August 16, 2012

New campaign, old strategy?

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 12:18 pm

In “The Selling of the President 1968” (Trident Press 1969), author Joe McGinniss described the trials and tribulations that the Nixon team had to surmount in that year’s Presidential Campaign, and since the challenges are quite similar to those being faced by the Romney Ryan ticket, we thought that simultaneous reviews of both that book and Timothy Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus” (Ballantine Books paperback edition 1972) would be relevant as the Republican Nation Convention draws neigh.

McGinnis describes (on page 39) the difficulty of marketing Nixon eight years after he lost the 1960 battle with John F. Kennedy: “Trying with one hand, to build the illusion that Richard Nixon, in addition to his attributes of mind and heart, considered, in the words of Patrick K. Buchanan, a speech writer, “communicating with the people . . . one of the great joys of seeking the Presidency;” while with the other they shielded him, controlled him, and controlled the atmosphere around him.” Same problem, different Republican candidate, different year.

The star of the Nixon strategy team was a fellow named Harry Treleaven who came to the Nixon camp’s attention after he took a leave of absence from J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in 1966 to work on a congressional campaign in Texas. The incumbent was a Democrat named Frank Briscoe and Treleaven assessed (McGinniss’ book pages 44 – 45) the race this way: “There’ll be few opportunities for logical persuasion, which is all right – because probably more people vote for irrational, emotional reasons than professional politicians suspect.”

Picking Paul Ryan made liberals very angry, which, in turn, made conservatives very happy. President Obama’s initial reaction seemed to be the use of logical argumentation to change the conservatives’ emotional reaction. Wouldn’t seeing the dismantling of the Social Security program make liberals even angrier? In a world devoid of logical thinking, wouldn’t that make the conservatives even happier?

The 1968 Nixon campaign perfected the strategy of making some news just in time to get it placed on the evening network news programs, which meant that the Democrats would be left scrambling the next day to contend with damage control, while Nixon & Co. started the game anew. Adjusting the campaign to the timing of media news cycles was a breakthrough innovation.

The fact that Mitt Romney made his announcement early on a Saturday morning will be an irrelevant descriptive fact for most of the writers who wished to comment on the selection of Paul Ryan as the “presumptive” Presidential nominee’s presumptive running mate, but for the World’s Laziest Journalist, that example of odd timing looked like the metaphorical “kiss of death” for Mitt’s chances to win the fall election. In the Internet era of 24/7 news coverage, one time may be just as good as another so long as the candidate’s media advisors don’t care about the news cycles for more traditional media such as influential newspapers, weekend network shouting matches, and magazine journalism.

If the announcement occurred at breakfast time in the Eastern Time zone that means the candidate was willing to reduce his West Coast audience for live coverage of the announcement to a pathetic minimum of what he could have had by choosing the timing with a better regard for strategic planning.

The preview editions of the Sunday editions of both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times were on the delivery trucks heading for the Saturday advance sales market. No way to get free publicity about the announcement into those valuable assets.

The early edition of the New York Times Sunday paper was probably holding a news hole for a crash close on the story, but there was no way they would hold the Week in Review Section (and run up extensive amounts of overtime) for a Presidential candidate who treats journalists with the same sneering “that’s all your going to get” condescension that he delivers to the potential voters. Why should that attitude remind this columnist of Nixon?

Don’t some of the weekend round-up shouting matches tape their programs on Friday afternoon? In this cost conscious world, what made Romney think he could inspire a dispensation involving excessive amounts of overtime pay for the union workers?

Did Romney expect the networks to call in their Monday to Friday anchor persons to read the story on Saturday night’s installment of their network’s evening news program? What did LBJ say about “If we’ve lost Cronkite . . .”? Does a weekend substitute carry the same level of gravitas as Edward R. Murrow?

Did Newsweek hold the cover story for “crash close” coverage of the announcement?

Where are the adult Republican media advisors who helped write the book for the 1968 strategy described in Joe McGinniss’ book “The Selling of the President”? Why didn’t Karl Rove help avert this example of inept spin control strategy?

Timothy Crouse, in his 1972 book, “The Boys on the Bus,” (page 195) said: “Then Nixon decided to hide out for a year and stop feeding the press handouts. Instead he fed it George Romney.” Does History repeat itself? Could Mitt claim that he was brainwashed into making the ill-timed Saturday morning announcement?

Is there another Republican of Nixon’s stature standing in the shadows waiting for a dramatic call to unveil a secret plan to end the Vietnam War . . . or balance the budget . . . or whatever? Or are the Republicans going to be satisfied with replaying the Goldwater debacle or a 1968 style squeaker?

Over the ensuing weekend, did the TV shows, which love to promise their audiences a variety of behind the scenes insights into what is really happening, mention the hidden implications of the odd timing of the announcement?

Crouse (on page 322) describes the major innovation in news coverage of Presidential campaigns: “Here in 1972, with the new law that obliged contributors to make public their gifts, was a unique opportunity to follow the big corporation rats as they stole out of their holes to deposit a large bag of cash at the door of some candidate and – almost invariably – ask for some favor in return.”

One of the disadvantages of reading books more than forty years old is that some aspects of the text will leave the modern reader hanging in suspense. Treleaven’s 1966 candidate won, but how the heck will we ever satisfy our curiosity and learn what happened to the guy who beat Briscoe 58 to 42 in a traditional Democratic stronghold? What ever happened to George H. W. Bush? (Maybe we’ll get lucky and a reader in Texas can post an update in the comments section.)

On page 10, Crouse quotes newsman Karl Fleming: “So eventually a very subtle kind of thing takes over and the reporter says to himself, ‘All I gotta do to satisfy my editor and publisher is just get what the other guys are getting, so why should I bust my ass?’”

Does that mean that the World’s Laziest Journalist didn’t have to dig out a copy of Crouse’s book and track down a copy of McGinniss’ book, do some fast and furious reading, and then fire up the computer at 0600 on Monday morning? We couldda skipped most of the work and just churned out a few words about Mitt making a bold gamble by catering to the demands of the far right and then posting that anemic effort. Whatever.

Either one of these two books will provide a reader with a better basis for evaluating this year’s election process and taken together they provide conclusive evidence for proving the case for believing that America’s freedom of the press is rapidly approaching the final chapter for the history of an institution experiencing a terminal illness. If the voters are not going to make their decisions based on a well informed evaluation of the issues, then America’s free press is doomed to extinction.

Oscar Wilde said he wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t judge people solely on their appearance and Harry Treleaven believed (McGinniss book page 44) “Most national issues today are so complicated, so difficult to understand, and have opinions on that they either intimidate or, more often, bore the average voter .”

Joe McGinniss quoted (page 131) Richard M. Nixon as saying: “Let us remember, the main purpose of American foreign aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves.”

Now the disk jockey will play the AC/DC song “Problem Child,” the Rolling Stones’ song “Sparks will fly,” and the 1968 Nixon campaign song “Bring Our Country Back.” We have to post this week’s Week in Review column a few hours early and attend to some administrative matters. Have a “Hidden Persuaders” type week.

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