Politics and the Media — A Working Seminar
Anatomy of A Spot
Since the 1952 Eisenhower campaign introduced to the world the political commercial, few major campaigns have seemingly centered around one single spot — and a radio spot at that. But such was the case in the 1978 U.S. Senate race in Illinois.
That contest saw two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Charles H. Percy defending his seat against novice Democratic challenger Alex Seith. Political pros and the press generally recognized the 44-year-old Seith’s credentials: Yale, Harvard Law, youngest president in history of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, active in national Democratic Party affairs, member of President Carter’s advisory board on ambassadorial appointments.
But few took Seith seriously as a candidate. The supposedly invincible Percy, in his last reelection campaign in 1972, had carried every county in the state and won with a 1.5 million vote margin — the biggest in the state’s history.
The campaign, however, was to become the most hotly contested and widely watched of the 1978 off-year elections — if not of the decade. And the focus of much of the campaign was 60-seconds worth of talk on one of Seith’s radio spots. The subject of that spot was an unlikely one to any outside observer: former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, neither an Illinois resident nor a physical presence in the state during the campaign.
The spot literally dominated the final weeks of the campaign. It received coverage on all three national TV networks, including three mentions on NBC alone — unheard-of attention for a single spot in a state race. Advertising Age magazine called it “one of the most controversial spots in history,” and disapprovingly gave the commercial’s creator its annual Thumbs Down Award.
A common complaint among many in the media and some political observers is: “You can It really say much of anything in a 30-or 60-second spot.” But a political commercial can be a very powerful and volatile thing. Some can devastate their intended victim; others can boomerang to the detriment of their sponsor. And in many cases, the primary impact of a spot comes less through its actual paid use on the air, than through the subsequent and more widely disseminated press coverage of that spot.
I served as manager of the 1978 Seith campaign. This analysis is intended as a detailed historical chronicle of the “Butz” spot — its creation, its use, and its effects. It also attempts to formulate some lessons that can be drawn from this episode that can be of use to candidates, campaign staff, consultants, and media watchers alike. This is the anatomy of a spot.
As Earl Butz said to me the other day — and I wish he were secretary of agriculture still today…
Sen. Charles Percy at a debate with his Democratic opponent
Springfield, IL, July 6, 1978
U.S. Sen. Charles Percy, R.-Ill., Thursday night called for a return to the Earl Butz era in farming and a return to power of the former secretary of agriculture himself.
Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph
Sept. 2, 1978
On July 6, 1978, Springfield, Illinois, hosted the second in a series of four debates between Sen. Charles H. Percy and his Democratic challenger, Alex Seith. Neither the audience nor the press noted one seemingly innocuous, offhand remark by Percy. But those few words would change the course of the campaign, spawn one of the most incendiary political spots in recent years, and add a controversial new chapter to the history of campaign advertising.
Percy himself had committed to the debates in a primary election night telegram to Seith. We never really knew why. As an incumbent with wide name recognition he had little to gain. He was considered by the press and politicos of both parties as a shoo-in against the putative sacrificial lamb Seith. We also had evidence that he faced substantial staff resistance in carrying out his debate pledge. To top it all off, he knew that Seith — a former Yale debater — would be no pushover.
For the Seith campaign, of course, the benefits were more easily perceived. Any media exposure would be of obvious value to a candidate with roughly 11 percent name recognition. In addition, from each of the four debates we hoped to create a different political by-product.
The first, on foreign affairs, was to be used to demarcate. Seith is generally more hardline foreign policy positions. In the third, on energy and agriculture, we were to paint Percy as a witting servant of the oil and gas interests, using what we suspected by that time — September 3 — would be substantial oil-related contributions to his campaign. The fourth, on general topics in suburban Oak Brook, would exhibit Seith to Chicago-area media and voters as a well-rounded candidate with intellectual range and broad policy familiarity.
The second, however, was to have at once a more covert and difficult-to-achieve mission. In August, we were to begin production of our radio and television commercials. We knew we would have to design a fairly potent anti-Percy, or “negative,” media campaign to overcome his wide lead in the polls, including our own. In this particular encounter, we planned to attempt to goad Percy into making misstatements or untruthful claims upon which we could build part of our media campaign.
It seemed the perfect vehicle. The debate was being held over the Fourth of July weekend. Press coverage would be minimal, public interest almost nonexistent. Therefore, we could engage in the kind of vitriolic attack against Percy necessary to provoke overreactions on his part, while minimizing the possibility that Seith would be portrayed to large numbers of voters through the media as an ogre. In addition, the debate topic was domestic issues — around which we hoped to rally our issues campaign against Percy.
Our gambit was to turn the debate into a “trial.” Seith’s opening statement began: “I’m glad to be here for this debate. But this is not just a debate; it’s a trial. Mr. Percy is on trial. The charge against him: aiding and abetting rising taxes, rapidly rising inflation, and big government spending.”
As we predicted, there was little media coverage, although a Champaign TV station did videotape the debate for later playback. The Chicago Tribune picked up our gimmick in a page three story: “Percy put ‘on trial’ by Seith,” the headline read. The Sun-Times ran a fairly lengthy, straightforward dispatch from their capitol reporter. The few downstate papers that carried the story used the rather bland wire service copy.
Generally, Percy maintained a remarkable cool in the face of Seith’s searing attack, which called into question Percy’s veracity on a number of counts. Nonetheless, Percy did misspeak several times. He claimed to have “voted against every single tax increase bill since I have been in the Senate” — an untruthful boast he later rescinded in a letter from his campaign manager to the debate-sponsoring League of Women Voters. He also stated incorrectly that people today were somehow paying a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than they were 12 years before. We were able to design effective radio or television spots around both misstatements.
However, on another count we thought Percy had obliged us even more than we could have dared hope. The particular question’s topic was agriculture. Brad Watson, political reporter for WRAU-TV, Peoria, a member of the press panel, had just asked Seith why he did not want to serve on the Agriculture Committee were he elected to the Senate. Watson noted that neither current Illinois senator was a member of the panel, making Illinois the only major Midwestern farm state not so represented.
Seith replied with his boilerplate retort: service on the “money” committees — Appropriations, Budget, Finance — ultimately yielded greater influence over agricultural policy than did service on the farm committee itself.
It came Percy’s time for rebuttal. “I’m not a dirt farmer, as you know,” he began. He then launched into a typical Percyesque homily. He felt “deeply” about Illinois agriculture. Agriculture was “one of the most vibrant, vital parts of American life.” The family farm was “one of the great backbones of American life.”
