BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | NOV 13, 2017
There’s a critical piece of business regarding the election of Democrat Ralph Northam as Governor of Virginia Nov. 7, that needs to be addressed. It has to do with a campaign ad.
The ad’s message and what it says about the state of American politics is important. Campaign advertising is one aspect of American politics that needs to be fixed, soon.
But before talking about today, it may be helpful to look back a half century to where it all began in the modern era on September 7, 1964.
That evening, NBC’s popular Monday Night at the Movies was on television. During a commercial break what came to be called the “Daisy Girl” advertisement ran for the first time.
The ad featured a young child with cute dimples picking the blossoms off of a daisy, counting as she plucked them. When she was done, the camera zoomed in on her right eye until the screen was completely black. Then we heard another countdown from 10-1. At one, the screen lit up with a horrific atomic bomb explosion. Over it, came the Texas drawl of President Lyndon Johnson telling viewers the stakes in the 1964 presidential election were high…“To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” The insinuation was, of course, that if you voted for Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater you were inviting nuclear holocaust.
For more than two decades no campaign ad, to my recollection, was as gripping or diabolical.
But then in 1988, an organization supporting the campaign of George H.W. Bush produced the Willie Horton ad, a guilt-by-association attack on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The insinuation was that Dukakis was an accomplice in the rape of a white woman by Horton, who was black, soon after his early release from prison, under a program Dukakis supported.
Almost a quarter century went by before we were introduced to Joe Soptic in another “independently” produced 2012 television ad for President Barack Obama. Soptic, a Missouri steelworker accused candidate Mitt Romney of killing Joe’s wife, who had died of cancer. It had the now all-too-familiar guilt-by-association narrative. Romney was the principal in Blain Capital, which closed the plant where Soptic worked, which ended his health insurance, which he blamed for the loss of his wife.
Those three ads represented the worst of the worst, not just how they reflected the dark underbelly of campaign advertising, but in a broader sense, what they said about the character of candidates who let them air or fail to condemn them when they do, and, more to the point, the prospective voters who favorably respond to them.
This year, however, just four years after Soptic, the Latino Victory Fund (LVF) produced a commercial supporting Northam that makes these other watershed ads look like commercials for Betty Crocker cookie dough.
The LVF video opens with the viewers’ perspective from behind the wheel of a black Ford pick-up truck with a confederate flag billowing from the rear gate next to an Ed Gillespie bumper sticker and “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates (interesting that the truck did not have VA plates).
The driver is partially hidden, but unobscured enough for viewers to ascertain he is a white guy in pursuit of a young Latino boy, who is joined by another Latino youth, both now running breathlessly through a neighborhood with the truck in hot pursuit. The boys encounter a young girl in a hijab and a black youth on the sidewalk. They join the boys, now all four horrified and running for their lives. At the end the children are trapped in a dead-end alley with no escape when they awaken from the nightmare safe from what was to be their imminent murder, maiming, molestation, or some other form of evil mayhem.
The insinuation is blatant and very ugly. Republicans are racist predators filled with hate for anyone who isn’t white, the same political narrative used by Hillary Clinton who described 30 million Americans supporting Donald Trump as deplorable human beings. This ad sinks further into the sewer than the previous three. The LVF ad doesn’t just play a race card, it throws the whole deck on the table in a manner that is itself racist and bigoted.
Northam claims he was not responsible for it, but did not repudiate it, either, and there is reason to question, which the press has not, just how much linkage there is between Northam and groups like LVF, which provided in-kind services to his campaign. In fact he was defiant. He called the ads of his opponent Ed Gillespie despicable, fear-mongering, and evil – one among several linking Northam to MS-13 gangs fit that bill–but he just couldn’t bring himself to say the same of the LVF ad. Instead, he defended the organization. The Northam campaign said it was tit for tat. You know the refrain from childhood: “Mommy, he started it.”
The Center for American Progress, a creation of former Clinton campaign advisor John Podesta, actually defended the ad. “We just held up a mirror to them,” a spokeswoman said, without explaining just who “them” are.
A Wall Street Journal editorial, which called the ad the ugliest in this election cycle, quoted the head of the Latino Victory Fund, Cristobal Alex justifying the ad. It was “undeniably effective” in helping Northam win. That quotation was reminiscent of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who admitted to lying about Mitt Romney’s income tax returns on the floor of the United States Senate because, he said, it worked. Romney lost.
In football, the late coach Vince Lombardi declared, “winning isn’t everything; it is the only thing.” That should not apply to politics. Unfortunately it does.
The mainstream press said relatively little about the Latino Victory Fund campaign, giving their guy Northam a pass. The Washington Post endorsed Northam, but to its credit, decried the ad and urged Northam to disavow it. Elsewhere in the Post, however, articles by Ed O’Keefe, James Hohmann, and Fenit Nirappil weighed in heavily against Gillespie. The Post even gave the Latino Victory Fund president free space to defend the ad. The bias was wantonly transparent.
After he won, Northam stood before his supporters and preached a gospel of unity, harmony, and togetherness. We must put an end to divisiveness, he said. He may be entirely sincere in that. But his is, tragically, the norm for political behavior–do whatever you have to do to win, regardless of the ethics, morality, civility, or decency of it and clean up afterwards. Gillespie, who I know to be a decent man, essentially did the same, offering an outstretched hand and unity after his campaign’s barrage of negativism.
Over the course of the last 30 years, Americans have shed values in both politics and society, like trees shedding their leaves in the fall. With the trees, the leaves come back every year. In politics the values are seldom restored to their rightful place guiding and defining behavior after the campaigns. In fact the campaigns never end. They have replaced governing. Character and decency and political courage are easily and too often sacrificed for personal and political gain. Candidates are to blame, but so are the people who elect them.
A vivid example: Brazen, look-you-in-the-eye lying is now another new normal made that way not just by Donald Trump, but begun by politicians before him dating back decades–presidents, members of Congress, political leaders. The forms of behavior that are now tolerated across the political and social spectrum are unnerving and sometimes frightening, even for the grizzled pros among us.
The overlay of racial, social and cultural divisions in America on every aspect of campaigns and governance is grotesque and dangerous. Those subjects– there is probably no more destructive force in American society than the issue of race–desperately need civil, honest, mature, and intense discussion. It won’t happen and that’s a national tragedy.
That’s the bad news. The really bad news? The Northam ad will probably be outdone before the 2018 election cycle even gets into full swing, making the experiences and results of the coming election cycle more ominous than those we lived through in 2016 and 2017.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.