Sunday, September 26, 2004

Welcome to the Campaign That Makes 'Selling' a President Look Good

September 26, 2004

Welcome to the Campaign That Makes 'Selling' a President Look Good

Richard Nixon sat on a New York soundstage in October 1968 and pondered how to avoid looking shifty-eyed on television. The answer, he concluded, was removing everyone from his line of sight who did not have to be there. Once the room was cleared, he shot targeted commercials: one for upstate New York that included the latest Buffalo crime statistics; another for the South that argued against wasting a vote on George Wallace, the third-party candidate.

Nixon's ad-making session is the opening scene in "The Selling of the President 1968," the best-selling campaign diary in which a young journalist named Joe McGinniss pulled back the curtain on modern presidential campaigns and revealed that, as he would later write, candidates were being packaged and sold to the American public "like so much toothpaste or detergent."

When it was published in 1969, "The Selling of the President" caused a scandal. Its title was a sardonic riff on Theodore White's revered "Making of the President" series, and its jacket image was an irreverent image of President Nixon superimposed on a package of cigarettes. A review in this paper deemed the book enough to "make us fear for the future of the Republic." The Saturday Review called for a renewed commitment to high school civics education to stop "the hidden persuaders from running off with politics."

Nine election cycles later, however, as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth troll across the nation's airwaves, "The Selling of the President" has undergone a strange transformation. In an era when campaigns are increasingly based on unselling the opponent through vicious negative advertising, the idea of actually trying to sell the president seems almost refreshing.

Mr. McGinniss was a 26-year-old columnist and former sportswriter for The Philadelphia Inquirer when he stumbled on his subject. He happened to hear a New York advertising executive boast that his agency had landed the Hubert Humphrey campaign account. Sensing a story, Mr. McGinniss tried to get access to the advertising campaign. When Humphrey's agency refused, Mr. McGinniss located the counterpart on Nixon's side and called from a pay phone to make the same request. The creative director on the Nixon account, Harry Treleaven, said yes.

Mr. McGinniss's account focuses on the machinations of a small team of image makers who included Mr. Treleaven; Leonard Garment, who worked in the same law firm as Nixon; and a 28-year-old producer for the "Mike Douglas Show," Roger Ailes, decades before he and the Fox network discovered each other. The action centers on the filming of commercials, and the production of a series of one-hour panel shows in different cities that featured Nixon facing questions from purportedly representative Americans. The book's theme is spelled out by a team member: "It's not what's there that counts, it's what's projected."

The media manipulations that Mr. McGinniss recounts all come off, from the vantage of 2004, as remarkably innocuous. There is much discussion of camera angles and staging, and how to ensure that the audience applauds raucously. Mr. Ailes becomes irate when the set designers install turquoise curtains in the background, fuming that "Nixon wouldn't look right unless he was carrying a pocketbook." And Mr. McGinniss recounts their attempts to ensure that the panels are diverse, but not too diverse.

The book's diabolical image-crafters now seem almost touchingly naïve. The Nixon team dispatches an all-white camera crew to Harlem, and then seems perplexed when it cannot get the locals to participate in a commercial for its candidate. "Gee, isn't that strange," Mr. Treleaven says. "I can't understand an attitude like that." The narrative is interlaced with once-provocative commentary from Mr. McGinniss that is now, in many places, simply yawn-inducing. "Politics, in a sense, has always been a con game," he observes, and "advertising, in many ways, is a con game, too."

It is startling to realize what passed for an attack ad. The Nixon team assembles a commercial in which a photograph of Humphrey is juxtaposed against some video of soldiers in Vietnam in a way that could suggest that their opponent was laughing at the soldiers. The attack was subtle enough that many viewers missed it completely, but the newspapers immediately denounced it, NBC's switchboard was flooded with protest calls, and the commercial was pulled.

Mr. McGinniss was shocked by how much the Nixon campaign was driven by the image makers, but by today's standards they were curiously marginal. Mr. Treleaven notes, in frustration, that there was a "total split" between the political people in the campaign and his advertising team. Throughout the book, Nixon consistently resists being packaged. "He refused to use a teleprompter, no matter how long the speech," Mr. McGinniss writes. "Television was just one more slick Eastern trick and he was a poor boy from the West."

Today, the focus has shifted from selling the candidate to turning the opponent into an unacceptable alternative. This year in Florida, Mel Martinez won the Republican Senate primary after branding his archconservative opponent as a supporter of "granting homosexuals special rights" - for backing anti-hate-crime legislation. In West Virginia and Arkansas, the Republican Party is trying to prop up President Bush by sending out mailings saying that "liberals" want to ban the Bible.

Attack ads are often criticized for driving discussion of the issues out of politics. But just as important, they free the parties of the obligation to find candidates with widespread support - all that's necessary is to make the other side look even less acceptable. For all its evils, the idea of "selling" a president was based on the appealing, and increasingly quaint, notion that there might be a candidate the voters want to buy.