He then went for a dig at a Seith comment, made during the first debate, that agricultural trade with cash-poor Communist China would be no panacea for U.S. farmers. Percy referred to a news account of that debate which questioned Seith’s judgment in making such a statement in a farming state. Then, unable to resist his much-noted penchant for name dropping, Percy added almost as an afterthought:
As Earl Butz said to me the other day — and I wish he were secretary of agriculture still today — he reaffirmed to me that when we sell a consumable product to the People’s Republic of China, that they eat up, and they give us hard currency — gold — we can buy anything in the world with that gold, and they’ve used up our food.
Immediately upon its utterance, I recognized this remark as a faux pas in a category with the Gerald Ford Poland-is-free declaration during the 1976 presidential debates. The error had nothing to do with trade with China; rather, to publicly wish that Earl Butz were still in office struck me as one of the most careless or callous remarks I had ever heard a politician make in a state with a large black population. Butz had been fired as agriculture secretary during the 1976 campaign for telling an obscene, racist joke about blacks that was overheard and reported in Rolling Stone magazine.
After the debate, I discussed this gaffe with Seith. He mentioned that he had also noted the comment during the debate, and wondered whether Percy had been aware of its potential political ramifications. We both concluded that he probably had not.
Still, my campaign sense told me that the remark held potential for our campaign in two distinct areas. First, Seith was running well to the right of Percy on several social issues. We needed a catalyst to either create some excitement about Seith in the black community, or at least to dull any budding appetites for Percy.
Second, we had constructed a rather detailed psychological profile of Percy for use in developing campaign strategy. From this we knew that he had shown a certain insecurity about and preoccupation with his image in the black community. The temptation to use the Butz remark to severely embarrass him in the black community was almost irresistible. Even if the remark were never to take hold with the average black voter, we speculated that our broadcasting of it over the airwaves would cause great panic on Percy’s part. He would overreact, we predicted, and would spend an inordinate amount of time in the black community attempting to undo the damage he would think had been done.
In addition, there was the possibility that a Percy full-court-press designed to shore up his image among blacks would bring to the fore the issue of his putative liberalism, alienating the conservative suburban and white ethnic voters he needed to win.
Part of our thinking in this derived from our knowledge of Percy’s less-than-aboveboard dealings with the black vote. It has become a widely accepted Washington myth that Percy has always exhibited some sort of John Lindsay-type appeal to black voters. As recently as October, 1981, a Washington Post Magazine cover story on Percy by Pulitzer Prize winner William McPherson fell into this trap. Writing of the 1978 campaign, McPherson matter-of-factly stated that Percy had “carried [Chicago’s] South Side, which is 80 percent black.” Not only is this incorrect as it relates to that campaign (Seith carried every black ward but one), it also tends to obscure Percy’s rather seamy electoral history in the black community.
Percy’s first campaign was for governor of Illinois in 1964. In that year of the Civil Rights Act, Percy ran opposed to open housing laws. “Fight Open Occupancy! Elect Percy,” screamed his campaign flyers. This blatant racial appeal, designed to attract white ethnic voters in areas facing integrating, has been curiously forgotten by many black leaders who now support Percy. But it tarnished Percy in the eyes of most black voters who caught onto his tactics; he lost 89 percent of the black vote that year to then-Governor Otto Kerner, who defeated Percy handily.
In 1966, Percy challenged longtime civil rights advocate, Senator Paul H. Douglas, reaching for a fourth term. In an attempt to repair the damage done two years earlier, Percy announced he was now for open housing, and disingenuously attempted to paper over his opposition in the gubernatorial race: his campaign flyers designed for the black areas touted his support for “voluntary” open housing in 1964.
At the same time, suburban Republican organizations continued to carryon an open campaign against open housing, using Percy’s name on their slate cards. This act of surrogate hypocrisy drew no recorded protest from Percy. In fact, when Douglas workers reprinted Percy’s black campaign flyer and began distributing it in white suburban areas, Percy panicked and complained to the Fair Campaign Practices Committee. It was unethical, he claimed, to distribute an opponent’s campaign material in areas for which it was “not intended.”
Percy campaign workers also undertook numerous underhanded attempts to embarrass Douglas in the black community, which had always supported the liberal Democratic senator overwhelmingly. Such activities included the highly probable surreptitious funding of CORE-and SNCC-related black activists to harass Douglass and his wife as they campaigned in black areas. Nonetheless, Douglas carried the black wards by 75 to 80 percent, while Percy was defeating him statewide 56 to 44.
Only in the Nixon landslide of 1972, facing a hapless candidate he outspent 10 to 1 — the greatest spending disparity in any U.S. Senate race that year — did Percy gain a respectable share of the black vote, carrying some areas.
Once sworn into the Senate in 1967, Percy took great pains to build some support in the black areas. He became particularly enamored of visiting black schoolyards and playgrounds, suit coat slung over his shoulder RFK-style, to be photographed patting black children on the head. He began to openly and assiduously court prominent blacks such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Chicago-based Muhammad Ali. Many Republican strategists considered these moves more fruitless ego trips than productive efforts at luring large numbers of blacks to Percy’s ballot line.
In spite of this record of duplicity on a racially-tinged issue, we decided to give Percy a provisional benefit of the doubt on the Butz remark. We reasoned that it could have been little more than an innocent slip of the tongue. After all, although Butz had lingering support in the farm community, the debate audience in Springfield was not heavy with farmers, and the crowd had no reaction to his remark. We decided that if we found no more evidence that he was using the bring-back-Butz comment as a cynical way to appeal to farm voters, we would not make the remark a full-blown part of our media attack. We began monitoring the news clips, however, particularly from downstate farm areas, to insure that we would pick up any future references to Butz.
On September 2, we found a smoking gun. A Bloomington Pantagraph article by farm editor Dave McClelland reported on a Percy appearance before a central Illinois farm group. Percy had “called for a return to the Earl Butz era in farming and a return to power of the former secretary of agriculture himself,” McClelland reported (emphasis added). And he had said this as “300 persons attending the 44th annual McLean County Outlook session applauded.” Here was Percy using the Butz remark as a calculated applause line with farm groups! With this documentation in hand, we were ready to go to work.
On September 6, the clips brought an unexpected bonus: an irate letter to the editor in the same Pantagraph from a Pontiac, Illinois, farmer. This missive opened up a whole new dimension of the situation that had originally escaped us. The writer, a’Butz supporter, related how Percy had written him at the time of the Butz firing, stating that Butz had “forfeited” his right to hold office through his “tasteless” and “unfortunate” joke, thereby causing’ “much anguish for everyone involved, including myself.”
Why now, the writer asked, referring to Percy’s comments at the McLean County affair, did Percy want Butz back? “Who has changed, Mr. Percy or Mr. Butz?” he queried. “Mr. Butz, in all probability, is the same man now that he was then. The difference is that Percy knows farmers support Butz and he wants their votes.”
We couldn’t have put it any better ourselves. Here, we thought, was the perfect two-edged sword: Percy’s call for Butz’s return would annoy farmers who remembered his earlier call for Butz’s removal; it would appall blacks when reminded of the circumstances under which Butz was forced from office. No doubt at all, we concluded, Percy could be hoist with his own petard.
