoning his predecessor. The sense of betrayal showed in Ford's approval rating. A week after taking office, Ford's approval rating was 71% — nearly three times Nixon's approval rating when he resigned the week before.

But Ford's approval rating tumbled to 50% after the pardon, and many people — myself included — believe he never recovered politically. There were a few fluctuations, but, for the most part, his approval rating remained in the 40s for the rest of his presidency.

With the pardon, much of the good will that had accompanied Ford into office evaporated.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ken Gormley and David Shribman agree that the nation was "stunned" at the time. That would be impossible to dispute. "Now," they contend, "there's almost universal agreement that Ford was right." Personally, I have mixed feelings on that. Maybe I always will. I have come to believe that there was at least some justification for the pardon. Maybe it did allow the nation to heal. But even Ford must have known that the healing process would be long. The American people had been deceived — a lot — by their presidents for 10 years. They weren't going to be over it in a day or a week or a month or a year — or even two years when Ford would have to face the voters.

I don't know if Ford's pardon of Nixon hastened the nation's healing process, as Ford hoped, but it did resolve a dilemma for his Justice Department.

Memos show officials at Justice were wrestling with Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution, which said that a person removed from office by impeachment and conviction "shall nevertheless be liable to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to the law."

The Constitution, however, said nothing about a president who resigned from office. Ford's pardon effectively ended that discussion.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

LBJ's Daisy Commercial Changed Everything

Less than a year ago, I wrote that Lee Atwater deserved much of the credit for our present state of polarization, thanks to the way he ran George H.W. Bush's national campaign 26 years ago.

But I guess credit for the template for divisive modern political advertising goes to Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 campaign staff. They were responsible for a commercial that is remembered as the "daisy commercial." It had its one and only airing 50 years ago today.

It showed a little girl plucking the petals from a flower, as small children do, and counting. The girl who was shown in the commercial was 2 years old, and she was observed in a very serene, pastoral setting.

As she counted to 10 — haltingly and, at times, out of sequence, which is understandable with a child that age — an adult voice began a missile launch countdown in the background, and the camera zoomed in on the girl's face until the pupil of her eye filled the screen.

That was followed by a mushroom cloud — and a snippet from one of Lyndon Johnson's speeches.

"These are the stakes," Johnson said. "To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."

"Fifty years later, the visual is startling — even shocking," writes John Rash for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But just as jarring are the words."

Another voice — I've heard it was sportscaster Chris Schenkel's (but I heard Schenkel call football games when I was growing up, and the voice in the commercial never sounded like his voice to me) — then said, "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The message was clear. Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, could not be trusted with nuclear weapons.

"You can love 'Daisy' for its power or hate it for its excess — I both love it and hate it — but it changed political advertising forever," wrote Drew Babb in the Washington Post.

It cannot be denied that the daisy commercial was an effective reminder that Goldwater had voted against the nuclear test ban treaty.

Babb, who teaches political advertising at American University and is president of the firm Drew Babb & Associates, went on to list the ways it changed political advertising. The logic is hard to fault.
  • "It gave politicians a license to kill."

    Babb observed that "[e]arlier political commercials were overwhelmingly upbeat." He pointed out that, only four years earlier, an advertisement for John F. Kennedy featured Frank Sinatra singing a revised version of "High Hopes."

    Dwight Eisenhower's commercials were relentlessly upbeat.

    Of course, television was still in its infancy then. As it grew up, it grew teeth. Fangs, in fact.
  • "By all means, trash the tropes."

    The rules were clearly different. Johnson's ad agency was largely made up of "New York street brawlers" accustomed to competing over products, not politics, and they did what they knew.
  • "Overreacting can boomerang."

    That is a fact that both parties should keep in mind today. Advertising has become much more sophisticated in half a century, but the experience of 1964 should not be forgotten. Republicans howled about the ad, and Johnson's campaign pulled it after its only showing 50 years ago today. But the networks reported on the Republican reaction and, so the viewers would know what the fuss was about, ran the ad over and over again.

    If they hadn't seen it when it aired as a commercial, they were bound to have seen it when it was shown repeatedly on the nightly news. Consequently, the message was reinforced — and almost certainly contributed to Johnson's landslide victory that fall.
Do you think the theme is outdated because America is the world's only remaining superpower? A group called Secure America doesn't. It recently unveiled a commercial called "Daisy 2," and it was clearly inspired by the commercial that ran 50 years ago.

It pulls no punches. Here is what the narrator says:
"These are the stakes. We either stand up to supporters of terrorism, or we and our allies risk losing the freedom we cherish. We must not let the jihadist government of Iran get a nuclear bomb. President Obama has an opportunity to stop it. But he is failing. Join with us. Let's secure America — now."

