December 13, 2012

How politics used the new media, 1968

The Selling of the President, by Joe McGinniss, Penguin, 253 pages, $12.90 through Amazon (also available in e-book format)

Let me say this right off the bat: I don’t particularly like Joe McGinniss. The underhanded way in which he’s often insinuated himself into the lives of his subjects (see Jeffrey McDonald, for example) is journalistically suspect at best, ethically questionable at the very least. What else can you say about a man who can, apparently, slander McDonald, Ted Kennedy and Sarah Palin, all with apparently equitable ease?

But I come, not to bury McGinniss but to praise him. For indeed, whatever else he might be, he is a wonderfully talented and insightful writer, and this is clearly apparent in the book that made him a media star, The Selling of the President. It is a book that appeals not only to the political scientist, but also the media student, the historian – and anyone else interested in a good, fun read.

The title is a pun on Theodore White’s popular “Making of the President” series, which ran from 1960 to 1972. And maybe it’s too bad McGinniss didn’t follow the same strategy, because in 1968 we saw the beginning of the modern political campaign – the continuation, or perhaps evolution, of the trend I pointed out here – which blossomed into what we have today.* To see these techniques, ahead of their time in 1968, come into their own over the succeeding campaigns – well, it would be fascinating. Or depressing.

*Or "had", perhaps. There’s a lot of knowledgeable commentary out there suggesting that the “old” way of doing things – the Karl Rove way, for example – is now kaput. Rove’s strategy was certainly out of the school we see here, but the Obama strategy is, I think, more evolutionary – the same as before, but at the same time different. A discussion for another day, I think.

Nixon hadn’t been McGinniss’ first choice to cover; that would be Nixon’s Democrat opponent, Hubert Humphrey.* The Humphrey people weren’t interested, however, and so the writer would turn to Nixon. It’s somewhat surprising to learn that, because in many respects Nixon would have been a natural for someone looking to write about the packaging of the modern political candidate.

*McGinniss’ interest had been piqued by the Humphrey ad man’s statement, 'in six weeks we’ll have him looking better than Abraham Lincoln.”

Nixon had been hurt badly by television in 1960, and he was determined not to repeat the mistake in 1968. There would need to be a major change, not only in Nixon, but in the strategy to market him. And there were three men who would comprise the dramatis personae in Nixon’s transformation: Harry Treleaven, Pat Buchanan, and, especially, Roger Ailes.

The challenge facing these men, and others on the campaign, was daunting, as McGinniss writes: “Trying with one hand, to build the illusion that Richard Nixon, in addition to his attributes of mind and heart, considered, in the words of Patrick K. Buchanan, a speech writer, ‘communicating with the people . . . one of the great joys of seeking the Presidency;’ while with the other they shielded him, controlled him, and controlled the atmosphere around him.”.

Treleaven, the ad man on leave from the famed J. Walter Thompson agency (a longtime Republican ally), sized up the strategy succinctly: “There’ll be few opportunities for logical persuasion, which is all right – because probably more people vote for irrational, emotional reasons than professional politicians suspect.”

For one thing, there would be no debates with Humphrey. Nixon’s television appearances, crafted by Ailes (then producer of The Mike Douglas Show), would revolve around tightly-controlled “talk show” formats (which today we’d probably call “town hall meetings”), hosted by recognizable and warm personalities (for example, former Oklahoma football coach and current ABC football analyst Bud Wilkinson, who had unsuccessfully run for office himself), where he might take questions from a carefully selected studio audience. Everything was important: makeup, camera angles, the length of Nixon’s answers, the shot at the end of the audience crowding around the candidate.

Ailes was most concerned about the makeup of that audience, and the need for it to reflect the region into which the broadcast would be shown. For a Philadelphia broadcast, McGinniss quoted Ailes that “we definitely need a Negro … U. S. News and World Report this week says that one of every three votes cast in Philadelphia will be Negro. And goddammit, we’re locked into the thing, anyway. Once you start it’s hard as hell to stop, because the press will pick it up and make a big deal out of why no Negro all of a sudden.”

*One might wonder how Ailes reacted to the book and its portrayal of him. According to Salon’s Craig Fehrman, he loved it. “He even did a radio show with McGinniss to promote it, and Ailes was surely as proud and funny and profane as he is in the pages of “The Selling of the President.”

Another major change would be in Nixon’s television commercials. The decision had been made early on to reduce Nixon’s presence on the commercials to voiceovers*, against a montage of still photographs meant to support the commercial’s message. Thus, when Nixon discussed the war in Vietnam, we’d see pictures of soldiers in the jungle and the horrors of war, while his commercial on failed leadership appealed to the ordinary American through pictures of routine domestic scenes like working on the yard.  His tag line, "This time vote like your whole world depended on it," was particularly effective with its semi-subtle allusion to the last election. (This time, the implication being, "how'd the last four - or even eight - years work out for you?"; perhaps a precursor to Reagan's "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" line.)

*Mostly excerpts from Nixon’s excellent convention acceptance speech, which even many of his detractors praised as one of the best he’d ever given.

Whereas The Selling of the President was revelatory when it was first published, it is more like reading a history book today, wherein we know how all the major events turn out. Is it likely, for example, that anyone reading the book today would be surprised by Treleavan’s observation that “Most national issues today are so complicated, so difficult to understand, and have opinions on that they either intimidate or, more often, bore the average voter.”

There were other innovations in the Nixon campaign, such as the technique of timing news releases to coincide with the evening news, forcing Humphrey’s campaign into a defensive posture. We see that kind of thing all the time today, but this was new stuff back in 1968. In fact, if one were to isolate a single message from McGinniss’ book, it is that the successful candidate has to know how to play the media. Again, this is hardly news today, but nonetheless it’s surprising how many candidates still don’t seem to understand that.

Although McGinniss is clearly not a Nixon supporter, this is not (as Ailes’ reaction bears out) a hatchet job. It is, in many respects (particular to a political junkie like me) rather sympathetic to both Nixon and his managers, although one very funny story about Pat Nixon being so robotically programmed during her appearances that she blankly applauds herself when she’s introduced, only to recoil when she realizes what she’s doing, might seem a little cruel. All in all, though, The Selling of the President is a book that remains essential reading not only for students of politics and advertising, but of television as well. The medium is, indeed, the message in today’s campaigns.

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