Political Advertisements VI: 1956 – 2004

  • Antonio Muntadas & Marshall Reese
  • Tuesday, October 26, 8 pm
  • @ Innis Town Hall, Innis College, 2 Sussex Ave.

Part of Fall 2004

A co-presentation with Vtape

The revolution may not have been televised, but something surely was. The twin “languages” of advertising and TV have so infiltrated political discourse that it’s hard to imagine a political platform, which lasts longer than 30 seconds. If the only viable recourse left to the left is Michael Moore’s fight-fire-with-fire approach, how long can it be before the whole forest burns down? Has it always been this way? And if not, how did it get to be like this?

Come draw your own conclusions from Political Advertisements VI. For twenty years, Antonio Muntadas and Marshall Reese have been collecting and compiling American Presidental campaign ads from the 1950s onward; this latest installment is updated to include a few choice selections from the current Bush/Kerry joust. Presented chronologically, without authorial comment or modification, the spots speak volumes about the environment that birthed them. A must for mediahounds, armchair historians, activists, and even apolitical aesthetes (the camp value of the older ads is not to be denied).

Now More Than Ever

To our post-modern eyes, the TV spots used in the presidential race of 1952 appear as laughably uncomplicated weapons, like oaken

clubs, or slings made out of hide. What could be more retro than those little gray promotions for Stevenson and Ike in their first contest

(or in their second, four years later)? Surely this was the Dark Ages of such televisual propaganda, light-years from the crafty idylls and

well-honed attack ads of today.

And yet, if we resist the impulse just to laugh them off, we might perceive that those two bits of superannuated propaganda –the two TV spots that begin this very useful retrospective – are not identical examples of crude work. For one of them is actually far more sophisticated than the other; and from that difference we might learn something about the way that winning propaganda always works – and how it works especially today.

Let’s start with the Democratic spot. A pale young woman with bobbed hair and a sedated look (tired eyes, black sweater

buttoned to the neck) sits facing us, immobile, from behind a large white placard advertising Adlai Stevenson for President of

the United States. With the over-scrupulous articulation of an alcoholic, or a nun, she says, without a flicker of excitement, “I

am excited about voting for Gov. Stevenson for president.” She then explains her choice:

I think he is a new kind of man in American politics.

He will be a president for all the people. Stevenson has told the Texans, and the people of Louisiana, and California, that tideland oil belongs not to them alone, but to all the people of the country.

In the South, he has made a strong statement for civil liberties and full equality. For farmers, the businessman, the veterans and the working man, to each in turn he has said he will represent not their interests alone but the interests of all of us.

That’s why I am excited about Gov. Stevenson. He will be a president for all the people.

In its perfect ineffectuality this ad is something of a wonder, as it provides no reason why the viewer ought to vote for Stevenson, and otherwise augments the candidate’s persona not at all. Indeed, the only thing that it conveys about the brainy governor – and that it does obliquely – is his low opinion of TV. What exactly is the message here? That this “new kind of man” will not play ball with Texans, Californians or Louisianans, farmers, veterans, working men or businessmen! Rather, “he will be a president for all the people” – a campaign promise so high-minded and abstract as to ensure that few Americans would thrill to it, as there were not many of us then (and are not many of us now) who see themselves as mere vague particles of that grand, empty “all.” Propaganda cannot be so platitudinous and inspecific, but must appear to grab you – you – with an appeal that resonates somewhere below your mere ideals. Although it may at first seem no less primitive, the ancient Eisenhower spot included here is, as propaganda, far superior to that blathery preachment for the Democrat. Where the latter rambles on and on in an unblinking monologue, the spot for “Ike” appears to be just as dynamic and concise as that fraternal nickname. A mini-dialogue and not a monologue, comprising two shots rather than just one (that cranky question from a Little Guy, and then the General’s seeming-deft reply), this ad appears to pose a common problem, and then to hint, sort of, at a solution.

There’s a black man in a sport coat and a flannel shirt, facing right and looking slightly upward. He asks this fretful question – more a lit any of grievances than an answerable query:

“Food prices, clothing prices, income taxes! Won’t they ever go down?”

Cut to Ike, appearing friendly and authoritative in a smart dark suit. At first looking down and over toward the questioner (who does not share the frame with him), then turning genially to face the camera, Ike replies:

“Not with an $85-billion budget eating away on [sic] your grocery bill, your clothing, your food [sic], your income. Yet the Democrats say, &lrquo;˜You never had it so good!’”

