News & Views from 465 California Street

Masters of the Game

Clint Reilly

The New York Times recently described the Obama-Clinton race as “the Ad Man vs. the Pollster” in reference to the candidates’ high-profile political consultants, David Axelrod and the recently-resigned Mark Penn.

Axelrod – Obama’s “Ad Man” – shapes images via emotional 30-second television commercials. Until this week, his counterpart in the Clinton camp was Penn, a pollster who analyzes voter sentiment with carefully calibrated surveys.

Consultants like Axelrod and Penn today enjoy celebrity status, but they are only the latest in a line of masters who have helped elect America’s presidents, senators, governors, mayors and members of Congress.

Their predecessors were pioneers who developed many of today’s political strategies quietly, before the advent of cable news and out of the media spotlight.

Early in my career as a political consultant, the biggest name in campaign management was Joe Napolitan. A veteran of the John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey presidential campaigns (among many others at all levels of government), Napolitan even advised Valéry Giscard d’Estaing during his campaign for President of France in 1974.

Napolitan used the same media guru on all of his campaigns: Tony Schwartz. Schwartz espoused the theory of the “responsive chord,” exemplified by the famous television ad known as “The Daisy Spot.”

Produced for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign, Schwartz’s simple ad set a little girl picking daisies against the backdrop of a nuclear explosion. The imagery blew Barry Goldwater – whose nuclear weapons policy was suspect to many Americans – right out of the water. Johnson sailed to victory.

David Garth was another pioneer in the field. Among his many campaigns, he helped elect three New York mayors: John Lindsay, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

Lindsay, although tall and handsome, was an unpopular mayor when Garth joined his campaign. After coining his reelection slogan, “It’s the second toughest job in America,” Garth produced a series of commercials in which Lindsay apologized for the mistakes of his first term.

Garth’s proto-apology ad has since been copied thousands of times by beleaguered politicians petitioning voters for forgiveness. Of course, Lindsay overcame long odds to win reelection.

The crucible of California politics produced not only Ronald Reagan, but also the genius campaign team of Stuart Spencer and Bill Roberts.

California’s 1966 gubernatorial race pitted ex-actor Reagan against longtime incumbent Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. With the theme “Citizen Reagan,” Spencer and Roberts made Reagan’s inexperience a virtue. The same insurgent campaign defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race and launched a conservative presidency that resonates to this day.

Bill Clinton, the only Democratic president since FDR to win reelection, accomplished the feat with two different consultants: James Carville and Bob Squier.

In 1992, Carville came to the country’s attention with his famous admonition – posted on the Clinton headquarters wall – “The economy, stupid.” The line quickly became the political counterpart to the advertising slogan “Where’s the beef?” Carville’s consulting career has since waned, but his profile as a brash, quotable Washington commentator has risen.

For Clinton’s reelection campaign, he turned to Squier, whose television spots were legendary for their combination of emotional power and strategic effectiveness. Most voters never heard of Squier. But the words Bill Clinton spoke at his funeral in 2000 say much about how a great consultant can influence the course of history:

“Bob was a valued advisor, a good friend, and a fine man. His loyalty, talent and, above all, his perseverance helped Vice President Gore and me craft a winning reelection campaign in 1996 when many had counted us out. I owe him much.”

Political consultants are the facilitators of leadership – whether leaders want to admit it or not.

Comments (3)

  • I really think Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he was likable. Amiable. America was impressed by a self-made “poor boy” who rose to power through his own merit, undeterred by his disadvantaged upbringing, to still have what it takes to go on and still champion the values of family, compassion, and social justice(s).

    James Carville was very likable too. He has got to be one of the funniest political commentators on television today. He tells it like it is, and he’s got a charming twang in his speech. Very entertaining.

    Political consultants are so important in relaying the values of leadership to the elected leader.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | April 8th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

  • This column is your best yet, filled with great political history and insight into a very tricky business, which truly has the power to make or break a candidate. Your analysis is especially appropriate this week.

    The old adage holds true in business, government and family: Select those you associate with wisely for surrounding yourself with good people is the key to success and for that matter, happiness.

    Posted by: Anne Lawrence | April 8th, 2008 at 11:31 pm

  • Mr Reilly layed out a revealing picture of the powers behind politcal power:politcal consultants. He was very modest in not mentioning the many campaigns strategies that he also used as a pioneer of California politcal consulting.

    Posted by: BIll Stokes | April 17th, 2008 at 2:57 pm

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