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US 2016: Presidential campaign truth telling and the cr...


World, Politics

US 2016: Presidential campaign truth telling and the creation of scripted reality

Actor and comedian George Burns, a man whose career included vaudeville, radio, the movies and television over nearly a century, had famously given advice to young actors about how they, too, could achieve success. He said to them, “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” In politics, just as in entertainment, faking verisimilitude is a fine art. J.BROOKS SPECTOR takes an historical look back over how these two spheres have come together – and what they portend for the current election.

Ever since Donald Trump defenestrated his campaign’s top leadership for the second time, the public discussion over the fate of the Trumpean adventure has focused, alternatively, on whether he can continue to inhabit the post-factual universe he has largely created since declaring for the presidency, or whether this latest change in leadership will, once again, allow that “Trump be Trump”. Whether or not either of these outcomes will be beneficial for the American polity – or the rest of the world – is something the electorate will need to make up its collective mind about within less than three months.

Regardless of the electorate’s final judgement about the Trumpster, what is not in doubt is the way presidential campaigns are actually waged, as opposed to the more fanciful, Hollywood version where men – and now women – face off against each other in a vast, far-reaching national debate over ideas and policies, and the leadership skills and respective visions of the contenders. Yes, of course, those things are there in the mix, and they are important, but running parallel to such things are how the images of the contenders are shaped by image makers and handlers in order to sell their respective candidates to voters. Seen along that axis, the big winner becomes the candidate whose manufactured image ends up most effectively resonating with the hopes (or fears) of the electorate.

In the past half century, the epitome of such an effort, and the one that became the template for all future efforts, came in the 1968 presidential campaign. That race pitted Democratic Party Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Maine Senator Ed Muskie against former Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew. In addition to those two tickets, former Alabama Governor George Wallace, with retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay as his running mate, ran as independents, advocating strong support for the continuation of legal racial segregation.

Humphrey, of course, was the archetype of the modern New Deal liberal. He had been one of the early supporters for effective national civil rights legislation, as far back as 1948, and he had originally taken the spot as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president in 1964 in order to fully achieve the liberal social welfare agenda. That, of course, was until Humphrey found himself locked in an agonising, silent political purgatory as the escalating war in Vietnam helped push a big chunk of the country into near-insurrection and violence – and that seemed poised to destroy the social progress that had been Humphrey’s political life goal.

Richard Nixon, in contrast, was initially seen by many as politically damaged goods well past his sell-by date. After losing to John Kennedy in 1960 in a remarkably close race, and then stamping his sour persona onto the national imagination with an equally remarkably ill-tempered press conference after his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election, his political profile seemed set in stone. This second consecutive defeat in the national eye seemed to confirm an angry “loser” status and he skulked away to lick his wounds in the comfort of a well-paying berth in a Wall Street law firm.

Nevertheless, the decaying national situation of the late 1960s pressed a growing range of Republican operatives, party money men, and back room dealers and strategists to take a second look at Richard Nixon. This man had, it was increasingly argued, now been tempered by his defeats and over the past several years had had the chance to think long and hard about a future run for the presidency.

Media strategists, led by a young Roger Ailes – yup, the same right-wing media Svengali who has just signed on to the Trump campaign after finally being kicked out of Fox News for being a sex pest – reasoned it wasn’t Nixon or Nixon’s policies that had been wrong. Rather, it had been the way he had been presented to the nation that had been the difference between winning and losing. Ailes and his fellow media buccaneers decided they had to package the candidate in a way that would put the best possible light on Nixon’s ideas, his intellect, and his status as a still-vigorous senior statesman – rather than underscore his already too-well-known public image.

Rather than letting Nixon campaign in a frenetic round of public speeches to big, raucous crowds with their uncontrolled possibilities for damaging miscues, they would script carefully designed events instead. These would be perfect for television in that they simulated free-wheeling candidate roundtables but for the fact that they were thoroughly scripted and cast with “ordinary people” selected to appeal to the demographics most likely to support Nixon in the election, other things being equal. And these events were perfectly produced to make Nixon appear to be the right answer to those voters who needed to feel Nixon was the sage, experienced, seasoned leader the nation was waiting for in a time of great trouble and uncertainty.

