Election Day, November 3: A polarizing Republican candidate who has spent much of his adult life heading a family business faces a Democrat who has spent most of his adult life as an elected official. The Republican has been branded as an extremist, a narcissist, and possibly a fascist — none of which deters his fanatical supporters. The Democrat is overshadowed by a glamorous predecessor and tarred by a specious eleventh-hour scandal. In the background — or foreground, depending on your perspective — are widespread racial and youth uprisings that some people suspect are ignited by “Communists” and “anarchists.”
2020? No, I’m describing 1964, when the November election date was the same as this year’s. It was a year of racial violence in Harlem and Jersey City; of the murders of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi; of heated free-speech protests in Berkeley. It was the year Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, running for his first full term less than a year after the JFK assassination, faced Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a far-right Republican who had beaten all of the Establishment contenders — Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Scranton — to win his party’s nomination.
I’ve thought a lot about the parallels between then and now while I read historian Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The book was published in 2001, long before our current troubles, but it’s a timely and vivid reminder of how history rhymes.*
One 1964 event stands apart for its strangeness and impact: the Johnson campaign’s rule-breaking late-campaign TV spot. It’s known today by a one-word title, “Daisy,” and it permanently changed the way political campaigns were waged.
The ad was produced for the LBJ campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the Madison Avenue agency best known at the time for its iconoclastic Volkswagen ads (“Think Small”). The aim of the ad was to present Goldwater — who was on record as favoring a rollback of many civil-rights and social-welfare reforms of the previous two decades, and endorsing the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam, where the US military was still barely a presence — as a reckless firebrand out of step with popular opinion.
As Perlstein tells it, DDB turned to “a sui generis American genius” named Tony Schwartz: “a sculptor in sound, a manufacturer of moods.” From his Manhattan apartment, Schwartz, who suffered from agoraphobia, had created memorable radio spots for American Airlines that were “the aural equivalent of skylines,” capturing the sound of Hudson River foghorns and passing them off as San Francisco’s. Schwartz had invented the first portable tape recorder, and he often used it to record children. “Enraptured by the sound of play,” Perlstein writes, “he had a special fascination with the intricate street games children played with numbers.” He was also “a committed anti-nuclear activist.”
Schwartz brought all of those threads together in the soundscape he created for DDB and LBJ. In a 1973 book, Schwartz wrote that the best political commercials “are Rorschach patterns. They do not tell the viewer anything. They surface his feelings and provide a context for him to express these feelings.” That’s what the finished ad did. In 60 seconds — an epic by today’s nano-attention standards — it evoked tenderness and dread in equal measure. And it never mentioned Goldwater by name.
The ad aired only once as a paid spot on NBC, on Labor Day, September 7, 1964, but it reached a much larger audience when rival networks CBS and ABC reported on it. “The message was clear if only implicit,” historian Robert Mann wrote in a 2016 retrospective for Smithsonian magazine: “Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was a genocidal maniac who threatened the world’s future.”
Johnson won the election in a landslide despite the arrest in October of his longtime aide Walter Jenkins in what was euphemistically called “disorderly conduct” with another man in a public restroom. Goldwater tried to capitalize on the scandal, referring in speeches to “the curious crew who would run the country,” but he ended up winning the electoral votes of only his home state, Arizona, and five states in the Deep South.
But Goldwater’s supporters dug in, and by 1980 his far-right ideas found a more genial and successful avatar: Ronald Reagan. The conservative Washington Post columnist George Will, who cast his first vote for Goldwater in 1964, has said that Goldwater “actually won in ’64. It just took 16 years to count the votes.”
“Daisy” opened the gate to floods of negative and dark-themed political advertising, in which mood and innuendo — those “Rorschach patterns” that “surface the viewer’s feelings” — take precedence over substance. Think of the Lincoln Project’s glum “Mourning in America,” uploaded in May 2020. Or, still more depressing, the “Prevent a Zombie Uprising” ad uploaded this week by the Trump reelection campaign. “Only you can keep a zombie out of the White House,” reads the closing message, in 1980s videogame-style type. The ad runs only 10 seconds — one-sixth the length of “Daisy” — but it’s on a continuous loop that plays for 30 minutes.
Crude as it is, you can trace a direct line from “Zombie” back to “Daisy.” Both ads use found footage and jangly visual and aural effects. Both appeal to the gut rather than the head. Both go to extremes to paint the opposing candidate not as a rival with differing positions but as a monster who must be stopped at all costs. And both have had widespread influence: as of this writing, “Zombie” has had just under 7 million views.
Four years ago, the team behind Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign went looking for the girl who had plucked the daisy petals in the notorious 1964 ad. They found her: Monique Corzilius Ruiz, who agreed to be filmed for a new campaign ad. Unlike the original ad, this one had little impact; as we know, the candidate of whom Clinton had said “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” eked out a victory. But the tagline of both ads is as true as ever: “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”·
* Other parallels: The grandfathers of Barry Goldwater and Donald Trump both immigrated from Europe, and both assumed Americanized names: Michel Goldwasser was a Polish Jew; Friedrich Drumpf was a Bavarian Protestant. Both of these emigres got their start in the New World by running brothels in gold-rush towns: Goldwasser/Goldwater in Sonora, California, Drumpf/Trump in the Yukon. Barry Goldwater’s father was named Baron; Donald Trump called himself “John Baron” (or Barron) when he pitched puff pieces about his business and personal life to reporters. He later named his third son Barron. On the other side of the ledger, Barry Goldwater served with distinction in the US Army Air Forces during World War II. Donald Trump received five deferments from military service, four for college and one for “heel spurs.”