At least as far back as 1952 -- when the New York advertising firm Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn developed television spots for the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign -- we have been battered by political commentators telling us that campaigns have been turned into nothing more than marketing efforts, with candidates being sold like soap. Nothing is more common during election years, for example, than to see a television commentator taking 90 seconds to explain how shallow 60-second political commercials are as a method of dealing with issues. Over and over, the notion that personality politics dominates today's elections is heard in the land.
As a general proposition, this is almost always false. If you plan a career in politics, I can think of no advice more important than this: Make sure you -- or your principal -- knows the issues, knows how to make the most effective case for those issues, and forget about personality. More often than not, when observers argue that issues are not being discussed in a campaign, they mean the peolpe are not coming down on their side of the issues. For example, toward the end of the 1972 presidential campaign -- when Nixon was heading toward a landslide victory over George McGovern - playwright Arthur Miller wrote in The New York Times that "if the system worked as it is supposed to, [elections] would be decided on the positions taken toward issues, but the issues mean next to nothing, apparently."
But on what was the 1972 election decided? On Nixon's more pleasing personality? Even Peter Dailey, who headed the November Group, the ad hoc agency that prepared Nixon's 1972 advertising, acknowledged that their research showed people believed Nixon to be aloof, cold and something less than candid (how much less than candid was not that obvious in 1972). Their idea was to link these negative personality traits to issues -- to argue, for example, that Nixon's very secretiveness was in large measure responsible for the success of the initiative toward China.
More significant was the post-election comment of Ben Wattenberg, a conservative Democrat who worked for Henry Jackson. "The real issue," he said, "to the mind of a voter is not trust but what do you trust a candidate to do? There were a lot of people by November 1972 who trusted that Sen. McGovern, in point of fact, would be isolationist, would turn over Israel to the Arabs . . . "
What happened in 1972, I believe, is that million of traditional Democrats put aside their long-held, fully justified suspicions about Nixon's personality and voted for him precisely because they believed him closer to their beliefs than was George McGovern on such matters as the vitality of the work ethic, the way to pursue peace, support for traditional social values. They may have been wrong about this belief, but it was on this basis -- not personality -- that McGovern went down to his historic defeat.
Without making harsh judgments about the personalities of our political figures, a look at the recent past hardly supports the idea that we live in an age of personality poltics. Did Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976 because he was more attractive then Ford? I would argue that Carter's precipitous decline in the polls between the Democratic convention and election day occurred because voters were increasingly unsure of what Carter would do as president (an uncertainity borne out by his performance); and that the margin of Carter's victory can be explained far more by party ties, Ford's pardon of Nixon and the levels of unemployment than by Carter's charm.
The campaign of 1968 does not suggest the triumph of personality politics, either. Hubert Humphrey was, by most accounts, as agreeable and pleasant a figure as ever graced the political system. The general assessment of Richard Nixon, even before the Watergate scandal, was somewaht less charitable. But 1968 was a political maelstrom; the Democratic Party was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam, and the national convention, with division inside the hall and disorder without, suggested that the party in power was incapable of maintaining order in its own house, or the nation's. Without question, the long-standing suspicion of Nixon contributed to his rapid decline in the polls, leading to a hairbreadth victory in the general election. But the record of the Democratic adminstration -- which Humphrey had served as vice president for four years -- was almost certainly the decisive factor in that race.
It is possible to find campaigns where personalities did seem to be the essential difference between the candidates. Former Eisenhower speechwriter Emmet John Hughes described the 1960 Kenndy-Nixon race as one where "the differences in substance between thses two young veterans of the Senate -- whether measured by their views on national defense, their perception of foreign policy, or their passion for civil liberties -- were so small as almost to elude expression." It was a campaign where John Kennedy based his notions about defense on the existence of a "missle gap" which disappeared magically at about the time of Kennedy's inaugural, and where a major source of concention was whether American prestige was slipping, as measured by a European public opinion poll reflecting citizens' ideas about military strength. The voters' choice in this campaign -- and given Kennedy's 100,000 vote plurality, smallest in modern presidential election history, and one in which a shift of 20,000 votes in two states would have made Nixon the winner, the word "choice" is used loosely -- seems to have been based on a vague sense that John Kennedy was a more appealing figure than Richard Nixon.
To say that issues decide elections is one thing -- to say that the average citizen reads 15-point position papers on the reform of the civil service is something else. V. O. Key, the great political scientist, probably put it best when he said: "Voters are not fools . . . the electorate behaves about as rationally and responsibly as we should expect, given the clarity of the alternatives presented to it, and the character of the information available to it."
