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Ad Infinitum?
Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Television

by Mickey Z.
July 17, 2004

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"Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."

-- George Bernard Shaw

Knee-deep in another presidential election circus, everyone has an opinion. Families are divided, friendships split, and boatloads of good energy is wasted in the futile attempt to differentiate between corporate candidates (this time, it's two warmongering Yale grads). In fact, if one were to judge by campaign television commercials, the two parties have barely even tried to disguise their formulaic approach to control for over five decades.

"The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2004," is an online exhibition, presented by American Museum of the Moving Image, featuring more than 250 television commercials and historical analysis from every presidential campaign year since 1952. Click on a few of the commercials and the trends emerge.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who "brought us to the triumph and peace of V-E Day," declared in a 1952 ad: "The (Truman) Administration has spent many billions of dollars for national defense. Yet today we haven't enough tanks for the fighting in Korea. It is time for a change." Exchange "Korea" for any number of earthly venues and well, you get the idea. For more than 50 years, it seems, the goal is to keep the peace by creating more and more ways to implement war.

Richard Nixon in 1960: "We will keep America the strongest nation in the world. And we will couple that strength with firm diplomacy-no apologies, no regrets. Always willing to negotiate for peace, but never conceding anything without getting a concession in return."

An ad for Gerald Ford in 1976: "We're at peace with the world and at peace with ourselves. America is smiling again. And a great many people believe that the leadership of this steady, dependable man can keep America happy and secure. We know we can depend on him to make peace his highest priority. Peace with freedom. Is there anything more important than that?"

Both Ronnie Raygun and Jimmy Carter got into it in 1980.

Carter: "My number one responsibility is to defend this country, to maintain its security. And I put a strong defense at the top of my priority list, and it's going to be maintained this way."

Raygun: "Peace is made by the fact of strength-economic, military, and strategic. Peace is lost when such strength disappears, or, just as bad, is seen by an adversary as disappearing."

In fact, Raygun took it upon himself to promote the more weapons/less war premise for Barry Goldwater in 1964: "I asked to speak to you because I'm mad. I've known Barry Goldwater for a long time. And when I hear people say he's impulsive and such nonsense, I boil over. Believe me, if it weren't for Barry keeping those boys in Washington on their toes, do you honestly think our national defense would be as strong as it is? And remember, when Barry talks about the way to keep the peace, when he says that only the strong can remain free, he knows what he's talking about. And I know the wonderful Goldwater family. Do you honestly believe that Barry wants his sons and daughters involved in a war? Do you think he wants his wife to be a wartime mother? Of course not. So join me, won't you? Let's get a real leader and not a power politician in the White House. Vote for Barry Goldwater."

According to the rules of this game, there's nothing worse than being "soft" on defense. Bush the Elder used this tactic against his opponent in 1988: "Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the stealth bomber, a ground emergency warning system against nuclear testing. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can't afford that risk.

Dukakis promptly got on board, trying to remove all doubt that he wasn't as war-loving as the next man "I'm on the record for the very weapons systems his ads say I'm against. I want to build a strong defense."

Bush the Lesser is employing similar tactics this year: "As our troops defend America in the War on Terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the War on Terror."

John Forbes Kerry (JFK2, for those scoring at home) set the record straight: "Let me tell you exactly what I would do to change the situation in Iraq. I would immediately reach out to the international community in sharing the burden, the risk, because they also have a stake in the outcome of what is happening in Iraq. The American taxpayer is paying now almost 200 billion dollars and who knows how many more billons... And we're paying the highest price in the loss of the lives of our young soldiers--almost alone."

Bill Clinton and Hubert Humphrey avoided the soft tag by cleverly attacking the Republicans from the right. In 1968, HH wondered: "Do you want Castro to have the bomb now? Do you want any country that doesn't have the bomb to be able to get it? Of course you don't."

Best-selling Bubba, in 1996, called Bob Dole "desperate and wrong" in an ad that laid out Clinton's repressive tendencies on the domestic front: "President Clinton doubled border agents, a thousand more for California. Signed a tough anti-illegal immigration law protecting US workers. And 160 thousand illegal immigrants and criminals deported, a record. Bob Dole voted against reimbursing California for jailing illegal immigrants. Time Magazine says his risky tax scheme could cut 2,000 border agents, cut 4,000 FBI. Bob Dole. Wrong in the past. Wrong for our future."

See if you can figure out who is responsible for this generic gem: "The question before us all, that faces all Republicans and all Democrats, is: can freedom in the next generation conquer, or are the [INSERT VILLAIN HERE] going to be successful? That's the great issue. And if we meet our responsibilities, I think freedom will conquer. If we fail, if we fail to move ahead, if we fail to develop sufficient military and economic and social strength here in this country, then I think that the tide could begin to run against us. And I don't want historians ten years from now to say these were the years when the tide ran out for the United States. I want them to say these were the years when the tide came in. These were the years when the United States started to move again."

Answer: It was JFK the First and, of course, the villains he referred to were communists.

To borrow from Zach de la Rocha, formerly of Rage Against the Machine: "The structure is set; you'll never change it with a ballot pull."

Mickey Z. is the author of two brand new books: The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda (Common Courage Press) and A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense (Library Empyreal/Wildside Press). For more information, please visit:

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