LONG BEFORE Halloween in any election year, the pundits have laid down the word on politicians' TV commercials: They're too short to be serious, they are hucksterism run rampant, they are probably an invention of the Devil and quite possibly responsible for any recent drops in either Sunday school attendance or the bond market.
According to the prosecution, political TV spots either say absolutely nothing and/or insidiously sway voters. Critics assert that no public issue can be intelligently discussed in 30 seconds, that candidates are packaged like Charmin toilet tissue and that a candidate's television spots tell virtually nothing about the candidate.
The critics are wrong. Political television spots are the contemporary political campaign. Everything else, from the unread position papers to the candidate's appearance at the Irish Home for the Incredibly Short, is filler. In 1980, the campaigns of both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter spent $19 million of the $29 million available to each of them on radio and television commercials. This year, candidates for the House and Senate will be duplicating or exceeding that ratio all over the country. Television is now the overriding element in American elections; in the lexicon of contemporary politics, there is no such thing as indecent exposure.
Nevertheless, the television campaign is largely ignored -- on television's own news programs, and in the newspapers. Unless a particular commercial is manifestly libelous, the aspect of a campaign that candidates care (and spend) most about is seldom even recognized as a serious element in the contest.
It's time both for more attention, and for a little revisionist analysis. There is a strong case to be made for political advertising on television:
* A Whole Lot Can Be Said in Less Than a Minute.
One important feature of political leadership is the ability to distill and to popularize complex public issues. FDR's "The only thing we have to fear is fear, itself" communicated more than most law review articles. So did Abraham Lincoln's "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." The Ten Commandments, which certainly said something, required all of 75 words. It's not television's fault that short, punchy messages get attention and win votes.
* TV Advertising Is Probably the Most Straightforward Means of Political Communication.
Unlike direct mail, which enables a candidate to address only blue-eyed Caucasian polo players with more than 21/2 baths, television demands that the candidate say the same thing simultaneously to everyone who's watching. The opposition and the undecideds can scrutinize -- and respond to -- the candidate's televised message.
Political television encourages the candidate's real accountability. Television makes it difficult for a candidate to practice that most traditional form of trimming -- saying one thing on the west side of town and somethings only slightly different of the east side. Television can make position-adjustments hazardous for a candidate.
* Television Spots Reveal Volumes About the Candidate.
Though it may be occasionally possible for a strong media wizard to repackage a weak candidate into a charming -- if fraudulent -- winner, it very rarely happens. Because running for public office is a bold act of a strong ego, candidates are never short of self-esteem. Such individuals are not easily molded. The candidate truly defines any campaign, establishing what it and he stand for.
The media consultant can refine the candidate's message, but every campaign is eventually a mirror reflection of the candidate. Richard Nixon's own criminality and paranoia infused his 1972 campaign, just as George McGovern's self-righteous indecisiveness characterized his run that year.
Because all candidates, including supply- siders, hate the process of raising campaign money by asking other people who have it for it, all candidates take an active interest in how that money is spent. Today's campaigns consistently spend up to two-thirds of the campaign budget on the production and broadcasting of commercials. Candidates must know and care what their spots say; those spots tell much about the candidate whose election they advocate.
Do the spots raise trivial or important issues? Does the candidate attack or explain? Appeal to our aspirations or just to our frustrations? The choices a candidate makes reveal what he thinks about the people whose votes he seeks.
For too long, those of us who cover political campaigns have reported the candidate's 20- minute speech to a gathering of 100 at the Transvestite Teamsters' Clambake and then ignored the same candidate's 30-second "speech" to a crowd of 500,000 halfway through M*A*S*H.
Faithfully do we record the candidate's pledge to oppose "dead-end, make-work federal jobs bills." Rarely is the same candidate asked why, in a time of double-digit unemployment, his campaign continues to emphasize -- in expensive TV advertising -- that his opponent, 15 years ago in the state senate, cosponsored a bill to make sex-education optional for high-school seniors.
Newspaper and magazine reporters are not eager to acknowledge the supremacy of television in our politics, and television reporters take their lead from the newspapers and magazines. That's one reason why we continue to interview colorful county chairmen who were once able to deliver the 18th ward -- before television.
The idea that the most important aspect of modern political campaigns are to be found on TV -- not in ward headquarters or on the campaign trail -- is offensive to many print reporters. But public opinion surveys consistently report that most people get their news from television. This means that images on the box, whether paid for by theecandidate or offered free on the 6 o'clock news, are voters' main source of political information. You'd never know it from the papers.
There is also a human reason why print reporters are reluctant to "cover" political TV spots. Most print reporters look at TV people with hybrid feelings of envy and contempt.
The money is one thing, and a big thing, for many. Because TV is a visual medium, television reporters tend to be younger rather than older, more pretty than plain, as well as richer. There are many superb television journalists, but there are still enough blow- dry air-heads with six-figure, no-cut contracts to keep the stereotype alive.
There are only two things in any campaign that the candidate himself can control -- the speech announcing his candidacy and the television commercials on which he'll spend two-thirds of his money. Together, these are any campaign's articles of incorporation. They give the candidate his best opportunity to explain why the race is being made, how he differs from his opponent and what he wants to do in office.
To ignore the candidate's commercials is not simply foolish. It is a disservice to the voters. The candidate's commercials are a crucial part of his public record. Too often in the past, we have confused coverage of candidates' television campaigns with coverage of the men who make the commercials. These commercial-makers have been transformed into very glamorous, very shadowy and, occasionally, very rich people.
Candidates themselves have been fooled by this lionization. Now it's common for an underdog hoping to improve his chances to go to great lengths to sign up a John Deardourff (Republican) or a Bob Squier (Democrat) as their media consultant.
In fact, to their credit, these impresarios of modern political campaigns should not be confused with advertising agency account executives. No candidate is sold like Charmin tissue or Dial soap. For one thing, Camay does not accuse Dial of seeking to start World War III. Plus, Charmin's beloved Mr. Whipple has very little to say about how the major toilet tissues of the day are presented on money n TV. The media consultant should be compared to a speechwriter. Both can be gifted artisans and craftsmen. But in any campaign, the candidate is the architect -- and the responsible party.
A candidate defines himself with his television commercials. If he choses as the essential message of his campaign an image of himself striding into the sunset, accompanied by a young child and an elderly domestic animal, that choice reveals less about the commercial- maker than it does about the candidate. Be a good citizen; for the next nine days, turn on your set.