Negative Ads: Hate ‘Em, Love ‘Em, Nuke ‘Em

The president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory. The notion that negative campaigning is some toxic modern aberration in American democracy is bogus. No campaign may ever top the Andrew Jackson–John Quincy Adams race of 1828, in which Jackson was accused of murder, drunkenness, cockfighting, slave-trading, and, most delicious of all, cannibalism. His wife and his mother, for good measure, were branded a bigamist and a whore, respectively. (Jackson won nonetheless.) In the last national campaign before the advent of political television ads, lovable Harry Truman didn’t just give hell to the “do nothing” Congress, as roseate memory has it. In a major speech in Chicago in late October 1948, he revisited still-raw World War II memories to imply that the “powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions”—that would be the Republicans— and their chosen front man, Thomas Dewey, were analogous to the Nazis and Hitler. Over-the-top? Dewey was a liberal by the standards of the postwar GOP and had more in common with a department-store mannequin than with a Fascist dictator.

That’s why he would be wise to seriously reexamine the history of a spot so effective that it’s the only aspect of the entire LBJ-Goldwater race that anyone remembers. The latest volume of Robert Caro’s epic life of Lyndon Johnson stops just short of the 1964 election. But last fall, Robert Mann, a journalist and historian with a relevant previous career seeped in the cauldron of Louisiana politics, got there first with Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds, an enterprising book meticulously reconstructing the genesis and impact of this very brief, very devastating piece of film. Mann’s account is all the more instructive when read in the context of 2012. Paradoxically, the most famous attack ad in history stands apart from many of those that followed it—including most produced today—by containing no facts or even factoids, no quotes, no argument, no image of either candidate, and not even a mention of the target’s name. And yet its power remains awesome to behold. It finished Goldwater even though Americans in 1964 tilted slightly more conservative than liberal (37 to 35 percent, according to Gallup) and even though the Goldwater campaign outspent LBJ’s on television advertising by some 40 percent, including for an attack ad of its own linking the president to graft, “swindle,” juvenile delinquency, crime, and riots.

Frank Rich, Nuke ‘Em: Why negative advertisements are powerful, essential, and sometimes (see “Daisy”) even artistic. New York Magazine, June 17, 2012

Read the entire article by Frank Rich and tell me, do you think that we moralize too much about negative versus positive political campaign ads?  Is all fair in love and political war?  Do ads turns off the people from voting or fire them up to participate in the political process?

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