(Meanwhile, Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew, could be freed up to engage in the raw meat throwing, dog whistle rants, and near-racist rhetoric needed to attract a critical share of white Southerners, helping peel away from the Democratic column any southern states in the election not already captured by Wallace.)

Amazingly, the world gained an understanding of all this because the Nixon campaign communications team agreed to let a little-known, 26-year-old reporter, Joe McGinniss, into their confidence so that he could write a book on this strategy, and its astonishingly successful implementation. The resulting bestseller was The Selling of the President. About this modern political campaign classic, published in 1969, after the election, Craig Fehrman on Salon has said, “[McGinniss] stumbled across his book’s topic while taking a train to New York. A fellow commuter had just landed the Hubert Humphrey account and was boasting that ‘in six weeks we’ll have him looking better than Abraham Lincoln’. McGinniss tried to get access to Humphrey’s campaign first, but they turned him down. So he called up Nixon’s, and they said yes.”

But fact, Nixon’s 1968 campaign was not the first in which public perceptions of a candidate were carefully scripted and shaped by experts. To find the first really thorough version, we must go back to the election of 1840! Democratic president Martin van Buren had been elected after having served as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. While Jackson was the first real populist elected to office, Van Buren was more the political realist and New York-based political machine builder who could move the levers. However, it was his bad luck that the country was still suffering from the devastating effects of the financial panic of 1837 well into 1840. Nominated by the Whigs to run against Van Buren was William Henry Harrison. Harrison was the first man to actively campaign for the job, even though he was already an old man (67) when he started his race for the White House.

Harrison’s handlers latched on to chants about him to centre their campaign, turning their candidate into a man of the people. Harrison’s supposed virtues were the slogans, “Log cabin and hard cider” and “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”. The first spoke to his supposedly common man approach, despite the fact that he was a member of Virginia’s wealthy, slave-owning planter class, in contrast to van Buren’s actual modest origins as a politico whose father had run a tavern. Second, half of that slogan alluded to the fact that his handlers were – wait for it – making the popular, easy and frequent distribution of hard cider to supporters, provided by Philadelphia distiller, JP Booz. Really.

The other half of the rhetorical pincers attack – Tippecanoe and Tyler too – spoke to a largely manufactured history of Harrison as an authentic war hero from a quarter century earlier in an indecisive engagement against a small detachment of Native American fighters in the then largely still unsettled Indiana. And then, as for Tyler, that was his electoral partnership with renegade Democratic Party politician John Tyler, in an early – albeit actually highly partisan – kind of national unity party, in the face of those severe economic dislocations afflicting the nation.

This sloganeering was amplified via articles in the generally highly partisan newspapers of the time, as well as exciting torchlight parades through the nation’s cities and towns – presumably accompanied by lubricating barrels of Mr Booz’s hard cider. In the event, Harrison won in an electoral vote blowout, although the popular vote was much closer, as the two candidates were separated by about 147,000 votes out of a little more than 2.4-million total votes cast.

Ironically, Harrison caught pneumonia while giving his inaugural address in a snowstorm, while refusing an overcoat or umbrella. He actually served as president less than two months before he died. As a result, when John Tyler took over as president, it was effectively as a Democrat, rather than one of Harrison’s Whigs. Tyler’s policies leaned far more towards territorial expansion and the preservation of slavery than had the ticket and platform he had run on together with Harrison.

In succeeding years and elections, of course, the creation of this kind of manufactured story has become ever more refined in presidential election campaigns. The trick, however, has been to figure out a way to make that created reality comport with the actual strengths of the candidate – allowing that inner truth to shine through all the artifice being employed in the act of the selling.

In our present circumstances, the challenge for Hillary Clinton’s campaign team is to shape her public persona as a person of empathy, substance, knowledge and experience – and minimise her widely believed tendency to trim her sails on those ethical seas. By contrast, the newest collection of handlers, including, once again, Roger Ailes, working with the Trumpster must somehow figure out how to let him be “himself” as a no-holds-barred “truth teller” – whatever the truth of that pose really is – even as they minimise his eruptions of wild-eyed, improbable charges from his post-factual world. We shall see how it all shakes out in less than three months. Much less than that, actually.