For example, voters in a given year may be outragted by the tax system: perhaps by the loopholes available to the wealthy, perhaps, as with Proposition 13 in California in 1978, by the rapid increases in the property tax. In this sense, the issue of taxation would probably be decisive. But if a candidate were to give a 30-minute speech on, say, the depreciation provisions of capital assets as it affects income-averaging, that candidate would be unlikely to enthrall his audience.
In contrast, here is what happened in the race for the United States Senate in Tennessee in 1976. Incumbent Republican William Brock, under pressure from his Democratic opponent James Sasser, released his income tax records; they showed that, through the use of percectly legal provisions of the tax code, he paid a negligible tax on a six-figure income. Within days, buttons began appearing on the shirts of factory workers all over the state proclaiming, "I paid more taxes than Brock." Brock's substantial loss was due in good measure to the issue of unfair tax burdens; but the symbol of thousands of ordinary Tennesseans proclaiming that they paid more taxes than a millionaire senator was what drove the issue home.
The idea that politicans have seized upon symbols in the age of television is understandable; after all, a medium which combines words, sounds and images in any order a producer chooses makes television a perfect tool for symbol manipulation. The fact is, howver, that symbols have been with us as long as we have had poltical campaigns.
When Andrew Jackson lost the 1824 presdiential election through Electral College chicanery, he immediately set out to win the 1828 prize by campaigning throughout the United States. In the course of this three-year-long drive to the White House, thousands of rallies in support of Jackson were held, during which hickory poles were raised -- a symbol of Jackon's nickname, "Old Hickory." So pervasive was this symbol that, for 20 years after the election, thousands of hickory poles dotted the landscape of the United States.
A more common form of symbolism is to identify with the "ordinary people" In fact, this is almost strong enough to qualify by itself as an "eternal principle" of American politics. The impulse to shade over the trappings of wealth is as old as William Henry Harrison's 1840 campaign, when this aristocrat painted himself as a "born in a log cabin" child, while Harrison campaign supporter Davey Crockett wrote a spurious "biography" of self-made Martin Van Buren, picturing him as being "laced up in corsets such as women in town wear . . ." And it is as recent as Jimmy Carter's 1976 portrait of himself as "a farmer . . . a small businessman . . ." despite the fact that the Carter warehousing business made him one of the most affluent and powerful merchants in his community.
Sometimes this effort becomes absurd. A campaign pamphlet for Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose family's roots go far back in New York's aristocracy, pictured him as having been born and raised "in the old ancestral farm." And during his tenure as governor of Illinois, Dan Walker told a citizen of downstate Illinois that he hailed from "a little town up near the Wisconsin border, name of Deerfield" -- which is roughly equivalent to calling Bel Air "a little mountain town in California." And, given the reach of television cameras, it would be ludicrous for candidates such as Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, John Connally or Jay Rockefeller to pretend that their families run struggling grocery stores.
Nonetheless, politicians are constantly looking for devices, gestures, images to demonstrate that they are not part of the arrogant, distant elite into whose ranks they are working so hard to enter. Nelson Rockefeller's first campaign for governor of New York, in 1958, became famous -- or notorious -- for the endless stream of photos showing Rockefeller munching knishes, pizza and other "soul foods" of different New York ethnic groups. The implication: Rocky's a regular guy.
Jerry Brown became instantly famous after his election as governor of California for his refusal to live in the new constructed governor's mansion -- preferring instead to live in a $250-a-month state-owned apartmenet in Sacramento. This bold, unprecedented symbol actually had its roots in our political past. When former Oklahoma Gov. William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray sought a political comeback in 1930, he promised to live in the garage of the Governor's Mansion and rent the house out in order to save money. (In fact, Murray went Jerry Brown one better: After his election, he planted potatoes in the front yard of the mansion.) And James Ferguson, the flamboyant Texan who became governor in 1914, labeled himself "a real dirt farmer" and nicknamed himself "Farmer Jim," even though his spread was worked by hired hands.
Eugene Talmadge entered Georgia politics in 1926 with exactly the same approach: "A red dirt farmer," he called himself, and flashed red galluses under his jacket, which became the Talmadge symbol. Even Wisconsin's Joseph McCarthy, in the days before he became the champion of anticommunism, first ran for the Senate saying of himself, "I'm just a farm boy, not a politician."
But sometimes the symbolic surroundings of a campaign can return to haunt a candidate. In 1972, the first time a Democratic convention had convened under a new, more open delegate selection process, there were faces at the convention, chosen in primaries and open caucuses, who had never been represented before: far more blacks, Hispanics, women and young people than had ever been seen at a convention. To McGovern supporters, it was proof that the closed door to political responsibility had been opened. To outisdiers, it was proof of something else. To Rep. James O'Hara, a Michigan congressman who chaired the rules committee, it was the downfall of the whole campaign
"I think we lost the election at Miami," he said not long after the Nixon landslide. "It was not . . . anything that McGovern did. But the American people made an association between McGovern and gay lib, and welfare rights, and pot-smoking, and black militants, and women's lib, and wise college kids and everything else they saw as threatening their value system."
