Political Capital : Consultant Finds Big Bucks Shaping Public Opinion
Seven years ago, Ben Goddard was down and out in Malibu. His Democratic political consulting firm was nearly bankrupt and his candidates unlucky. The high point of 1988 came when he created a gushy five-minute video for losing presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Goddard’s fortunes were reversed when he made the change from hyping Democratic candidates to promoting issues with big corporate bucks behind them. His agency scripted the “Harry & Louise” ads that helped defeat President Clinton’s health care reform plan last year.
Earlier this month, he produced a batch of TV ads advocating “tort reform,” a key item on the Republican agenda. The House and Senate have passed separate versions of tort reform, or limits on punitive awards in lawsuits, to be reconciled this summer.
Goddard’s agency, First Tuesday, is among a growing wave of political consulting firms dedicated not to electing candidates but to shaping public opinion. Such efforts attract big dollars. The health care industry spent $15 million to defeat the Clinton plan. Big business poured more than $5 million into the tort reform fight.
The campaigns have brought First Tuesday money and recognition. The trade journal Campaigns & Elections ranked Goddard, 52, and partner Richard Claussen, 41, as among the most effective campaign consultants of 1994.
But the revival of Goddard’s company has come at the expense of his former clients, the Democrats.
“It’s disappointing to see the transformation from one end of the political spectrum to another,” said Bill Zimmerman, a Democratic campaign consultant in Santa Monica. Goddard’s company, he said, “was not only a Democratic consulting firm, it was very liberal.”
Indeed, few political consultants have made so dramatic a change as Goddard. His roomy suite overlooking the ocean in Malibu is cluttered with Democratic memorabilia. There is a collection of buttons bearing names such as Carter and McCarthy, and an invitation to the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. On a wall is another liberal remnant, a quote from songwriter Bob Dylan: “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Goddard considers himself a liberal Democrat--the late New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy is his political hero, he said--and bristles at suggestions that he is disloyal.
“Just because the President is a Democrat doesn’t mean I have to support all his positions,” he said.
In 1977, Goddard founded First Tuesday after working to elect President Jimmy Carter. Among the TV ads he created for Democrats was a 1982 spot showing an elephant in a china shop smashing dishes labeled “Medicare” and “Social Security.”
“The Republicans are wrecking things,” a voice-over said. The commercial aired about the time that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan faced criticism for buying expensive White House china.
In 1988, he hyped candidate Jackson at the Democratic National Convention with a video that included images of the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore and the Washington Monument.
That year, Goddard’s agency was about as successful as his party: Voters elected Republican President George Bush. According to court documents, First Tuesday was nearly bankrupt in 1988, a result of scandal and sloppy record-keeping.
In 1988, an employee stole $50,000 from the agency, court records indicate. That same year, $100,000 in receivables went uncollected because bills were never mailed. In 1989, problems deepened when a heart attack left Goddard incapacitated and most of his clients vanished.
To save money during the lean years, Goddard closed the agency’s office and moved it into his home, bringing with him one employee. Even so, First Tuesday lost about $390,000 from 1989 to 1993.
Working to rebuild, Goddard formed an alliance in 1993 with Sacramento lobbyist Claussen, a political independent, to expand beyond making commercials into public relations--and strengthen the agency’s management. Their venture picked up an important client, the Health Insurance Assn. of America, which later funded the anti-Clinton health reform effort.
Thanks in large part to that campaign, First Tuesday earned about $850,000 in fiscal 1994. The agency’s net worth reversed itself, rising to $202,000 by early 1994 from a negative $110,000 a year earlier, according to court records.
(Goddard refused to discuss the agency’s finances, but details are contained in court documents filed in connection with a pending divorce.)
The successful ads of Goddard and Claussen are sprinkled with Americana, a technique others are starting to copy. The middle-class couple in the “Harry & Louise” spots fretted over the Clinton plan while seated at their kitchen table--a scene worthy of Norman Rockwell.
A spot from the recent tort reform campaign showed a Little League player peering at a ballpark through a chain-link fence as a voice-over warns, “Don’t let her season end in a lawsuit.”
“A tiny, serious, sad face,” said Ed Rothschild, spokesman for Consumer Action, a Washington-based organization opposed to tort reform. “The image is so appealing.”
The truthfulness of the ads is debatable. For example, opponents of tort reform say they can find no evidence that lawsuits have scrubbed Little League games. The national Little League organization has cited four cases in which coaches or teams have been sued, but it will not comment when asked if games have been canceled.
Goddard’s spin: “The Little League represents the threat to volunteer organizations. It’s symbolic.”
Dressed in coat, tie and black denim pants, spinmeister Goddard isn’t exactly the picture of Gucci Gulch. On his wall is a discreet painting of a naked woman, purchased because the white peaks in the background remind him of Antarctica, where he trekked some years ago with son Aaron, 27, a TV production manager at First Tuesday.
Goddard’s longtime friend and occasional collaborator, John Ridgway, owner of a Hollywood video graphics firm, describes him as an independent thinker.
“It is a mistake any time you have to go along with a party no matter what direction it’s going in,” Ridgway said. “We’re not 19 years old anymore.”
As writer and producer for all of First Tuesday’s ads, Goddard is evidently not above trashing his home state to get a point across. Hired by insurers to promote tort reform in Arizona, Goddard hyped the worst stereotypes about California lawyers.
One TV ad showed a sleazy attorney with gold rings and a car with California plates spelling “SUE ME.” A voice-over warns, with an irony probably lost on most viewers: “We don’t need California’s half-baked ideas and failed schemes. Send the Californians home.”
Did he have second thoughts about bashing California? “No,” he said. “Not at all.”
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