First of all, consider Hillary Clinton’s ferocious challenges in this business of finding and projecting the essentials of her core to the electorate. The Clinton campaign must finally figure out an effective way to project their candidate’s persona into the public arena that maximises an appreciation of her undoubted depth of knowledge, her passion for the use of the law and government to better the lives of people, and her decades-long commitment to these values – in the face of a now-deeply held public perception she simply cannot be trusted.

This is something that has only sporadically been accomplished, so far. It is an astonishing fact that this year’s election pits two people whose levels of public mistrust (for different reasons respectively, perhaps) are at historically high levels for presidential candidates. And, so far at least, these numbers are higher than their respective levels of public trust. The problem for Clinton is that this impression has been steadily built up over time and has, in recent months, been reinforced by her own actions from the anomalous circumstances of her statements on the private e-mail server she used extensively during her tenure as secretary of state, as well as the way this is being underscored by her opponent.

For Clinton, the real moment to lock down favourable perceptions, assuming the e-mail question doesn’t continue to corrode her favourables, may well be the upcoming presidential debates where she will be required to tackle Donald Trump face-to-face. In this debate there will be very little intermediation by the media – or anybody else – except for an as-yet unnamed moderator. The first of these comes in late September and it will likely be a defining moment for her – perhaps as much as President Gerald Ford’s misadventures in his debate with challenger Jimmy Carter back in 1976 when he appeared to fumble away any understanding of the nature of the Soviet control of Eastern Europe.

With the first of these Clinton-Trump debates now only a month away, a serious challenge for her campaign is to find someone who can be an effective stand-in for the rigorous practice sessions that must commence shortly so she can test reflexes to deflect and then retort against those inevitable bombastic Trumpean zingers that will come her way. As reporter James Hohmann explained in The Washington Post:

Campaign manager Robby Mook said Sunday that ‘it’s very hard to find someone’ who can mirror the Republican nominee’s temperament and instincts. ‘Preparing for a debate with him is a challenging task,’ he acknowledged on ‘CNN’s State of the Union.’ Lots of names are being floated from inside and outside of Clinton’s orbit, and the campaign is even considering having multiple people play the role of Trump.

Trump has not technically agreed to compete in the debates yet, though since he’s trailing in the polls and getting dramatically outspent on television he’d be insane not to. His new manager, Kellyanne Conway, said on Friday that the campaign has selected its stand-in for Clinton, but she would not reveal who it is. Who plays the role of stand-in for Trump and Clinton is more than just the hot D.C. parlor game of the moment. It will offer a window into how seriously each campaign is taking this process and how they expect the other side to approach the debates.”

Hohmann went on to explain:

There is not much time. The first debate is five weeks from today. On Sept. 26, Trump and Clinton will square off for 90 minutes at Hofstra University on Long Island. There will be no commercial breaks from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. There will be a single moderator, and that still-to-be-announced person will pick six topics to cover for 15 minutes each. The Commission on Presidential Debates promises to announce these topics at least one week beforehand.”

For Trump, of course, besides his own prepping for the upcoming debates, his challenge of actually settling on the one “true” Trumpean personality and demeanour, going forward, has been made more pressing by the fact his campaign has been oscillating between that “let Trump be Trump”, throw-caution-to-the-winds approach he used during the primaries and at the convention, and the one being pushed on him by increasingly frightened GOP elders and strategists who fear the wild and crazy approach will doom both his campaign – and the other Republican candidates down-ballot.

Unlike the voters of 1840, or even, perhaps many of those in 1968, today’s voters are wise to the notion they are almost inevitably the objects of those who would cleverly attempt to manipulate voters’ feelings about candidates. Instead, many voters now express a deep, abiding cynicism of politics and an aversion towards those techniques of image manipulation. In fact, for many voters, by posing as the “real deal” with no political correctness in the way, Trump succeeded during the primaries with many by making it appear he was not the creature of those image makers (even though he was, himself, a master image maker with years of experience of using the media to present that created image).

It will continue to be a rough ride going forward. And a key part of the campaign will be how well voters finally settle upon the nature of the Clinton and Trump personalities and psyches as they decide whom they wish to vote for on 8 November. DM

Photo: Ira Birch, of Richmond, Virginia, holds two pictures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with money in their mouths in Cleveland Public Square during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 20 July 2016. EPA/JUSTIN LANE


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