Do you think Sen. Charles Percy is a friend of black people? With friends like this, you don’t need enemies.
Partial script of radio spot used by Alex Seith, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate
Earlier in the campaign, we had contracted with New York media wizard Tony Schwartz to produce our radio commercials. Schwartz has a long, distinguished, and sometimes controversial career as a creator of media. Perhaps his most famous political work was a television spot produced in 1964 for President Lyndon Johnson’s Campaign. In that race, Republican challenger Sen. Barry Goldwater had been caught making some injudicious remarks about the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Johnson was running as the peace candidate.
Schwartz created a 30-second commerc.ial for the Johnson campaign which featured a little girl in a field picking petals from a daisy. As she counts, the camera moves closer, finally freezing on a close-up of her eye. At the same time, an announcer starts to intone a countdown. Suddenly, the screen erupts in a nuclear mushroom. The voice-over of Lyndon Johnson then admonishes: “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness. Either we must love each other or we must die.” “On November 3rd, vote for President Johnson” then appeared on the screen.
This spot ran only once, during a Monday night movie on network television. But it created a huge controversy. Republican leaders cried foul; then-Sen. Minority Leader Everett Dirksen filed a complaint with the National Association of Broadcasters, the first in that agency’s history over the propriety of a political ad. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, publicly disapproved of the spot, and urged its removal from the air. But the single showing had had its effect: it was widely held responsible for indelibly reminding American voters of Goldwater’s propensity for war-like statements — even though the spot never mentioned Goldwater or made reference to him.
Disliking travel, Schwartz spends most of his time in the New York area at his studio on the West Side. Often mislabelled a “campaign consultant,” Schwartz is more precisely a genius at understanding human behavior, particularly as it is influenced through media.
He is the only nationally recognized creator of political media to have evolved a unique and comprehensive theory about how the media work. In his landmark 1973 book, “The Responsive Chord,” Schwartz explicated his “resonance principle” in communications:
Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our communication evoke meaning in a listener or viewer. That which we put into the communication has no meaning in itself. The meaning of our communication is what a listener or viewer gets out of his experience with the communicator’s stimuli. The listener’s or viewer’s brain is an indispensable component of the total communication system… In communicating at electronic speed, we no longer direct information into an audience, but try to evoke stored information out of them, in a patterned way.
The purpose of advertising is not to “tell” listeners or viewers information the advertiser wants them to know, Schwartz believes. Rather, commercials must be designed to evoke certain responses that are already latent in the hearer’s or viewer’s brain. Writing of the 1964 “daisy” spot, Schwartz noted that it did not mention Goldwater, and observed: “The commercial evoked a deep feeling in many people that Goldwater might actually use nuclear weapons. This mistrust was not in the Daisy spot. It was in the people who viewed the commercial.”
In addition to producing hundreds of product commercials, Schwartz has worked for dozens of political candidates at all levels, including Jimmy Carter, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and West Virginia Gov. Jay Rockefeller. He has a simple question he asks prospective clients: What is the primary issue in your campaign?
Some candidates babble on about taxes or roads or crime or some other national or local issue, drawing the Schwartz remonstration: The primary issue in every campaign is the other candidate.
Schwartz is not only adept at influencing the electorate through his clever commercials, he is also a master at using those same spots as a form of psychological warfare against the other candidate himself. Many of his political commercials are written so that they ask a direct question — always embarrassing and most often unanswerable — of the other candidate. The effect of such spots on the constitution and self-confidence of the opposition candidate cannot be overestimated, given his certain knowledge that they are blaring out over tens of thousands of radios and TV sets.
In the middle of September, we headed to New York for a strategy session with Schwartz on our radio commercials. We asked him to create a spot using Percy’s Butz remarks. We never gave any consideration to producing a television spot dealing with this matter. While there are several black radio stations in Chicago and the St. Louis area, there are no black-oriented TV stations through which a candidate can reach a black audience in a cost-effective way. Radio was clearly the only medium for our purposes.
Schwartz’s technique in creating a political spot is to record a spontaneous explanation by the candidate or designated campaign staffer of the purpose of the commercial and the facts on which it will be based. From this raw material, he then creates and records a spot. Usually, the finished product requires no further editing or changes.
The recorded conversation between Seith and Schwartz on the substance and wording of the Butz spot went like this:
SEITH: I can give you the essence of it. “Do you remember Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture? Remember what he said about black people? Can’t repeat it here; words like that can’t be broadcast on the air. Know what Charles Percy said about Earl Butz? He said Earl Butz was a great secretary of agriculture” — I’ll get you the exact quote — “He said he wants Earl Butz back for secretary of agriculture.”
SCHWARTZ: “With his tolerating people like that, you think we ought to have him for our senator? That’s why more and more” — where is this going to be played?
SEITH: Wait a minute. Okay, this would be on black radio. As a matter of fact, you might even want to have a lead-in: “Do you think Charles Percy is a friend of black people? Then listen to what he said. Do you remember Earl Butz?” I don’t know how —
SCHWARTZ: “Sen. Percy poses as a friend to blacks, but let’s look behind the surface,” or something like that.
SCHWARTZ: “You remember Earl Butz and what he said about black people?” Or,”what he said about us?”
SEITH: Will this guy have a distinctively black voice? He can say “us”?
SEITH: Okay, okay.
SCHWARTZ: You automatically can say it once you’ve said the opening introduction.
SEITH: Okay, okay, if the guy’s voice is black, can’t you say, you know, “Charles Percy poses as a friend of blacks, but is he really our friend?”
SCHWARTZ: Sure. “Is he really our friend? Well, do you remember Earl Butz? He said something so bad against us that we couldn It even say it on radio.”
SEITH: “Had to resign as secretary of agriculture.”
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. “And he had to resign. And who wants him back again? The same one who wants to pose as our friend —
SCHWARTZ: — Sen. Charles Percy. And with friends like that we don’t need enemies.”
SEITH: Yeah, right, right.
SCHWARTZ: “ThatIs why more and more of us are supporting Alex Seith and that’s why this is documented and paid for by the Alex Seith Committee.” You’ll give me the quotes?
Several days after we returned to Chicago, Schwartz called to play us the finished Butz spot. He had not used a black “talent, “or announcer, in cutting this spot. Rather, he had utilized a professional California-based announcer who had cut most of our other spots. His was a unique voice which could only be described as dripping with acidity. Here was the spot in its entirety:
Do you think Sen. Charles Percy is a friend of black people? Well, remember Earl Butz? He was that secretary of agriculture who made a racist and sexually obscene joke about blacks. We can’t repeat his words on the air, of course, but they were so offensive that he had to resign as secretary of agriculture. Maybe you’re wondering what that’s got to do with Sen. Percy? Just this: Sen. Percy said of Earl Butz — and I’m quoting Percy word for word now — “I wish Earl Butz were secretary of agriculture still today. ” Still today, Sen. Percy? Sen. Percy wants the black vote, and with friends like this you don’t need enemies. Because Charles Percy tolerates the Earl Butz insult to blacks, more and more people are getting behind Alex Seith for the United States Senate. And that’s why this is documented, paid for, and authorized by the Seith for Senate Committee.
