Monday, August 18, 2008

McCain and the laughing ad

(Update: The "Laughing Agnew" ad, below, has been pulled by YouTube for a terms-of-use violation--details unknown. While I try to find another copy that's been posted to a server outside of YouTube's reach, there's this to consider: Below I say that, had this ad been released in the 2008 campaign instead of the 1968 campaign, it would have gone viral on the internet overnight--to the obvious advantage of the Humphrey campaign. Maybe not, if the rights owners decided, as they seem to have done 40 years later, that the best way to protect their rights was by making sure it doesn't get seen too widely.)

(Update 2: Found a working clip, via the Museum of the Living Image. The site has an archive of political TV spots from 1952 through 2008.)

Here's a classic political spot, created for the 1968 presidential campaign by Tony Schwarz, the Yoda of 1960s political advertising. As Schwarz told Bill Moyers in a PBS interview years later, the whole point of the ad was that everyone agreed that Agnew wasn't even remotely credible as a president, so why would anyone consider him as a vice president?

Had this ad been created 40 years later, it would have gone viral on the internet in a heartbeat; it would have over a million hits by the end of the week; the Politico would run daily leaks from both campaigns about it; by Sunday the talking-head shows would be fretting and stewing about it; and finally, like it or not, the establishment media would have little choice but to acknowledge the existence of the meme itself:

Would we want this running mate to step into the Oval Office if the man at the top of the ticket became president after which something made him unable to serve?

And that's the key--by raising the question of the fitness of the VP nominee, it indirectly but inescapably raises the possibility that the presidential nominee won't be able to complete the term. The right can yell foul, of course--that it's disrespectful, etc., etc.--and they did at the time. But it can be a legitimate question, even if it's an uncomfortable one.

(In Nixon's case, of course, the question was prescient, although by the critical moment Agnew had been moved unceremoniously out of the picture in favor of the bland and uncontroversial Ford.)

Sometime in the next two weeks, McCain will have to stop playing coy about his vice presidential running mate. He'll have to quit disingenuously floating the names of people whose records are only partly in tune with the radical agenda of his base--someone who's ever said something that might be construed as pro-choice, for example--in an effort to keep his tarnished "maverick" image alive a little longer, and actually name his choice.

Democrats and their allies should have something along the lines of the "laughing Agnew" spot--allowing for changing tastes after 40 years--in the can and ready to go the same day that McCain announces his running mate. Something quick, sharp, memorable, and only somewhat subtle. Trust me: properly done, this is one they won't need a huge media-buy budget for.

The Washington press corps, after eight years in the tank for McCain, is finally experimenting--tentatively--with questions about his age, his health, his temper, his memory, his attention span, and so forth. Sooner or later, someone's going to say it out loud, in a context where it can't be easily ignored: If McCain is elected, there is a really good chance that his Veep will have to take over the job.

The left needs to hit this hard, beginning on Day One. The person McCain nominates for vice president--are you comfortable with the likelihood that he could take over the duties of the president? And are you confident that he won't have to?

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