As an economic argument, Ike’s comeback is not helpful. The ad’s real point is not, however, to explain the impact of the federal budget. Indeed, its point is not to explain anything, but, on the contrary, to cast the general as a big wise Daddy who should be our president because he can take care of us. “Food prices, clothing prices, income taxes! Won’t they ever go down?” This is less a question looking for an economic answer than a plaint of near-despair intended for the ears of God. As the only figure in the frame (and as the object of the black man’s upward gaze), the all-knowing Ike acknowledges the problem – and swiftly pins the blame for it on those false gods, “the Democrats.” As Eisenhower depicts them, “the Democrats” are rather like a plague of locusts, “eating away on your food” ; while Ike Himself will make things right in peace as he had lately done at war.

For all its seeming artlessness, then, this old ad for Eisenhower succeeds in doing what such ads generally do. They must present the candidate as godly (i.e., not just pious but like God), and his adversaries as all wrong: proud, deluded, wrathful, vain, destructive. By such deft propaganda we are ultimately urged to love Him and hate them, because&lrquo;¦ he is who he is. Eisenhower is Eisenhower, and that alone should make entirely clear why “I like Ike.” By contrast with that Rock of Ages, the eloquent, ironic Adlai Stevenson appeared as naught – a mere passing cloud of pleasant gestures and seductive polysyllables; yet there is something not just frivolous, but radically askew about the subtle governor, who, for all his charm, is fundamentally an evil being, as Ike is fundamentally Good.

This Manichaean schema has loomed heavily throughout the post-war history of our presidential races – figuring especially in those contests that have played the most on fear. In 1960, Richard Nixon tried his hand at playing God before the camera, as is apparent in the ads included here. Perched heroically upon his desk, the reverent camera truckling toward him, Nixon listens with Olympian calm as the announcer puts some fretful question vis-a-vis the mortal threat posed by the Soviets or Democrats; and, like Ike before him, Nixon promises to keep us safe and whole: “We must never let the communists think we are weak.” Or:

I would like to talk to you for a moment about dollars and sense. Now my opponents want to increase federal expenditures by as much as $18 billion a year. How will they pay for it? There are only two ways. One is to raise your taxes. That hurts everyone. The other is increase our national debt, and that means raising your prices – robbing you of the value of your savings, cutting into the value of your insurance, hurting your pocketbook every day at the drugstore, the grocery store, the gas station.

Is that what you want for America? I say no.

Nixon’s posture as Jehovah failed that year, trumped (barely) by the potent glamour of the Kennedy machine, which focused the electorate on the advantages of youth and the possibilities of this world (as is apparent in the Kennedy/Johnson spots shown here). The appeal to fear was managed brilliantly in the 1964 campaign, as Lyndon Johnson’s propagandists played on Barry Goldwater’s extremist aura, and used prodigious cinematic skill, to float a chilling foreglimpse of apocalypse. Nixon then returned to play the Manichaean scene again, but now successfully. In 1968 he stood up as “the One” against the badly hobbled Hubert Humphrey (whose TV spots are classics of tepidity); and then again in 1972, he proposed to save the world (“Now more than ever” ) from the hapless ultra-liberal George McGovern, whom Nixon had maneuvered into place for just that purpose (and whose own ads were fierce and unforgettable indictments of the war in Vietnam – and therefore sure to help him lose).

In the campaign of 1976, there was no Manichaean posturing from either side, the nation having tired of Nixon’s grandiosity and fatal yen for “the big play.” And so Gerald Ford was advertised as but “a steady hand” (completely secular), while Jimmy Carter stood up in all modesty as just a farmin’ fella, prudent and sincere – the earthy antidote to Tricky Dick’s imperial psychotic. After that oddly understated race, the spectre of the godly Dad returned to haunt our presidential politics relentlessly. Twice Ronald Reagan postured winningly as Our True Father, glad and good, against not just “the evil empire” but the gloomy would-be taxaholic Walter Mondale (whose ads did nothing to dispel the glare of “Morning in America” ). In 1988, the ever-boyish Bush the Elder zealously reprised that patriarchal role, except without the Gipper’s all-important sunny side. Desperate not to seem effete (although he was in fact effete) or too left-wing (although he was in fact no moderate), and ferociously assisted by the paranoid divisions of the Christian right, the long, tall Yankee Bush played National Dad against the short, dark Mike Dukakis, who appeared, throughout the Rev. Falwell’s propaganda, as sly and false and “Jewish,” and with flies all over him. (Bush’s crucial TV spots against Dukakis – Boston Harbor, Willie Horton, “the revolving door” – may well be the most effective smear ads in the history of US presidential politics.)

