Alex Brandon, Associated Press
In the annals of negative campaign advertising, few commercials have had the enduring impact of Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad in 1964.
The ad didn't even mention Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by name, but it effectively portrayed him as an unhinged, dangerous war hawk through the image of a little young girl in a meadow, counting as she pulled petals off a daisy. When she got to 10, the camera focused on one of her eyes as the sound of a countdown began. At zero, a nuclear weapon was detonated.
Ironically, President Johnson's voice was heard at the end, saying, "We must either love each other, or we must die."
That seems prescient today, especially in the context of negative campaigning — even if the commercial itself seems tame in comparison to modern ads. Perhaps it isn't necessary for political candidates to display love toward each other, but if the nation doesn't find a way to insert civility into its political discourse soon, its ability to function as a democracy where the best ideas can triumph may be in jeopardy.
Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spoke last week at the Outlook Leadership Conference in Salt Lake City, an annual gathering of executives in the convenience and petroleum retailing industry.
Some political observers, steeped in the angry rhetoric of the day, may have found their chummy appearance together unsettling. But their message, which focused on the need for greater civility in Washington and elsewhere, was powerful.
Clinton noted how pundits pounced on a positive comment he made about Mitt Romney during a CNN interview earlier this year. During the same interview, he made comments about his support for President Barack Obama, but those were drowned out by the astonishment over his willingness to say anything nice about the Republican candidate.
"The test is not the arguments you make," Clinton said of that experience. "The test is whether you're bad-mouthing somebody."
He also said 24-hour political coverage has put Americans in "a constant state of anxiety-ridden attention deficit disorder."
Former president Bush noted how the blogosphere and Internet anonymity was helping to fuel incivility.
It's safe to say today's candidates themselves bear a lot of responsibility for this tone, as well. With the nation facing an economic crisis that demands serious discussion about reforms to entitlement programs, the tax code and military spending, neither candidate for president has seemed anxious to move beyond petty attacks thus far. The nation deserves better.
In the latest issue of the Wilson Quarterly, Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University in Montreal, traced the history of America's presidential campaigns. These, he said, have evolved over time into an age of tailored images using electronic media, with the Internet adding a chorus of unsubstantiated accusations and character attacks.
Troy takes a positive view of this process, noting that "tough campaigns determine a potential president's strength and durability while revealing the candidate's character to the nation."
In the end, he said, the nation "peacefully chooses a leader who arrives in office with unquestioned legitimacy."
We wish that were the case. For several election cycles now, it seems as if the person who wins the White House never can seem to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of a portion of the electorate that views him as the enemy. The same can be said for many members of Congress, and especially the leadership in the House and Senate.
Ultimately, the electorate should make decisions based on political platforms and personal qualifications. But too many people today don't feel comfortable unless they can demonize the one they don't support.
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