The candidate was not in Chicago at the time of Schwartz’s call, but we played the commercial for him over the telephone as he was campaigning downstate. He was delighted with it, and urged that we get it on the air as soon as possible.
Admittedly, I was also pleased with the spot, sensing no major difficulties with its wording or accuracy. However, I did recognize it as potentially an incendiary device that could have serious repercussions. We knew that Percy’s reaction would probably be fierce. But I believed there was absolutely no way for Percy to wriggle out of the remarks attributed to him, since there was ample documentation.
I also thought that once we had the Butz spot on the air, the press would obviously see the hypocrisy and impropriety — not to mention political stupidity — of Percy’s bring-back-Butz campaign, and would hound him unmercifully for an explanation. Unless, I speculated, we made an error of our own which would somehow neutralize our attack against Percy on this matter.
That mistake, I began to think, could be a 30-second TV spot produced for us by our TV consultant, New York-based David Sawyer. The commercial dealt with the subject of education funding, which we were trying to develop into a potent issue against Percy. Percy was supporting a National Education Association-sponsored proposal to increase the federal proportion of primary and secondary education funding to 33 1/3 percent, from what was then roughly 7-8 percent. Seith strenuously opposed this, arguing that more federal money brought more federal control.
This particular spot had been shot in Seith’s hometown of Aurora, Illinois, beside his old grade school — a typical, red brick structure. In its filming, we had given little notice to a yellow school bus which sat in the background. But when we screened the finished spot, it loomed very large visually.
Busing had never become an issue in the campaign, and Seith had never taken a position on it one way or the other. Neither, to our knowledge, had Percy in this particular campaign. But here was Seith on this spot warning gravely about the “federal control” which would accompany “massive” federal funding, ending with an admonition to “keep our local schools local.”
Although I did not oppose the use of the Butz spot, I did fear that if we opened the volatile racial issue through its use, we should not run the education spot. Even if the inadvertent placement of the school bus should be lost on the viewer, the press might take us to task, charging that we were cleverly injecting into the campaign anti-busing sentiment designed to appeal to conservative voters.
In addition, the candidate and I had several conversations about the possibility of producing a sister spot to the Butz commercial which would play in farm areas. The purpose of such a spot, of course, would have been to remind farmers that whereas Percy had called for ButzIs removal two years before, he was now advocating his return to office. Ultimately, we decided against this, since we already had on downstate radio and TV stations a rather large mix of spots, including some designed to appeal to the farm vote. One featured Seith talking to a large group of farmers about limiting the foreign purchase of American farmland, an issue we found was playing well downstate.
Until we could more thoroughly think through all of the possible lines of counterattack Percy and his supporters could take, however, I attempted to stall the actual “trafficking” of the Butz spot. But Seith continued to pressure me about getting the spot on the air, and on October 2 I authorized our time buyers in New York to begin running the commercial on four black radio stations in Chicago — on most of them, in rotation with two or three other spots. Later, we also bought time on an E. St. Louis, Illinois, radio station, and on two St. Louis stations that had significant, but not exclusively, black audiences.
Initially, there was little reaction to the spot. Most of the black Democratic organization politicians in Chicago with whom we had contact chortled over it, but the press did not pick up on the spot one way or the other. We discovered little familiarity with the spot when we campaigned in black areas. We wondered whether the commercial was really as powerful as we originally thought.
I was rather shocked to find this black commercial running.
Sen. Charles Percy at a debate with Alex Seith, Oak Brook, lL
October 17, 1978
[Seith’s] radio commercials… are among the nastiest and most deceptive I’ve ever seen.
October 27, 1978
Seith has also waged a… campaign that features commercials like one that plays only on black radio stations and implies Percy is a racist.
NBC Nightly News
Profile of Percy-Seith race
October 30, 1978
Our strategy for the airing of the Butz spot took into account the certain knowledge that once it hit the airwaves, Percy would be forced to respond. We never underestimated his ability to fight back, but we thought on this particular subject his hands were tied. The statement referred to in the spot was well documented on videotape and in print, and he could not credibly deny that he had said it.
At best, we concluded, his counterattack would simply end up giving the issue wider circulation in the black community. We anticipated some press sniping at our “negative” campaign, which included an unusually large mix of 22 different radio spots and 13 TV spots, many of them highly critical of Percy. But we thought the press would hound Percy about his use of the bring-back-Butz theme once the insensitivity and hypocrisy of it sunk in. At worst, press coverage would be a tradeoff: some general criticism our way, but with specific damage for Percy resulting in the black community.
On October 19, the Chicago Sun-Times printed the first sampling in their traditonal “straw poll,” a historically accurate but technically questionable attempt to determine voter sentiment. The paper conducts two separate “sweeps” throughout the state over the period of three weeks, soliciting over 50,000 people to mark paper sample ballots. The paper had almost decided against conducting the poll in 1978, because the top three races that year — governor, senator, and state attorney general — were all considered runaways for the Republican incumbents.
Two of them were to turn out to be just that. But the headline on the first poll results shocked the political establishment, the Percy campaign, and the press itself, with the story of the third: “First Straw Poll: Seith Is Strong.” In Chicago, suburban, and downstate samplings, Seith was actually leading Percy 50.9 to 49.1
Overnight, the Percy-Seith race became a hot commodity. Picked up by the national media, reporters and camera crews began trekking to Illinois to see what they had missed. The Baltimore Sun predicted the .race could become “this surprising election’s most startling upset. ” Local television and radio stations began clamoring for “ride-alongs” on Seith campaign swings, and reporters who would never answer our phone calls before began saying “I’ll hold” when calling our campaign office.
The initial poll results were gratifying, and imbued us with a certain credibility we had never achieved through 15 months of gritty campaigning. The downside of this new-found attention was that Percy now knew he was in for a race, and his aloof and gentlemanly campaign approach would change. And the Butz spot, much to our chagrin, was to become the handy fulcrum around which he constructed his born-again campaign.
We got a hint of what was to come in the fourth debate in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb, on October 17. Although held two days before publication of the Sun-Times poll, we suspected Percy had been tipped off that the “straws” were not running his way by his friends at the Sun-Times, including publisher Marshall Field. We knew that his responses in the debate would be predicated on that knowledge and we expected his campaign tactics to change.
