The original dust jacket of Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968 has Richard Nixon's face emblazoned on a package of cigarettes.
To value that image at a thousand words is parsimonious. It elicits a multiplicity of responses to Nixon and to his 1968 campaign: clever, slick, amoral, dangerous, familiar, branded, and addictive. (Yes, addictive. How long was Nixon in American political life?)
In sum, Richard Nixon was very, very bad for America -- and some very skilled men persuaded voters to buy him anyway.
As an eight-year-old caught up in Watergate in the summer of 1974, that dust jacket induced me to pluck The Selling of the President 1968 from my parents' bookshelf. I didn't understand everything McGinniss was peddling on that first read, of course, but his brisk, energetic prose did let me get at some of what the book was about even then.
It has become fashionable to dismiss The Selling of the President 1968 as a shallow and cynical book written in the breezy New Journalism of its moment. In the November 2006 issue of Smithsonian magazine, Jonathan Yardley took just this tack, arguing that the book's pivotal role in stoking American political cynicism "helps explain why the book remains in print today, for the truth is that otherwise it doesn't hold up very well."
Yardley's right about one thing. The book's strengths do not lie in its analysis. The book's second chapter -- which functions as the literary equivalent of the journalistic "nut graf" -- is rife with glib formulations. Politics is a "con." The voter is a "willing victim" of advertising persuasion.
Yet there's much that's incorrect and ungenerous in Yardley's assessment. It seems almost absurd to assert that the work of a 26-year-old journalist, written in a few months directly after the 1968 election, had as much of a catalytic effect on public cynicism as the events of that tumultuous year and the campaigns themselves.
More ungenerous, however, is to assert that the book's continued longevity is rooted largely in that cynicism. Whatever its deficiencies, The Selling of the President 1968 remains a vital cultural and historical document -- and a playbook of sorts with lessons for our current presidential campaigns.
Mad Men and Ad Men
The cultural impact and historical value of The Selling of the President 1968 is immense. It's still being mined in venues including Rick Perlstein's widely discussed history Nixonland and America's most buzzed-about TV drama of the moment: AMC's Mad Men. Though the first season features vignettes of an ad agency's work on Nixon's 1960 campaign, the dialogue often seems to be plucked directly from McGinniss' 1968 account.
In one scene from the show's first season, ad executives watch an inanely ebullient jingle advertisement for John F. Kennedy and compare it favorably ("Light, fun, doesn't cloud the mind with issues") to a dry advertisement of an inert Nixon perched on the edge of a desk, droning on about the economy.
"Message received -- and forgotten," says one ad man.
"The president is a product," says another. "Don't forget that."
McGinnis' book isn't just fodder for snappy TV dialogue, however. Much of the power of The Selling of the President 1968 is found in the raw strategic campaign documents (which one would rarely see today unless they were somehow leaked) from which the winning Nixon campaign was built.
The memos included by McGinniss in the book show that the 1968 campaign's masterstroke -- marketing Nixon to voters with as little actual Nixon as possible -- was devised largely to neutralize that unappealing loser of 1960 shown on Mad Men.
Carefully orchestrated town halls aired in key TV markets aimed to show Nixon as an engaged and vigorous figure. The campaign's remarkably effective TV ads -- which use short Nixon soliloquies as the soundtrack to dizzying montages that seemed clipped from popular magazines of the day (Life and Look) -- are still studied today.
McGinnis quotes a memo written by Nixon ad director Harry Treleaven, who rose to prominence by engineering George H.W. Bush's 1966 election as U.S. congressman in Texas:
"Still photographs can be effectively used on TV. Interesting cropping, artful editing and juxtaposition of scenes, an arresting soundtrack, can all combine to make an unusual presentation."
Nixon's 1968 TV ads, created by director Gene Jones, follow that basic formula to the letter.
Whether the topic is Vietnam:
Or youth culture:
Nixon's ads are vigorous, energized, and Nixon-free, save for the candidate's voice, which in this context emerges as vaguely Oz-like and oracular. (And the youth ad even manages to feature Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, beardless and in an Uncle Sam hat, about 13 seconds in.)
McGinnis also offers a vivid snapshot of today's key political players in their youth. In the book, Kevin Phillips is a 27-year-old "ethnic specialist" with the campaign, already busily tracking an "emerging Republican majority" that he'd write about in his influential 1969 book with that title. Pat Buchanan is already a key Nixon adviser at 30, penning memos advising that Nixon be photographed "on a golf course or something that is legitimate feature [sic] without being cornball or contrived." And Fox News Channel president Roger Ailes is a 27-year-old producer hired away from crooner Mike Douglas' daytime variety/talk show in Philadelphia to supervise Nixon's carefully choreographed televised town halls.
