For a low blow, the “Daisy” ad corralled a goodly smorgasbord of gestures drawn from high art. That artistry was to the point—the point being not to make a rational case to voters but to use cinema to arouse their emotions, notably sheer, abject fear. To accomplish that mission, the LBJ political team violated the tenets of television political advertising of their time. Back then, ads were discursive and informational, with presidential candidates, even the telegenic Kennedy of 1960, awkwardly delivering their positions in hokey staged conversations or giving dry speeches worthy of the Politburo. Ad people were seen mainly as audiovisual technicians needed only to package the unadorned content. But JFK had toyed with breaking the mold by recruiting a sophisticated, creative ad agency for his reelection campaign—specifically, Doyle Dane Bernbach, whose cheeky “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen in 1959 had upended Madison Avenue orthodoxy. (Don Draper is seen pondering the unexpected wit of a DDB Volkswagen ad in season one of Mad Men.) Kennedy’s hunch survived his assassination. Bill Bernbach got the assignment for the new president’s reelection campaign, overseeing a media team that would include the groundbreaking sound guru Tony Schwartz.
“Daisy” went up on September 7, 1964, at 9:50 p.m. in the East, during NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies. That night’s movie was a relic even then—David and Bathsheba, a 1951 potboiler starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But go figure: 50 million Americans desperate for back-to-school diversion and with minimal entertainment options had tuned in. That was enough. The spot made all three network newscasts the next night, and then the cover of Time. The Johnson campaign never had to shell out a dime for a rerun.
The Washington response was reminiscent of the reaction to Obama’s Bain attack. Dean Burch, the Republican Party chairman, condemned the ad as “a new low in American politics” and, prefiguring Cory Booker by nearly five decades, added that he knew of a child who watched it and got “so violently upset that she cried and had nausea all night.” The Johnson people had anticipated the flak. “The spot was a winner,” Richard Goodwin later recalled. “But it would almost certainly be attacked as ‘unfair,’ even ‘dirty politics’ by Establishment pundits and publications.” LBJ and his operatives didn’t give a damn. They anticipated the howls and had a strategy for deflecting them. Once “Daisy” had done its damage, the Johnson campaign would respond to the protests by seizing the moral high ground and magnanimously withdrawing it. As Mann writes, “Goodwin imagined the conversation he or another staff member might have with a reporter: ‘It seems fine to us, but if that’s how you feel about it, Mr. Reston [or Mr. Sulzberger … or Mr. Bradlee], we won’t use it anymore.’ ”
That’s one lesson Obama could learn from 1964: Shamelessly flatter Booker and Brooks and every other holier-than-thou critic who thinks politics should emulate the tone of a PBS public-affairs roundtable, and then do what you want anyway. Another lesson is in the ad’s reach for a bigger-than-life theme that could be rendered symbolically, even poetically, and function, as Tony Schwartz would later write, “like Rorschach patterns” that “do not tell the viewer anything” but “surface his feelings.” The Johnson team had a number of promising lines of attack to work with in going after Goldwater: his opposition to civil-rights legislation, his desire to make Social Security “voluntary,” his fellow-traveling with John Birchers and other loons of the far right. But the campaign settled on Goldwater’s sloppy bluster about nuclear weapons because the prospect of an atomic Armageddon transcended ideological or policy differences and cut to the emotional quick of the electorate’s existential fears.
The content dictated the bold form. Goldwater’s propensity for flip rhetorical bellicosity was so well known that any replay of his actual words in the ad would be a gratuitous distraction and could be dispensed with. Better still, from the Democrats’ point of view, it was Goldwater’s own vanquished GOP rivals for the nomination—Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton—who had led the way in publicizing his loose talk and portraying him as a risky warmonger. (The then-governor of Michigan, George Romney, was another helpful Goldwater basher.) The Republicans had done such a good job of advance hatchet work that voters taking in David and Bathsheba could let their own imaginations run wild while filling in the ad’s blanks. As any student of horror movies knows, what isn’t seen or stated is far scarier than any literal enactment onscreen. It’s hard for a Hitchcock fan to look at “Daisy” and not see it as a cinematic stepchild of Psycho (1960), in which the brutal shower scene is all the more terrifying because the audience never actually sees the knife violate Janet Leigh’s body.