We anticipated a question about the “negative” nature of our media at the Oak Brook encounter. Halfway through the questioning, Lisa Myers, then a reporter for the Sun-Times Washington bureau, now with NBC-TV, asked Seith:
Mr. Seith, your campaign began running commercials on black radio stations that link Sen. Percy with former Agriculture Secretary Butz, who was forced to leave the government after he made a racial slur. Are you calling Sen. Percy racist?
Seith replied that he did not believe Percy was racist, and that the ad did not call him that. He repeated Percy’s remarks about Butz, and said, “Now, we don’t say that Mr. Percy was racist, but we do say that by calling for Butz to return as secretary of agricul ture, he is tolerating the remark that was made.”
Percy’s rebuttal acknowledged his remarks in the Bloomington Pantagraph, but emphasized only his support for the Butz agricultural policies, glossing over his clear call for a return to office of the man himself. He brandished a press release from 1976 in which he had called for Butz’s resignation, and claimed he had called Butz at the time to urge him to step down.
With respect to the Butz spot, Percy said, “I’ve always believed that he who throws mud in politics ends up getting dirty. I was rather shocked to find this black commercial running, because we were called by the bureau chief of Time magazine, who had heard it and he was upset, and so was [then-Sen.] Ed Brooke when he was told about it, Muhammad Ali, and Jesse Jackson, and all of them will answer it.”
Upon hearing “and all of them will answer it,” I noted that Time magazine was one of the antecedents in Percy’s sentence. didn’t at that time believe he meant literally that Time was going to take a formal position on the Butz spot and issue a rejoinder on Percy’s behalf. But the remark proved prescient in that we had no idea how willingly almost the entire press corps — national and local — would take up Percy’s cudgels on the matter, letting him off the hook entirely on the substance of the issue.
Playing surrogate campaign manager, the media urged Percy to respond to the “dirty” Butz spot with similar tactics of his own. Some in the press even gave Percy an advance pardon were he to engage in any low blows.
Perhaps the most flagrant of this genre was an October 27 column by syndicated Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko. Titled baldly “Nice Chuck vs. Bad Alex,” Royko wrote of Seith:
As a political campaigner, he is an alley fighter.
His TV and radio commercials — and that’s about all his campaign consists of — are among the nastiest and most deceptive that I’ve ever seen.
And if the polls are an indication, the commercials are effective. Seith is on the brink of crotch-kicking and eye-gouging his way into the U.S. Senate.
Now, I’m not opposed to Seith’s brand of crotch-kicking politics. …But Percy and Seith are so unfairly matched. …Percy wouldn’t know how to tweak a nose, much less gouge an eye.
It’s too bad, really, because if Percy had even a small streak of meanness in him, he’d have an easy timewith Seith.
But that’s not Percy’s style. So, like Nice Norbert, he is going to spend the rest of the campaign wondering what hit him. Or more accurately, what kicked him.
Too bad. If he’d play by Seith’s rules, at least we’d have a fair fight. Or at least a fight that is fair in its unfairness.
In the same vein was a report on the NBC Nightly News on October 30 by correspondent-turned-political-advisor Jim Cummins:
Seith has also waged a hard-hitting, negative media campaign, that features commercials like one that plays only on black radio stations and implies Percy is a racist …Millionaire businessman Percy has ducked most of his opponent’s punches with polite commercials… Commercials like that have not kept Charles Percy out front, so now he must return some punches in this campaign if he hopes to be reelected.
Having all but announced at the Oak Brook debate that he intended to sully Seith in return, and with this unusual plenary indulgence from the press in his back pocket, Percy set to work. Part of his counterattack was fairly orthodox. Several anti-Chicago-machine black activists, nominally Democrats, endorsed Percy in a series of press conferences. These included the Reverend Jesse Jackson, head of Operation PUSH and a longtime Percy backer, and John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. Most of them protested that Percy had an exemplary civil rights record, or that he “listened” or “worked closely” with them or their groups. None of them took on the specific issue of why Percy was now calling for the return to office of a man who had slandered their race.
Jesse Jackson and Muhammad Ali also cut radio spots endorsing Percy. These spots were run on the same black stations as the Butz spot. Ali urged black voters to “be a champ, and listen to Ali; vote for Percy, and pull lever lB.”
Newspaper ad formats were also run in black newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender, featuring Percy and Ali. “Still the Greatest!” they described Percy. They also quoted Ali as saying, ” I don’t know anybody who has been more outspoken against racism than Sen. Percy. He’ll get my vote,” claimed the non-voting Muslim Ali, “and I’m asking that you give him yours.”
In addition, during the last two weeks of the campaign carloads of prominent Republicans came flooding into the state on Percy’s behalf, including Ronald Reagan and Rep. Jack Kemp of New York. On one day alone, six United States Senators spread out across the state stumping for their colleague. “And several,” reported the Sun-Times, “were even more indignant than Percy when criticizing Seith’s campaign tactics.”
Sen. Jacob K. Javits, of New York, said that to have Percy “by implication, blasted by charges of racism is absolutely ridiculous.” “I come from Rhode Island where we play some pretty hardball politics,” chimed in Sen. John Chafee. “And I can’t believe the people of Illinois will fall for this kind of claptrap.”
Connecticut Sen. Lowell P. Weicker told a Percy fundraising breakfast in downtown Chicago, “The sleaziness of Mr. Seith’s campaign has gone across the borders of Illinois and is known even in New England.” Seith was using “toilet tactics,” he averred, and Illinois voters should “pull Seith’s chain” on November 7.
For its part, the press did almost everything in its power to distort or misreport the substance of the spot itself. Most news reports simply stated that the spot “implied” Percy was a racist, or “accused” him of being one, without ever reporting the statement referred to on the spot, or explaining the actual connection being made between Percy and Butz.
Even when portions of the actual script of the spot were used in news reports, they were often either misquoted or distorted in ways that lost the main point of the ad. Perhaps the most inexcusably inept — if not inflammatory — editing was on an October 30 CBS Evening News report on the Illinois race. Correspondent Dan Rather referred to Seith’s “special radio ads, targeted toward special audiences,” and noted that they had been called “by Percy, and by others, ‘negative’ and ‘outrageous.'”
The picture then cut to film of a tape running on a reel-to-reel player in a radio station, with a black deejay behind the board. The audio was a portion of the Butz spot:
Do you think Sen. Charles Percy is a friend of black people? Well, remember Earl Butz? He was that secretary of agriculture who made a racist and sexually obscene joke about blacks. Sen. Percy wants the black vote, and with friends like this, you don’t need enemies.
The report included no indication that the spot millions of people had just heard had been edited in any way. But the edit had cut out the very heart of the spot: Percy’s call for the return to office of Earl Butz.