The late Robert Humphreys was for many years a key political analyst and writer for the Republican National Committee. It was his famous "Document X," written in the 1952 presidential campaign, that has since been recognized as the first coherent plan for the waging of a presidential campaign: with specific goals, methods of implementing those goals and responsibility for achieving those goals.
In 1953, Humphreys wrote a memo to Republican National Chairman Leonard Hall: "Politics is the presentation of a choice to the people. If political party A speaks only of its affirmative actions and does not undertake to characterize the alternatives offered by political party B, then it is doing only half of its job. As in all forms of conflict, attack is the strongest political weapon. It is axiomatic in politics that you must have an enemy."
Given the fact that the Republicans had just won a campaign characterized by widespread accusations that the Democratic administration had been soft on communism, with Joseph McCarthy accusing his rivals of "20 years of treason," we are entitled to take this advice with a grain of salt. But, however ingenuous Humphrey's outlook may have been in particular, his general proposition survives. It is not only necessary in political life, it is part of your responsibility to make the strongest possible assault on the position of your rivals. In one of those happy mixtures of self-interest and public interest, you will be doing an "objective" good if you fight hard to discredit those running against you.
In political campaigns, the most certain way to win is to identify your opponent with a viewpoint that is anathema to most voters. At one level of subtlety, the late Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a notorious racist, anti-Semite and demagogue of the first order, announced during his 1934 Senate campaign that he stood foresquare against: ". . . farmer murderers, poor-folk haters, shooters of widows and orphans, international well poisoners, charity hospital destroyers, spitters on our heroic veterans, rich enemies of our public schools, private bankers who ought to come out in the open and let people see what they are doing, European debt cancellers, unemployment makers, Pacifists, Communists, munitions manufacturers, and skunks who steal Gideon Bibles."
At another, Richard Nixon constantly sought to put his opponents into vaguely defined camps who held positions -- "as in their right to do," Nixon would carefully say -- that no sane political figure in the United States would ever have held. He would explain that "there are those who believe the United States should stop trying to be Number One," or "there are those who believe we should replace our free-enterprise system with a rigid set of bureaucratic controls." Then, after defending their right to take this position, he would explain why he disagreed with "them."
Attacks on opponenets come in all shapes and sizes. Jimmy Carter, who ran in 1976 on the premise that he was a figure of exceptional integrity and decency, concluded his attack on the Ford admiistration during the last Ford-Carter debate by saying "Gerald Ford is a good and decent man," but then noting that he had served as president almost as long as had John Kennedy, without producing any important results. Anything stronger would have undermined Carter's own personal appeal as a quiet, almost serene political figure who could restore trust in government after the trauma of Watergate.
In an earlier time, the Southern political climate was stormier. In 1926, Robert Renolds defeated Sen. Cameron Morrison in the North Carolina Democratic primary by waving a jar of caviar in front of audiences and exclaiming, "Cam eats fish eggs, and Red Russian fish eggs at that, and they cost two dollars. Do you want a senator who ain't too high and mighty to eat good old North Carolina hen eggs, or don't you?" Nor was this kind of attack confined to areas below the Mason-Dixon line. James Michael Curley, the much-elected and twice-jailed Mayor of Boston, delighted his Irish supporters by demanding of his Yankee Protestant opponent, "And where was my esteemed opponent while [a civic crisis] was going on? He was in the Ritz Hotel in white tie and tails eating a steak dinner -- and on Friday!"
In both of our two recent presidential landslides, the electorate was offered a choice between an incumbent president and a rival who represented a distinct ideological wing of his party. In both cases, opponents within that party engaged in strenuous attacks on the eventual nominee. Barry Goldwater was assailed by his ultimate conventional rival, William Scranton, as a candidate who "too often casually prescribed nuclear war as a solution to a troubled world." George McGovern was attacked in the Nebraska primary as the "Triple A" candidate: "the candidate of acid, amnesty and abortion."
In both cases, these nominees found themselves isolated from the mainstream of the electroate, if not of their parties. All their incumbent rivals had to do was to occasionally remind the electorate of what their own party members had said about them: a dictum taught by Napoleon, who had once said, "Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself."
In fact, attacks from within a candidate's party are always more potent that attacks from the rival party. Americans are used to a two-party system in which Democrats and Republicans attack each other out of habit. When a Democrat attacks a Democrat, when a Republican attacks a Republican, it has the special authority of an argument in a child's baseball game, which is always settled when one side notes triumphantly, "Your own man says so!" And once the electorate concludes that one of two candidates is not trusted by substantial elements in the party that nominated him, the election is over.