I Probably Should Relate Mad Men to This, But I’ve Never Watch the Show

I’m going to be reviewing a bunch of campaign books and such on the overcoming weeks to get a better perspective on presidential politics. Enjoy! Or not!

In Back to the Future, the 1950s Doc Brown quickly comes to terms about the television culture that future boy Marty McFly describes. After rebuffing the very idea Ronald Reagan could be elected president only a day before, Doc takes a look at a video camera and says, “No wonder your president has to be an actor. He’s gotta look good on television.” The same sentiment was expressed by Nixon staffer William Gavin against the California governor back in 1968, “reagan manages to appeal to both [generations] at the same time; he’s the tv candidate who instinctively reaches the aural-tactile; he speaks with a linear logic, and his quick simplicisms appeal to children old and young.” [all mistakes his] The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinnis and Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary The War Room gives an inside look on the political specialists who get men elected in the television age.

Selling is short with only 180 pages of large print narrative alongside 70 pages of insider memos and political strategies. Like the documentary-makers, McGinniss only got a limited view into the world of political strategy. Will Durant laments in Heroes of History that only Aristotle’s technical treaties remain instead of his popular works making it difficult to get a sense of over-arching ideals. The same is missed from these studies. What drives these politicos is missing, maybe leaving enough raw material for the reader to figure out what is going on. Selling is slightly better with some predictions about the future of television in politics but all the men he watches remain ciphers. Instead, the focus is on the day-to-day workings (though not every day which would have been quite tedious). The artists are slightly in awe of these new Machiavellians, even when their actual maneuverings aren’t that impressive.  An example of Clinton’s main strategist James Carville’s political acuteness is arguing with a news producer if they should do a story on Bush printing bumper stickers out of the country (Carville loses this argument.)  These are exciting only so far is how the meat is made but says little why the meat must be made in this way. Sausage-makers might not be notorious philosophers but asking for perspective wouldn’t have hurt. Instead there are the old tricks pretending to be new.

The War Room starts with an old time campaign song and a dog walking around with a sign tied to him before entering Clinton’s war room. Watch out, this ain’t your daddy’s campaign! That might be shocking for the cynics who worked for Nixon, Jim Sage, “We’re moving into a period where a man is going to be merchandised on television more and more. It upsets you and me, maybe, but we’ve not typical Americans. The public sits home and watches Gunsmoke and when they’re fed this pap about Nixon they think they’re getting something worthwhile.” For the most part, there’s not much different running a presidential campaign in the late 1960s than the early 1990s.  Unsurprising really, thirty years rarely make much a difference unless it’s a war in Germany. But reporters have a natural inclination to make every event out to be novel. Perhaps out of ignorance but more likely to make their story more important. Everyone would rather read and write (and film) about the dawn of a new era instead of the middle of an era. Though there are changes that show the professionalization of image-makers might play an unhappy role on how the public view candidates and campaigns.

No matter the idiosyncrasies of Richard Nixon, his ad-men were loyal to him. His ideas and beliefs made him endearing to him. “A candidate can’t be too smooth,” Artie Kopelman puts it. “There have to be some rough edges into the nooks and crannies. If a communications effort is too smooth it becomes just that- a communications effort on the candidate’s behalf rather than a projection of the candidate himself.” They turned him into a television candidate. By the time the politicos got to Clinton, rough edges had to be buffed out not displayed.

Today there’s an entire industry that deals only with the candidate’s image. They’re professionals as finding the best way to make smiles sizzle on TV and to ensure every zinger lands without offending. So professional are these new men the candidate is immaterial. While the war room eats breakfast, Bill Clinton might as will be Banquo’s ghost. He can’t even get them to quiet down quickly when he’s on a phone, like they’re a bunch of toddlers with a permissive mom.  Clinton’s men were interested in left-leaning policies not the candidate. Clinton was merely a fellow who could win in the age of cable news. George Stephanopoulos little speech at the end to the political troops about what a Clinton administration will mean is memorable for how little they wanted. Making health care a little cheaper and putting a few extra dollars in the pockets of voters. They’re not dreamers or visionaries but men and women worrying about the details.  You hire the guy because they know which tie pops under the bright lights, not because they want to lead America into a new era. That’s useful running a campaign which bombards and gets bombarded a million different ways a day. But someone has to be thinking big picture.

Near the end, when tallying up how far Clinton is up in voting George (I’m not going to write his last name again if I can help it) looks briefly into the camera. A nice reminder of how much of this was playing to the camera. The reporters behind these works were merely visitors to this world and more importantly were known to be visitors. The politicos could whet their appetites, show off how smart they are, and still get the work done without giving away too many company secrets. The strategy paid handsome dividends as getting knock out of the political no longer means retirement. James Carville is on CNN and George is on Good Morning America. Their showmanship gives them easy entry into the media and pundit world. The ad men Nixon released into the body politic has spread to general culture to spin why bland news items are the most important events in the history of humanity since the invention of the steamship. But perhaps we can Tricky Dick wiggle off the hook on this one; he so needed help and someone was going to figure out the talking picture box sooner or later.

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