Monday, September 1, 2014

Revisionism Does No One Any Favors

"At daybreak on September 1, 1939 ... the German armies poured across the Polish frontier and converged on Warsaw from the north, south and west. ... The people in the streets ... were apathetic despite the immensity of the news which had greeted them from their radios and from the extra editions of the morning newspapers. ... Perhaps ... the German people were simply dazed at waking up on this first morning of September to find themselves in a war which they had been sure the Fuehrer somehow would avoid. They could not quite believe it, now that it had come."

William Shirer

One of the great what–ifs of history allegedly occurred on a battlefield in northern France in the autumn of 1918, the waning days of World War I.

Adolf Hitler, who was 29 at the time, was serving in the German army. He had been wounded and was stumbling across the battlefield when he encountered a British soldier named Henry Tandey, 27 years old.

Reportedly, the weary Hitler staggered into Tandey's line of fire, and, for a time, Hitler was in Tandey's sights. But Tandey lowered his gun, and Hitler nodded his thanks and moved on.

That story may be merely a myth, a legend without a morsel of truth in it. But we do know that Tandey lived and served during World War I, and we know that Hitler also served in World War I and lived to propel the world into a second World War. If that story about the encounter between Tandey and Hitler is true, in such a moment, the course of human history truly hangs in the balance.

If Tandey had pulled the trigger, Hitler would have died that day, and the tens of millions who died on the European battlefields, in the gas chambers or in the ovens of World War II because of him would have been spared. If Tandey had been blessed with the ability to look into the future, my guess is he would have chosen to kill Hitler to prevent the deaths of the millions.

But Tandey couldn't do it. Even with the knowledge of what could be prevented, it might still be difficult for most of us to shoot at another human being. In general, it is a good thing that most of us have that spark of humanity within us that prevents us from taking another person's life. But sometimes it is necessary to prevent or, at least, mitigate the consequences of things that are inevitable. At least, they often appear inevitable in hindsight.

If Hitler had been killed on that battlefield in France, it is highly unlikely that Germany would have invaded Poland 75 years ago today. But Tandey couldn't pull the trigger — so Hitler lived to launch the Holocaust.

The fact that Hitler lived made the Holocaust virtually inevitable, didn't it? I mean, he might have died on that battlefield in France a couple of decades earlier — or he might have died any time (and for any reason) in the next 21 years. If he had died, the likelihood of the Holocaust happening would have died with him. But, of course, he didn't — and it didn't, either. No amount of revisionist history writing would change those facts.

The invasion of Poland didn't actually start the Holocaust. That really began years earlier when Hitler started to implement anti–semitic laws in Germany — and began to fine–tune his plans for eastern Europe. Consequently, it would be wrong to designate today as the anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. It had already begun and wouldn't go into overdrive for a few more years.

In Germany, the invasion of Poland was called the "Defensive War." The Germans were told that Germany had been attacked by Poland and that Germans living in Poland were being persecuted.

But we know that wasn't true. You can clearly see — in these pictures that were published in LIFE magazine — that the Poles were not invading Germany 75 years ago today.

When people speak today of a war on a particular demographic group, they should be reminded of what a war on a particular demographic group really looks like. There are still those who know, but their numbers grow smaller with each passing year. They remember the Holocaust and the price that humanity paid for it; unfortunately, many of those who have come along in the last half century or so think the invasion of Poland and the events that followed have been blown out of proportion — if many of them happened at all.

Revisionism does no one any favors.

The invasion of Poland had many objectives, some of which were obvious while others were not so obvious.

One of its objectives was Hitler's often–stated goal (consistently denied by western governments and elements in the media of the day who sought to appease the Nazis) of eliminating the Jewish race.

Los Angeles is home to the second–largest Jewish population in America, fourth largest in the world (larger even than Jerusalem). Amanda Susskind of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles writes of her own family's experiences in the German concentration camps and, while "it is hard to shock me," Susskind writes that she "found it particularly chilling" to discover from recent surveys that staggering numbers of people across the globe "never heard of the Holocaust or believe it has been greatly exaggerated."
"The survey data reveal that that it is imperative to continue to teach about the Holocaust. Sadly, we face another challenge meeting this imperative: One of the indicators of anti–Semitism is the stereotype — and roughly 30 percent of those surveyed worldwide think this — that 'Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.'"

Amanda Susskind
Jewish Journal

Revisionist historians seem to have gained the upper hand, and appeasement is once again in the air.

As ISIS terrorists wage war with Israel and Russia continues its march to reassemble the Soviet Union, it is an appropriate time for us to remember the invasion of Poland 75 years ago today and ponder the perils of appeasement.

Have we learned anything from that experience?