As depicted by McGinniss, Ailes' tantrums and his admission that many Americans thought Nixon was a "bore" and "a pain in the ass" are part of his legacy. But his canny ability to marry politics to entertainment (as he has done at Fox News) is apparent -- he complains to the author about interference from Nixon's political advisers in selecting questioners for the town halls.
"This is the trouble with all these political people horning in," Ailes tells McGinniss. "Fine, they get all their lousy little groups represented but we wind up with a horseshit show."
Simplicity Fear and Aggression
Forty years on, McGinniss and the prominent Nixon staffers of his generation are in their late 60s. But The Selling of the President 1968 holds valuable lessons for the present generation of presidential campaign staffers, who are already trying to define Barack Obama and John McCain.
The fact that these lessons continue to be so relevant also hints at an uncomfortable fact: There is little true innovation in American political discourse, and its purveyors recycle key language and concepts to a disturbing degree.
In a campaign where Obama's mastery of political oratory has been applauded, it may be difficult to remember that words can clutter or bog down the total impact of a televised campaign message. Nixon's 1968 campaign ads are notable for their willingness to set a simple and forthright proposition and then let music and images do the heavy lifting to evoke a host of conflicting moods. That tempest of sound and image is then resolved succinctly with a carefully modulated statement from the candidate -- tough, but not mean.
For John McCain, a similar approach might be the most effective against Obama in the fall. In fact, his first TV ads are already doing it: Obama as celebrity. Obama as cheap politician using troops as campaign fodder. Particularly on Iraq, look for McCain to set forth simple propositions like "the surge worked" -- and pluck heartstrings with patriotic pictures and music.
Snatching the mantle of change however you can is another valuable lesson that McGinniss' book teaches. One of the starkest moments of déjà vu in The Selling of the President 1968 is the language that Harry Treleaven uses when arguing that Nixon should make his campaign about change.
Treleaven lays out the suggested narrative in a November 1967 memo: "There's an uneasiness in the land. A feeling that things aren't right. That we're moving in the wrong direction. That none of the solutions to our problems are working. That we're not being told the truth about what's going on. The trouble is in Washington. Fix that and we're on our way to fixing everything. Step one: move LBJ out, move a Republican president in."
Sound familiar? In tough and turbulent times, change works, even if the candidate carries the negative baggage that Nixon carried in 1968, or that Ronald Reagan carried in 1980, or that Bill Clinton carried in 1992. It's a lesson that Obama's campaign learned in the primary. The question is whether or not they can keep to that course -- and keep it fresh.
The upside of fear is another key lesson that the book imparts. Nixon's 1968 campaign ads are also notable for their exploitation of Americans' fears of crime, disorder, and international conflict. At times, that fear was used blatantly, with a campaign ad in which an announcer intoned statistics about violent crime as a middle-aged woman walks alone down a dark, damp city street.
At times, the Nixon campaign was (slightly) more subtle, using an ad on the preparedness of candidates to speak to the world on America's behalf with images of hotline phones and no less than four dramatic shifts in music cued to evoke hopes, martial fears, attentiveness, and crisis.
The most notable use of the fear and readiness in 2008 primary advertising was Hillary Clinton's 3 a.m. White House telephone call ad. Despite the controversy, it helped her cut deep into Obama's lead. Fear is too handy a tool to be ignored in a general election. Voters will see it again.
Recent talk of Obama's presumption and victory lap in July summons up a final lesson from McGinniss' book: Don't ever sit on a lead.
The greatest moments of angst in The Selling of the President 1968 emerge not in discussions of the ethics of advertising or the creation of Nixon's "new image" but rather as the Nixon campaign watches its lead slip away in October. The ad men blame Nixon's political team for encouraging his disdain for media and urging him to play it safe. McGinniss blames it on "months of staleness" and his steadfast refusal to do shows such as Meet the Press. (Humphrey and Nixon had no formal debates.)
Panic finally forced Nixon to emerge from behind his carefully constructed image at the very end. It just may have saved him. As former Humphrey ad person consulted by Nixon's ad people tells them: "If the advertising is too slick it's not the communication of the man but the communication of the communication." By Election Day, that was the essence of Nixon's campaign.