News & Views from 465 California Street

Tony Schwartz

Clint Reilly

For decades whenever commentators raised an example of the power of the political television spot, they invariably cited the daisy ad. The daisy ad was a commercial for Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964… A young girl picks daisies in a field…The idyllic tranquility is destroyed by the countdown to an exploding mushroom cloud as a nuclear bomb detonates. Though the ad ran only once – it sparked a response that reverberated for decades.

The commercial was created by Tony Schwartz – a pioneer political media consultant. Schwartz himself was a blind eccentric whose inability to see led to heightened focus on his ability to hear …and to a career as one of the most successful radio and television spot producers of his generation. He put his ideas into a seminal book on communication called The Responsive Chord. Schwartz’s central thesis was that political commercials are not about teaching new information and new facts to voters. Schwartz preached that the best spots ratify what people already believe rather than educate them about new truths or challenge them with new ideas or solutions.

As a young political media consultant, I borrowed heavily from Schwartz to help elect two powerful California members of Congress in 1978 and 1982. Tony Coelho was the congressman from the Central Valley who was moving up quickly in Washington, DC. After only two terms he was elected Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Valley voters wanted a congressman who would focus on the agricultural needs of America’s leading food producing region not an inside the beltway power broker who neglected their bread and butter concerns. My commercials for Coelho never pictured him in Washington, DC. I produced spots showing him graduating from Dos Palos High – growing up in the valley and the perpetual tag line became “Son of the Valley”. In another race of that era, I was hired by Bob Matsui – a Sacramento City Council member seeking a congressional seat. Contrary to the cliché, most voters in Sacramento see the state capitol as a den of thieves. Bob Matsui’s moniker became “citizen statesman.” His commercials decried the failure of politicians to solve our nation’s ills. His constant refrain in commercials broadcast daily was “politics did not make our country great — citizen statesmanship made our country great.” Not only did Matsui win a dramatic come from behind victory for Congress, he went on to establish a political dynasty in Sacramento. When Bob died unexpectedly in 2004, his wife Doris Matsui took over his congressional seat.

We struck a responsive chord in the Central Valley and in Sacramento. Valley voters wanted Valley values. Sacramentans wanted a citizen like themselves – not a politician. I left media consulting in 1995. Today, striking a responsive chord can too often mean nothing more than polling voters to ascertain the majority position on issues and shouting back these positions through the megaphone of thirty second commercials. Polling can become a substitute for principals. Candidates avoid controversial stands. A hyper-fear of disagreement with any large segment of voters, even on inconsequential matters, infects our political culture and deters bold leadership. Elections are increasingly reduced to thirty second television commercials sculpted and buffed to reflect and reinforce the attitudes of the electorate on salient issues. Such replaying of polls begs the question – how do leaders lead if the voters already have all the answers? No wonder that problems gridlock like cars at rush hour as fearful legislators govern with a finger in the wind and an open phone line to their pollsters.

Newspapers and journalists disrupt the cycle of regurgitation that increasingly passes for leadership today. Newspapers provide independent facts, viewpoints and opinions that enable citizens to evaluate public policy and unlock solutions. The editorial and news pages of our daily newspapers provide citizens with the raw data of democracy. As elections turn into wars of the airwaves driven by paid messages and highly controlled public relations events, reporters are the only neutral observers working for the citizens. Tony Schwartz’s wisdom has armed a new generation of political consultants with the weapons of mass communication. But newspapers still provide the primary deterrent for democratic discourse to triumph over paid propaganda.

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