One could argue that the best political ad of 2012 so far has been made not by any campaign but by Chrysler, whose Super Bowl “Halftime in America” spot, narrated by Clint Eastwood, was so arresting, and, intentionally or not, so supportive of the auto-industry bailout, that Rove hailed it as an “extremely well-done ad” even as he said he was “offended” by its seeming Obama partisanship. What that ad had that the others have not is the indirection and ambiguity that allow the audience to engage with and invest in the story being told. An attack ad has a similar potential to corral some of the majestic power of movies, with or without an iconic Hollywood star in the mix—if done right.
Doing it right doesn’t necessarily mean doing right by the facts. An effective attack ad doesn’t require strict accuracy as long as its broad caricature rings true. It has to land a punch as propaganda, not journalism. For all his trigger-happy rhetoric, Goldwater was not in favor of starting World War III, whereas the theoretically peace-loving Johnson would prove, after reelection, to be an enthusiastic escalator of the disastrous war in Vietnam. But if the “Daisy” ad was not determinative in Johnson’s reelection victory and not a balanced depiction of Goldwater, it remains the gold standard of attack ads for good reason. Now that Obama is trying to fend off a GOP as radically right wing as Goldwater was, it’s a standard he will have to meet.
That’s particularly the case given that the Romney forces are likely to have more money to spend on ads than Obama will, and that Romney has no inhibitions about dispensing with the truth in his own advertising. (His very first campaign spot, last November, misleadingly recut a 2008 campaign clip, Andrew Breitbart style, to attribute words from a McCain aide to Obama.) With limited resources and a bum economy on his shoulders, the Obama of 2012 may have to win the air war with an imaginative coup as dazzling as the Democrats pulled off in 1964.
That’s why he would be wise to seriously reexamine the history of a spot so effective that it’s the only aspect of the entire LBJ-Goldwater race that anyone remembers. The latest volume of Robert Caro’s epic life of Lyndon Johnson stops just short of the 1964 election. But last fall, Robert Mann, a journalist and historian with a relevant previous career seeped in the cauldron of Louisiana politics, got there first with Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds, an enterprising book meticulously reconstructing the genesis and impact of this very brief, very devastating piece of film. Mann’s account is all the more instructive when read in the context of 2012. Paradoxically, the most famous attack ad in history stands apart from many of those that followed it—including most produced today—by containing no facts or even factoids, no quotes, no argument, no image of either candidate, and not even a mention of the target’s name. And yet its power remains awesome to behold. It finished Goldwater even though Americans in 1964 tilted slightly more conservative than liberal (37 to 35 percent, according to Gallup) and even though the Goldwater campaign outspent LBJ’s on television advertising by some 40 percent, including for an attack ad of its own linking the president to graft, “swindle,” juvenile delinquency, crime, and riots.
The “Daisy” ad’s scenario would seem to be simplistic. An innocent little girl (actually a 3-year-old budding commercial actress who’d already done a Lipton-soup print ad) in a field full of chirping birds picks petals from a daisy (actually a dandelion), counting them as she does so. Her babyish voice is soon usurped by the bark of a man on a loudspeaker counting down to an atomic-bomb explosion. The girl’s face is stilled in close-up by a freeze-frame, and the camera zooms in to her eye. As her pupil fills the screen, it is obliterated by a jump cut to the billowing mushroom cloud. Only in the final seconds do we hear (the unseen) Johnson’s brief pitch, which begins with the declaration “These are the stakes” and ends with the sentiment “We must either love each other or we must die.”
That last sentence, no doubt unbeknownst to most of its audience, echoed W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Mann discovered that the freeze-frame of the girl’s face was inspired by the legendary final shot of Antoine Doinel, the crushingly vulnerable 12-year-old autobiographical hero in François Truffaut’s New Wave masterpiece The 400 Blows (1959). It’s not much of a leap to imagine that the militaristic voice of the man reciting the countdown and the footage of the atomic blast were patterned after another film landmark, Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was still fresh in American memory, having been released early in 1964.