Although in 1992 Bush tried again to Dad his way to power – flaunting his enormous clan at every opportunity, and harping on his military service in the Big One – that pose could not defeat Bill Clinton, who won, in part, by virtue of his seeming spiritual link to Camelot; the can-do attitude, the infamous libido, that startling footage of the teen-aged politician shaking hands with JFK. (Clinton also owed that victory in part to the ornery persistence of H. Ross Perot, another vestige of “the Greatest Generation,” and a deliberate drag on Bush’s re-ascension.) In 1996 Bob Dole also tried, and failed, to beat the Comeback Kid by merely flexing his seniority, his campaign turning largely on his status as a wounded veteran/legislative elder.

In his race against Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush posed likewise as the Better Father – i.e., not like Clinton – even though his own biography recalled the Sixties more distinctly, and less appetizingly, than Gore’s. A draft-dodger (Gore served in Vietnam), a lifelong goof-off with, at least, a drinking problem (Gore was a straight arrow from the start), and evidently an indifferent parent (his own children, unlike Gore’s – or Chelsea Clinton – tending to delinquency in public), Bush, throughout that campaign, played the father with a vengeance, as if his anomalous paternal act would vindicate his own beloved Poppy, who had been so grossly humbled by Bill Clinton and his hippie gang. (The son’s apparent effort to affirm his father’s honor eerily recalled the elder Bush’s over-long and over-heated case for Richard Nixon, who, throughout the Watergate ordeal, used Bush pére as his most visible apologist.)

And yet, as we have come to learn, this Bush is not the warm, devoted son that some have taken him to be. His filial feelings would appear to be ambivalent, if not just hostile, his dogged drive to break Saddam Hussein in two suggesting not a wish to realize his father’s mission but a desire to cut that father down to size. This Bush has, in other words, been struggling to out-do his Dad, not honor him, so that he might, at last, become a Dad far bolder, braver, larger, greater than the Dad that married dear old Mom. This Bush, in fact, would be as great as God Himself. “Then he said something that really struck me,” Bob Woodward recalled on “60 Minutes” in April of 2004, of a conversation he had had with Bush the Younger:

He said of his father, “He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength.” And then he said, “There’s a higher Father that I appeal to.”

Bush routinely vents such grandiosity. “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job,” he noted while campaigning in Lancaster in the summer of 2004. In that messianic fantasy George W. Bush is not alone (as Pres. Nixon was alone in his imperial self-regard). Not just a few of Bush’s followers apparently believe that “God is in the White House” – a delusion that Bush/Cheney’s propagandists seem to share, and one that they are always working hard to reconfirm, and spread as far as possible.

That Bush & Co. themselves believe in Bush this way – and that they want to make the rest of us believe it – would be distressing under any circumstances. Within the current culture of TV, such theocratic zeal has had disastrous consequences; and so, in order to survive this crisis, and overcome it, we must scrutinize not just these TV spots per se but study also their full institutional and cultural context. For the modern history of US political propaganda entails far more than the ever-changing tactics and techniques that have been used to sell our presidental candidates on television. That history also includes the gradual “deregulation” of the US corporate media in general. By enabling one gigantic media cartel to dominate TV and radio (as well as movies, magazines, music, newspapers and, increasingly, the Internet); and by abolishing the Fairness Doctrine, which once obliged the media’s owners to permit the other side to have its say; and by preventing the construction of a genuinely public broadcast system, adequately funded and appropriately shielded from state pressures; and by rescinding nearly all the old requirements whereby broadcasters were once induced to serve the public interest with an edifying range of non-commercial programming – journalistic, educational, religious – so as to justify the mammoth profits earned through routine exploitation of the public airwaves; and by systematically depriving all dissenters of their First Amendment rights: through these and many other anti-democratic policies, the US corporate media machine has been transformed at last into a propaganda apparatus for the governing elite – the few huge players who own it, and the other giants that use it for their advertising, now colluding with the government to push a rightist programme on the national audience, a/k/a “the people.”

Aired within a culture that has thus been made to amplify the official line (and that alone), the suasive works devised by propagandists at the top can do – and by now surely have done – far more harm than would be possible in a society enlightened daily by the sort of free and independent press envisioned by the Constitution’s framers. In so well-informed a nation, no human politician could play God; whereas, within the propaganda system now in place here, anything is possible. (Mark Crispin Miller)

Mark Crispin Miller is professor of Media Studies at NYU and author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder and Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order.