10/20/09 - nixon masters television

In today's excerpt - Nixon masters TV as part of his successful 1967 presidential campaign and as part of that his staff invents the completely staged 'impromptu' encounter with voters:

"The idea [for Nixon's new approach to television] had come of an appearance the previous autumn on Mike Douglas's afternoon chat show. As Nixon sat in the Douglas show's makeup chair, he chatted perfunctorily with a young producer about how silly it was that it took gimmicks like going on daytime talk shows to get elected in America in 1968. The producer, a twenty- six-year-old named Roger Ailes, did not come back with the expected deferential chuckle. Instead he lectured him: if Nixon still thought talk shows were a gimmick, he'd never become president of the United States. Ailes then reeled off a litany of Nixon's TV mistakes in 1960, when Ailes had been in high school -- and, before he knew it, had been whisked to New York and invited to work for the man in charge of the media team, Frank Shakespeare. ...

"His young confederate Ailes was a TV-producing prodigy, transforming Douglas from a local Philadelphia fixture into a national icon of square chic: 'Each weekday more than 6,000,000 housewives in 171 cities set up their ironing boards in front of the TV set to watch their idol,' said a feature story in Time. Ailes was perfect to execute the newest Nixon's new idea, the most brazen in the history of political TV. Ailes, Garment, Shakespeare, Ray Price, and a young lawyer [named] Tom Evans, met in a CBS screening room. Like football coaches, they reviewed game film: seven hours of Nixon TV appearances. As a stump speaker, the medium could make him look like an earnest, sweaty litigator. He did better on camera in informal settings, looking a questioner in the eye. They decided that this would be how they would make sure Nixon was seen -- all through 1968.

"But Richard Nixon had enemies. Genuinely impromptu encounters -- the sort that were supposed to be the charm of New Hampshire campaigning -- had a chance of turning nasty. Thus the innovation. They would film impromptu encounters. Only they would be staged.

"Shakespeare brought on board a TV specialist from Bob Haldeman's old employer, J. Walter Thompson [Advertising]. Harry Treleaven was a TV-obsessed nerd who perennially bored people by rhapsodizing over the technical details of his craft. Militantly indifferent to ideology, his last triumph was rewiring the image of George Herbert Walker Bush, the new congressman from Houston who'd lost a Senate race as a Goldwater Republican in '64. Men-on-the- street in Houston had thought George Bush likable, though 'there was a haziness about exactly where he stood politically,' Treleaven wrote in a postmortem memo. Treleaven thought that was swell. 'Most national issues today are so complicated, so difficult to understand,' he said, that they 'bore the average voter.' Putting 85 percent of Bush's budget into advertising almost two-thirds of that into TV, he set to work inventing George Bush as a casual kind of guy who walked around with his coat slung over his shoulder (he was actually an aristocrat from Connecticut). Since the polls had him behind, Treleaven also made him a 'fighting underdog,' 'a man who's working his heart out to win.' His ideology, whatever it was, wasn't mentioned.

"Nixon gave this team carte blanche: 'We're going to build this whole campaign around television. You fellows just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it.'

"On February 3, he was slipped out a back door in Concord and spirited to tiny Hillsborough, where an audience of two dozen townsfolk handpicked by the local Nixon committee sat waiting in a local courtroom. Outside were uniformed guards to keep out the men to whom Richard Nixon had just pledged his most open campaign ever. Lights, camera, action; citizens asked their questions; cameras captured their man's answers; then Treleaven, Ailes, and Garment got to work chopping the best bits into TV spots. ...

"The reporters threatened mutiny. Ailes offered them a compromise: from now on they'd be allowed to watch on monitors in a room nearby and interview the audience after the show. If they didn't like it, tough. A man who raged at what he could not control, Richard Nixon had found a way to be in control."


Rick Perlstein


Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America


Scribner a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by Rick Perlstein


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