The Positives of Negative Campaigning

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The Positives of Negative Campaigning


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


OUR COVER IMAGE this month is taken from the Citizen Kane of political attack ads: the infamous "daisy" spot created for Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson's campaign during the 1964 presidential election. Without ever mentioning Republican challenger Barry Goldwater by name, the spot was an unmistakable response to the Arizona senator's talk of using "low-yield" atomic weapons to end the communist insurgency in Vietnam.

The ad, in which a young girl pulls the petals off a flower until a mushroom cloud fills the screen, effectively painted Goldwater as a mad bomber and helped lead to his crushing defeat at the polls. More impressively, the ad appeared just once in prime time, during the NBC Movie of the Week, on September 7, 1964. The commercial was so controversial--and the Goldwater campaign so outraged--that LBJ's crew never had to pay to run it again, instead relying on news programs to air the spot endlessly and discuss its merits and flaws. American political communication would never be the same. (You can view that ad and many other campaign commercials online at livingroomcandidate.com.)

The daisy spot didn't just usher in an age of attack ads. It ushered in an age of attacks on attack ads, of pious lamentations that political discourse has gotten too shrill, too divisive, too partisan. A decade ago, as the presidential race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole shuffled along with all the speed, grace, and dignity of Frankenstein's monster, then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.

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