Viewers were left with a spot that didn’t even make sense. Many who had heard this version — millions more, of course, than ever heard the actual spot on radio — were left with the impression that we were implying that since Percy was a friend of Earl Butz, and Butz had told a racial joke, Percy was therefore an enemy of black people. Such a tenuous connection would have been absurd, and such a spot would have never been put on the air.
Percy never really attempted to deny the Butz remarks. He did engage frequently in defenses of his civil rights record, and at first attempted to explain away his call for Butz’ return by claiming he was talking only about his support for the former secretary’s agricultural policies. As the campaign wore on and he became more brash, however, he even began repeating his call for the return of Earl Butz — much to our astonishment.
Even more incredible were the lengths to which the press would go in attempting to explain away the very remarks that Percy himself refused to disavow, and was now repeating. Typical of the mental gymnastics that characterized these attempts was this interview by National Public Radio’s Scott Simon of Tony Schwartz, conducted on October 27:
SIMON: The quote that’s attributed to Sen. Percy — do you have any information on where and when he said it?
SCHWARTZ: You could call Alex Seith’s office and they’ll tell you exactly where that came from and when it was made.
SIMON: Okay, he doesn’t deny saying that, or something resembling it, on any number of instances, at any rate. I guess what I want to get to is something more like this: Sen. Percy says that he was the first national Republican to specifically call for Earl Butz’s resignation.
SCHWARTZ: I agree, and I thought he was wonderful for doing it. Then why is he changing his tune? He was speaking to farmers, and thought he could make hay by telling them he’d like to have Butz back. But…he forgot that he was on media and it was heard by other people.
SIMON: So you are equating that remark that Sen. Percy made with a full renunciation of the very long and formal-
SCHWARTZ: No, I’m equating it with thoughtlessness…Let’s make two assumptions: One, that he honestly came out against Butz for Butz’s original statement, feeling that it was a very bad thing to say and reflected upon Butz as an individual and as a person in public service. Now, if that is true, why has he changed?
SIMON: Sen. Percy would argue that he has not changed.
SCHWARTZ: Don’ttell mewhathewouldsay. I’m asking you what you think. You’re asking me what I think. I’m not talking to Sen. Percy, I’m talking to you. Why do you think Sen. Percy now says it would be good to have Butz back, whereas at that time he thought it was good to remove him?
SIMON: Well, you know, I thinkyou’resettingup a question, and both ends of it I don’t find would meet. I think he specifically called for Butz’s resignation because he disliked the joke that Earl Butz made.
SCHWARTZ: All right, now why do you think it is okay to have Butz back again?
SIMON: I don’t think — you know, I don’t think he would-
SCHWARTZ: Percy said that.
SIMON: But has he said that really?
SCHWARTZ: Yes! You just told me he agrees to his having said it.
SIMON: Yes, well, his interpretation of the remark, though, is that the context of it was that he was talking about the present Carter administration’s farm policies.
SCHWARTZ: There’sa differencebetweensayingI’dlike to have a criminal back, or one thing a criminal ~id. I mean, you could say that you liked certain aspects of Nixon’s foreign policies, but this was a man who broke the laws of the United States and was for all practical purposes impeached. Now, he did many good things, but you could ask for these things back again without asking for him back again.
Even one of the national networks felt compelled to get into the act of absolving Percy before its audience. A report on the NBC Nightly News on October 30 noted the Butz spot, and played a portion of another spot we had produced which followed up on the first, but which also contained the simple and factual statement that “Sen. Charles Percy says he’d like to see Butz back in office.” Two nights later on the same program, anchorman John Chancellor reported a “political footnote:”
The other night we had a report on the contest in Illinois between Sen. Charles Percy and his Democratic challenger Alex Seith. We heard part of a radio advertisement supporting Seith in which Percy was quoted as saying nice things about Earl Butz, who, you will recall, was forced to resign as secretary of agriculture after he had made a slur on blacks. We did not report that Percy had called for Butz’s resignation in 1976, and we report it now to keep the record straight.
Against this background of widespread press efforts to keep his record “straight,” Percy began another clever diversionary campaign. Rather than addressing himself to the implications of inconsistency and insensitivity in the Butz spot, Percy attempted to deflect the controversy onto 1) where the spot was being aired, 2) who had produced it, and 3) where the money was coming from to pay for it.
In late October in St. Louis, Missouri, Percy announced he was “taking the gloves off to do mortal battle.” He called Seith an “ineffectual puppet” of Tony Schwartz, and said “I was doing fine as long as my opponent was Alex Seith. My opponent now is Tony Schwartz.” Percy went on:
Suddenly, this stuff’s beamed in on television and radio…beamed into the black community, my support for Earl Butz, and then telling the racist joke, the implication being that Chuck Percy somehow approves of racism… My opponent now is Tony Schwartz. What are his credentials about Illinois? How can he possibly write this stuff in New York, putting it on with the money that Alex Seith personallynand his wife and familynpouring into this campaign…If this works, it will be one of the worst things that’s ever happened to American politics. If you can buy into an election with this tactic and this below-the-belt technique, with a hired gun from New York, save us then from the future, if television and radio can be used for that purpose.
There was absolutely no more bogus an issue than the suggestion that there was something underhanded about our placement of the spot on black radio stations. Targeted media buying is a skilled art and an accepted practice in political advertising as well as in product advertising. The media themselves target programming, running soap operas in time slots when housewives will watch them, children’s programs while the children are still up.
Of course, had we been airing one spot which said one thing in certain markets, and another with a contradictory message elsewhere, we could have been accused of duplicity. This was not the case. We had no problems with anybody hearing our interpretation of Percy’s Butz remarks, and had even discussed producing another version for farm voters downstate. Besides, by the time this complaint surfaced, the Butz spot was well known throughout the state through the massive media coverage of it.
To top it all off, Percy’s black commercials were running — logically enough — on the same black radio stations as were ours. Yet no one in the media asked him the equally ludicrous question as to why his Jesse Jackson endorsement spot was not running in white areas downstate.
However, the press picked up this non-issue and pursued it. Nearly every reference to the Butz spot in the electronic media and in print was accompanied by the Machiavellian-sounding note that it was being played “only,” “solely,” or “exclusively” on black radio stations. Never was this identified as a common practice in reaching diversified audiences with specialized information. The impression was that we were trying to hide our “shameful” tactics from the general population.
On October24, WBBMNewsradio (CBS) in Chicagotapeda joint interview with Percy and Seith for the station’s regularly scheduled “At Issue” program. One exchange in that heated encounter pointed up the obsession of the press with this spurious issue:
JOHN MADIGAN, Moderator: Mr. Seith, do you intend to continue to use [the Butz] commercial for the rest of the campaign?
SEITH: We have a commercial on the air now that addresses exactly this point.
MADIGAN: And you use it on black and white stations?
SEITH: We use it where everybody hears it.
