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GOP resurrects a nuclear reactant

Last week the Republican National Committee released a Web-only spot opposing the closing of the Guantanamo detention center that sampled the infamous “Daisy ad” from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater.

Either out of sense of decency, loss of nerve or ineptitude, the RNC made an utter hash of it.

More on that in a moment -- first, let me refresh your collective memory: “Daisy” opens in a field on a child, dreamily counting as she picks petals off a flower. Her counting is interrupted by an eerie launch-pad countdown in voice-over. She looks up. Freeze frame.

The camera zooms in on her face, Truffaut-style, until it plunges into the black of her pupil. Then a monstrous thermonuclear explosion, over which we hear LBJ speechifying: “These are the stakes -- to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” The lines, usually attributed to then-special assistant to the president Bill Moyers (who has said he can’t remember), riff on a poem by W.H. Auden.

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The implication was, obviously, that Goldwater’s itchy nuclear finger would trigger a holocaust. Thank God for LBJ, peacemaker.

Created by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency of New York, the Daisy ad aired only once, on Sept. 7, 1964, on NBC, during a showing of the biblically bad “David and Bathsheba.” The Johnson campaign (Moyers, Jack Valenti and others) then pulled the ad, counting on howling outrage to carry its message forward.

In the next few weeks, the relatively young and naive TV news media obliged, replaying the one-minute spot over and over until, finally, Daisy had accreted into something else entirely: a document that had to be seen for its own sake, a media contagion borne aloft by gusts of outrage.

Leveraging its own creative and stylistic innovation, and ruthlessness, Daisy became probably the first example of viral advertising.

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Goldwater, by the way, lost in a landslide.

It’s a measure of disarray in the once media-savvy RNC camp that its Daisy mix is so unpersuasive. For starters, the ad wants to take Obama to task for closing Gitmo when the president has been thoroughly turned back by his own party on this score.

Second, it’s clumsy. The hyper-clipped sound bites from Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Harry Reid and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs are transparently selective and out of context. The RNC of 2004 would never have let those seams show.

The biggest whiff, by far, is the end of the RNC’s ad that, to be faithful to the fear-mongering grammar of the original, should have used scenes of devastation of the twin towers in New York. This is the implicit threat, after all: To close Gitmo is to invite another massive terrorist attack.

Perhaps the RNC -- which did not respond to my request for comment -- second-guessed itself out of using 9/11 imagery, concerned that it would be accused of politicizing the tragedy. That would be a stunning display of diffidence from the party of Dick Cheney.

As it is, the ad ends with an incredulous, “Really?” on black screen. Really? Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers could sue for plagiarism.

Still, there are some symmetries. The Daisy ad cost the Johnson campaign virtually nothing to produce (a fascinating history is at the Atomic Age website conelrad.com); the RNC version must have been super-cheap too, a Final Cut Pro desktop wonder.

The Johnson boys reportedly laid out a mere $24,000 to $30,000 for that single spot on NBC in prime time. The RNC has paid nothing for its ad’s distribution, depending on the Daisy controversy for its Webby virulence. And it’s worked. More than 55,000 people have watched the ad on YouTube.com as of late Monday. Undoubtedly many of those were decades from being born when the original Daisy ad aired.

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What’s fascinating is how reliably inflammatory the Daisy ad is, after almost half a century. Why? For one thing, we recognize it as being essentially modern. Daisy marks a pioneering use of cinematic techniques in political advertising, and the Goldwater conservatives -- even then railing against effete liberalism in the media and show business -- must have recognized they were up against a powerful new enemy, schooled in the filmic psychology of the French New Wave. It would take until the Reagan years for the GOP to step fully into the footlights of political show business.

Daisy was also the perfect expression of the emergent ‘60s culture war that, pared to its imagistic essences, pitted flower children against nukes.

To see the ad again -- on YouTube or the LBJ library website -- is to feel yourself choosing sides all over again.

Ultimately, though, the Daisy ad lives on in the perversity of nostalgia. It was a signal moment when our darkest fears were defined by a blinding flash of light. Would that our current enemies were so easy to see.

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dan.neil@latimes.com


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