The good old days of the Nixon campaign

A look back at a 1968 classic shows just how inaccessible candidates have become

Maybe it’s the summer doldrums, or the Barack Obama campaign’s continual pain-from-Bain refrain, or the speculative no-news-here if-clauses surrounding Mitt Romney’s vice presidential search. But whatever the cause, I am caught in a wave of nostalgia for the old-fashioned innocence of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign—the one where he didn’t break into Democratic headquarters.

The triggering event was picking up, for the first time in more than a quarter-century, The Selling of the President 1968. In this classic of hang-out journalism from the golden age of political books, Joe McGinniss talked his way into the inner sanctum of the Nixon advertising team and gleefully reveled in the cynicism that he encountered. There are wonderful quotes like this one from a wunderkind TV director named Roger Ailes about his client, Nixon: “He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’”

The Big Think message from McGinniss’ book is that—horrors—presidential candidates are packaged just like cigarettes. The original dust jacket for The Selling of the President makes this metaphor explicit by showing Nixon’s face superimposed on an open pack of smokes. As Jim Sage, a prescient Nixon adman, tells McGinniss, “We’re moving into a period where a man is going to be merchandised on television more and more. It upsets you and me, maybe, but we’re not typical Americans.” (The Mad Men era appeals precisely because of that small twinge of guilt, which would probably be lost on 21st-century media consultants like David Axelrod and Stuart Stevens.)

Part of the tension in the book comes from the resistance to this new era of media manipulation from one man—yes, Nixon’s the one. “Richard Nixon did not trust television,” McGinniss writes. “He refused to look at himself, even on a newscast. He refused to use a teleprompter, no matter how long the speech. Television was just one more slick trick and he was a poor boy from the West.” (The notion that a teleprompter equals unethical artifice would be lost on Obama and, to a slightly lesser extent, Romney).

The solution that Nixon’s handlers came up with to market an ungainly candidate who resisted packaging was to play to his vanity as the man in the arena. The campaign would put on 10 one-hour live TV shows broadcast in different media markets, showing Nixon answering unscripted questions from a panel of voters and newsmen. Part of the artifice was picking a panel that would be skeptical without being adversarial (always one African American, but never two). Too much sycophancy, though, would create boring television. As Ailes put it, “I’m convinced we need legitimately tough panels to make Nixon give his best.”

What a diabolical, Nixonian way to sell a candidate—use campaign cash to buy TV time in hour-long blocks to show him responding to real questions from real voters and real reporters! Fortunately, we live in an era when Obama and Romney would almost never resort to these kinds of dirty tricks. The idea of a presidential candidate regularly answering questions in public (let alone paying for the air time) is so 20th-century.

“Romney has faced few tough questioners since the days of fending off the slings and arrows of rivals hoping to topple him during the primaries,” Jill Lawrence (disclosure: a friend) wrote in National Journal this week. Prior to Tuesday’s town meeting in Colorado, Romney had over the last two months appeared once on Face the Nation and answered questions from reporters last week while on vacation in New Hampshire. (Shortly before this rundown of Romney’s no-questions-please inaccessibility was posted, news broke that he had granted interviews to the broadcast networks, Fox News, and CNN to air on the nightly news.) As for Obama, his last town meeting with voters (as opposed to campaign donors) was a virtual session via Google+ on January 30. A contemporary reporter probably has a better shot at following David Petraeus around the CIA than penetrating the Obama or Romney campaigns as they concoct ads.

Still, there are some enduring verities of the political beat—among them that every four years, impressionable reporters claim to have discovered the wizard with the secret formula for clouding the minds of the voters. A few years back, Democratic psychologist Drew Westen was all the rage because of his purported understanding of The Political Brain. On the GOP side, pollster Frank Luntz has been gushingly praised for his supposed mastery of political buzz words.

In The Selling of the President, McGinniss stumbles into the same trap when he ballyhoos an advertising gimmick called the Semantic Differential Test. There is the obligatory we-have-spun-straw-into-gold quote from an advertising guru: “The semantic differential is the most sensitive instrument known to modern market research.” In truth, the semantic differential is little more than a fever chart rating the candidates according to personality attributes like weak-strong and stingy-generous.

To his credit, McGinniss also highlights a young political demographer named Kevin Phillips who makes pronouncements such as, “The Democratic Party will not carry Oklahoma again for the rest of this century.” That one belongs in the Political Prophesy Hall of Fame: Oklahoma has gone Republican in the last 11 presidential races, with Jimmy Carter the only Democrat who came close to winning the state.

There are whiffs in the McGinniss book of the press-hating paranoia that gave rise to the Enemies List and Watergate. But Nixon in 1968 never dared run the kind of stealth campaign that has sadly become the modern norm. On the Sunday before the election, Nixon was a guest (albeit a reluctant one) on Meet the Press.

What a quaint notion and what a breach of message discipline: A presidential contender, locked in a close election, actually answering questions from reporters less than 48 hours before the polls opened. When Richard Nixon represents the good old days, it represents a sad commentary on how far we have come in turning presidential politics into a branch of robotics.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.