MADIGAN: Has it been on white stations? White-oriented stations in Chicago?
SEITH: First of all, there is no such thing as black stations —
PERCY: There is too.
MADIGAN: I have a second word: “white-oriented” stations as against black stations.
PERCY: Is WVON essentially a black station?
SEITH: We have played it on a whole —
PERCY: Is that where your commercial is running?
SEITH: Among others, yes.
PERCY: Among other black stations. Name one station essentially looked upon as a station with a broad spectrum that you’ve run that commercial.
SEITH: Get to — wait a minute, let’s get to the basic fact that Mr. Percy-
PERCY: .Answer the question.
BOB HILLMAN, Chicago Sun-Times: Could you name me three down state markets that commercial is playing in? You said it’s playing statewide.
SEITH: Well, Bob, I don’t myself go into the business of placing them. As anybody knows who is in the business of having a campaign, you have someone whose job it is to locate stations and do the placing.
HILLMAN: Then you do not know of any downstate radio stations?
SEITH: There are downstate stations, I just can’t rattle them off to you.
No less guileful were Percy’s efforts to make an issue of Tony Schwartz — obviously a calculated attempt to precipitate questions among Illinois voters about the use of a “New York ad man” to produce our commercials. Although the use of outside media consultants used to be an issue in some campaigns, the practice has become a common necessity in modern campaigns, with candidates of both parties outbidding each other to hire the better ones. Most of them are New York-or D.C.-based.
In fact Percy had retained the Washington firm of Bailey, Deardourff & Associates to produce his media and buy time for it. A well-known firm which handles mostly moderate Republican candidates, Bailey, Deardourff was a familiar quantity to the Illinois press. They had handled Governor James Thompson’s campaign in 1976, and were also handling his 1978 reelection effort in addition to Percy’s. But Percy’s calculated hypocrisy in making an issue of our use of an “out-of-state” consultant was never addressed in the news media.
In New York, Schwartz eventually became so swamped and harassed by press calls from Illinois that he had to stop accepting them altogether. At one point, this intense focus on Schwartz prompted one reporter to note that although Schwartz’s name was not on the ballot in Illinois, he had heard his name “more often than that of either of the formal candidates for senator.” As the campaign ended, I was convinced that many voters had begun to believe that Percy was running a homegrown campaign against a New York villain.
Percy also endeavored to make an issue out of the fact that Seith was financing most of his campaign himself. This fact showed up on Federal Election Commission reports, and we never made any secret of it. As a little-known challenger for most of the campaign, Seith never expected to raise the substantial amount of money necessary to defeat Percy. As a millionaire, he did have considerable personal resources.
Press depictions of spending in the race, however, began to suggest that while Seith was “pouring” money into his campaign, Percy was running some sort of hardscrabble effort. The November 6 Time magazine reported:
With a wife who comes from a wealthy Rochester, N.Y., family Seith has poured $600,000 of his own and his wife’s money into the campaign. Percy, stunned by his new underdog status, finds himself short on funds and has had to spend $100,000 from his personal bank account. He is now pleading for contributions to finance a last-minute TV blitz he hopes…will turn the election around.
The impression left with the otherwise uninformed voter by many of these press reports was that Seith was outspending Percy overall. By focusing on the relative personal contributions rather than the overall spending totals — which were available for all to inspect in the two campaigns’ FEC reports — the press lent credence to Percy’s charge that Seith was attempting. to “buy” the election.
Only several weeks after the election, in late December, did a Sun-Times series point out the true fact: Seith had been outspent by Percy $2.4 million to just over $1 million. Percy’s campaign was described as “larded with the readily available contribution cash from a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of the rich.” The list of special interest PAC contributions to the Percy campaign was “several yards in length,” the story noted. And Percy had “poured” $475,000 of his own money into his campaign coffers.
In the face of all these diversionary tactics, we seemed utterly powerless to goad, shame, or convince the press to ask Percy the simple, straightforward question that we were asking: If you wanted Earl Butz out of office in 1976, why do you now want him back in office?
Only once, near the end of the campaign, was that question put to Percy in a public forum by a member of the press.. The scene was the taping of a candidates’ forum on WTTW-TV, Chicago’s public television station. One of the panelists questioning Percy and Seith was Lois Wille, associate editor of the Sun-Times. After the typical intensive grilling of Seith over the Butz spot, Wille — no admirer of Seith — asked Percy: “Sen. Percy, everyone seems to be asking Mr. Seith why he is asking why you said you want Earl Butz back again. But I want to ask you, Why are you saying it? Does it represent a subtle attempt to appeal to certain voters by winking at the remarks Butz made about black people?”
Percy was not used to fielding this simple and obvious question. Unnerved and discomfited, he squirmed and sputtered. Of course he didn It mean it that way; how could anyone think he would dosomethinglikethat? Butthere wasnofollow-up,and the issue was dropped. Press coverage of the forum centered on Seith’s defense of the Butz spot.
Washington Post writer Robert G. Kaiser was in Illinois to cover the race and the WTTW taping. His front-page account in the Post was headlined: “Who is Alex Seith, and why is he saying those terribly effective but outrageously inaccurate things about Charles Percy?” Kaiser wrote:
In the closing days of the campaign, Seith and his media campaign have become Percy’s principal issues. The senator charges that Seith’s smooth commercials have implied… he was a racist. Many members of the Illinois establishment seem to agree.
In a joint TV appearance Tuesday night, Seith… defended the radio spot by saying, “It doesn’t imply [that Percy] is a racist, and anyone who says so is not listening.”
A TV reporter questioning Seith replied, “I’m listening,Mr. Seith, and I say it implies that.” That riposte was typical of the harsh treatment Seith now receives in the media here.
With Seith softened for the kill, the final coup de grace of the Percy counterattack had nothing to do directly with the Butz spot. But the rabid reaction of the press to the spot itself gave Percy the opening he needed.
On Friday, October 27, Paul Marcy, executive secretary of the Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals, was found guilty of tax evasion stemming from a $55,000 bribe he was accused of receiving in 1970. Stories the next day noted that Seith, as the appointed chairman of the zoning board, had testified at Marcy’s trial as a “character witness.” Even though Seith was called to testify by the defense under threat of subpoena, he testified only about zoning board procedures, and stated that to his knowledge Marcy had had no influence on the outcome of the particular zoning case in question.
During Seith’s nine-year tenure as chairman, there had never been even the hint of a scandal involving himself. Seith had been given the Cook County Public Service Award for his highly praised leadership of the board, and even his critics admitted he had run the board “fair and square.”
That same day, however, the expected Percy onslaught began. Campaign spokesman Pat Yack was quoted as saying the conviction of Marcy “would lead one to wonder about his relationship with Alex Seith.” He also made reference to Mike Royko’s Sun-Times column of the same day which suggested that Percy had been too gentlemanly in responding to Seith’s commercials. It took no great insight to anticipate that we had not seen the last of this matter. What we didn’t anticipate was that Percy would be handed the ax for his final blow by the same press source that advocated he respond in the first place.
