If the last week has taught us anything, it’s the power, and limitations, of political narrative. First, there was Hurricane Sandy, which brought climate change back into the presidential race — and led to an essential photo op: President Obama clasping the arm of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor. Then there was the Romney campaign’s attempt to “expand the map” by staging rallies in Pennsylvania, a state in which most polls put Obama comfortably ahead.
Over the weekend, surrogates for both candidates sparred over whether Obama might be slipping or Romney’s shift was a desperate act of political sleight-of-hand. Four years ago, John McCain made his own late play for Pennsylvania, and in 2000, George W. Bush even did some last-minute campaigning in California, all in the interest of creating a story arc (the race is more fluid than the polls suggest) that might influence the voting by projecting momentum that wasn’t really there.
This idea of the constructed narrative has been a part of presidential politics at least since FDR. But it became increasingly fundamental the more campaigns engaged in mass media.
“Advertising agencies have tried openly to sell presidents since 1952,” writes Joe McGinniss in his 1969 book, “The Selling of the President 1968.” “When Dwight Eisenhower ran for reelection in 1956, the agency of Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, which had been on a retainer throughout his first four years, accepted his campaign as a regular account. Leonard Hall, national Republican chairman, said: ‘You sell your candidates and your programs the way a business sells its products.' ”
Half a century later, this has become the first rule of presidential politics, but “The Selling of the President” shows us how we got to where we are.
The author’s first book, published when he was just 26 (and reissued with a new introduction earlier this year by the digital publisher Byliner), it is an inside look at the effort to market Richard Nixon during the 1968 election, an effort that revolved almost completely around television.
“[Nixon] has to come across as a person larger than life, the stuff of legend,” observes Raymond K. Price, a former New York Herald Tribune writer who became a trusted Nixon speechwriter. “… It’s the aura that surrounds the charismatic figure more than it is the figure itself, that draws the followers. … So let’s not be afraid of television gimmicks … get the voters to like the guy and the battle’s two-thirds won.”
For Nixon, the roots of a media-driven campaign were twofold.
First, there was his loss, by barely 100,000 votes, to John F. Kennedy in 1960 — an outcome widely thought to have turned on the televised debates in which Nixon came off as dark and scowling, while JFK seemed confident and self-possessed.
Second was the success of George H.W. Bush in a 1966 Texas congressional race where he defeated an incumbent Democrat, in a district that had never gone Republican, with 58% of the vote.
The key? Bush hired Harry Treleaven, an executive at J. Walter Thompson, to run advertising for the campaign. “Treleaven,” McGinniss tells us, “went around Houston in the August heat, asking people on the street what they thought of George Bush. He found that Bush was ‘an extremely likable person,’ but that ‘there was a haziness about exactly where he stood politically.’”
Sound familiar? It’s like a template for contemporary politics, which turns on image, sentiment, the question of which candidate we’d rather have a beer with, as opposed to real issues of governance.
“This was perfect," McGinniss confirms, then quotes Treleaven at length: “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. … Political candidates are celebrities … and today, with television taking them into everybody’s home right along with Johnny Carson and Batman, there’s more of a public attraction than ever.”
Bush went on to spend 80% of his campaign budget on advertising, the vast majority of it going to television. (Newspapers, on the other hand, got 3%.)
Treleaven ended up becoming Nixon’s creative director of advertising, part of a brain trust that also included a very young Roger Ailes. (Another member of the crew was Kevin Phillips, the one-time Republican strategist who became a vocal critic of the party, but here comes off as a kind of prototype Nate Silver, crunching numbers to predict the rise of a conservative majority at a time when no one else could see that far ahead.)
Yet as fascinating as this is, the personalities are not what lingers so much as what they portend. More than once, McGinniss refers to Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1962 book “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” an early examination of the triumph of style over substance, and a scathing critique of the manufactured culture we’d become.
“Nowadays,” he quotes Boorstin, “everybody tells us that what we need is more belief, a stronger and more encompassing faith. A faith in America and in what we are doing. That may be true on the long run. What we need first and now is to disillusion ourselves. What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America. We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.”
That citation opens a lengthy section of appendices (notes and memos from Treleaven, Price and others) highlighting just how constructed Nixon’s 1968 candidacy was.
And yet, in reading “The Selling of the President,” we can’t help noticing something else: the naïvete of having given the author, any author, this degree of access. McGinniss was everywhere — backstage, in conference rooms, hanging out while strategy was laid. It’s impossible to imagine a contemporary campaign allowing anything like it; they don’t have to anymore.
In the 43 years since “The Selling of the President,” the dynamics have irrevocably shifted — the manufactured narrative is all we get.
If you don’t think so, just keep an eye on all those closing arguments about the effect of Hurricane Sandy or expanding the electoral map, and see how (or if) they play out on Election Day.
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