On Sunday, October 29, Mike Royko published a second column which questioned Seith’s character in graphic language. Noting the conviction of Paul Marcy, Royko again alleged that Marcy had crime syndicate connections. Although he did not imply that Seith was also personally connected to the “mob,” he did castigate Seith’s appearance at Marcy’s trial, suggesting that Seith had actually defended Marcy’s character in his testimony.
“I’m sure Seith thinks it’s not sporting of me to mention that he was a character witness for Marcy,” Royko taunted. “But there is an old saying in politics: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Start scratching, Mr. Seith.”
On that same day, Seith was asked by reporters accompanying him on a downstate swing about the Marcy conviction. Seith replied that Marcy should resign immediately, but noted that Marcy was an employee of the Cook County Board, and that he had no removal authority over him. This was corroborated by County Board President George Dunne, who several days later removed Marcy.
On Friday, November 3, Percy struck. Full page ads in every daily newspaper in the state but one, the two St. Louis papers, the Gary, Indiana, Post-Tribune, and several suburban weeklies reprinted in its entirety the October 29 Royko column. Not content with the malicious connotations of the column itself, the Percy ad formats added the provocative and inflammatory headline: “Pulitzer Prize Winner Mike Royko tells more about the mobs, the Chicago machine, and Alex Seith.”
This unvarnished attempt to link Seith with the mob five days before the election jolted even Percy’s running mate, Governor James Thompson, who publicly stated he thought it was going too far. The Danville Commercial-News, a Gannett paper, refused to run the ad after their home office legal department in New York advised them that it might libel Seith.
Even the pro-Percy Sun-Times management, after an angry phone call from Seith to Editor James Hoge — a Yale classmate — admitted that Percy had violated the reprint agreement by adding the headline, and directed that it be removed in any future reprints
There were no future reprints, but the damage, of course, had been done. The supposedly nonpartisan source of the innuendo against Seith — Mike Royko — combined with the guilt-by-association headline added by the Percy campaign, had indelibly given rise to the notion in many minds that there was something shadowy — if not downright criminal — about Seith.
To attempt to salvage his reputation and our campaign, Seith held a quickly-called press conference soon after we saw the ad. He denounced Percy’s low blow, and gave notice that he would be confronting Percy personally on the subject in just a few hours. That confrontation was to take place later that evening at a joint taping of the “Newsmakers” interview show on WBBM-TV, Chicago’s CBS affiliate.
That encounter was originally planned as a 30-minute taping, to conform to the length of the program. It ended up as an incredible gO-minute free-for-all with the cameras running. Seith railed at Percy in a not-too-gentlemanly way over the inflammatory headline, and demanded an apology in front of his wife, who was in the studio. Percy, in an ironic admission given his criticism of our use of Tony Schwartz, claimed that he had not seen the headline before it appeared in the ad, and that his “manager” had apparently added it without Percy’s specific authorization. But he defended the addition as a fair summation of the contents of the column, and refused to apologize during the taping.
After the candidates had left the set, Percy was cornered by a gaggle of reporters in a narrow hallway in the CBS studios. Penned in and bombarded with questions about the “mob” ad, Percy at last relented: “There is no connection between Mr. Seith and the mob. I do apologize if the Seith family has been hurt by this headline.”
But even Percy’s reluctant apology was lost on the average voter. Right after its issuance, Percy momentarily fainted, doubling over on the studio floor. The headlines and news reports that night and the next day dealt more with his fainting spell than his dispelling of any connection between Seith and the mob. Meanwhile, the “mob” ad sat on millions of coffee tables throughout Illinois.
After the 10:00 p.m. news that night on WBBM-TV, the station broadcast the entire uncut version of the taping earlier that day. The broadcast drew a huge audience, sweeping both the Nielsen and Arbitron ratings in that time slot. After the showing of the tape, several reporters and anchormen from the station sat live at the anchor desk discussing the wild events of the day.
Even in the face of Percyapology, one of them couldn’t resist the temptation to get Percy off the hook one last time. Walter Jacobson, WBBM’s garrulous anchorman, left the viewers with this unbelievable verdict from the viewpoint of an “objective” newsman:
I would like to observe that Alex Seith appeared to me to appear throughout our broadcast as a man who was really wronged by that Percy commercial. In fact, we said that Percy apologized, and Alex Seith went into a monologue there for a few minutes explaining how he reacted to the apology. We completely overlooked the fact that Alex Seith started all this. I mean, to suggest that Charles Percy was a racist in those campaign ads of his is really, it seems to me — and I’m trying to be as objective as possible — no better if not worse than Percy alluding to the possibility that Alex Seith might have some connection to the syndicate through the zoning board. What we ought to be doinguand it’s very hard to do — is find out what are the merits and the demerits of the charges in each case. Charles Percy, I can say, is not a racist. Alex Seith’s connection to whatever, through zoning in Chicago, is a question. I mean, that’s how I look at it as a reporter — which is not to say that I would favor Percy or Seith. If it comes out sounding that way, then help me here.
It had been some kind of successful counterattack, thanks to the press.
Not until Percy’s frantic managers shifted the spotlight from taxes to Seith’s campaign tactics did the tide turn in the polls… “What we had to do was change this from a referendum on Percy into a look at his opponent,” a Percy manager told us.
Evans & Novak
November 6, 1978
On election day, November 7, Percy won reelection 53 to 47 percent. “This race was not only tough, it was humbling,” Percy told election night supporters. “But I got the message.”
This “message” Percy referred to was the theme of a last-minute mea culpa that Bailey, Deardourff created for Percy in the waning days of the campaign. Time, in its post-election wrap-up, described that spot:
There, in a 3D-second television commercial, was the usually dapper and composed Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, looking haggard and close to tears. Staring straight ahead into the camera, the onetime presidential aspirant implored millions of unseen viewers: “I got your message and you’re right. Washington has gone overboard, and I’m sure that I’ve made my share of mistakes. But in truth, your priorities are mine too. Stop the waste. Cut the spending. Cut the tax.”
“The polls say many of you want to send me a message,” Percy went on. “But after Tuesday I may not be in the Senate to receive it. I’m not ready to quit now, and I don’t want to be fired.”
Many in the press credited this unusually frank televised admission of economic sinfulness with bringing Percy back from a supposed “17-point deficit at one point in the campaign.” The commercial was obviously a crafty strategem designed to appeal to the voters’ propensity to forgive if asked. But there had never been anything approaching a 17-point lead for Seith. In fact, Percy may never have actually trailed at all.
Our polls showed a great deal of momentum for us, but never a statistically significant lead. For example, an early September poll conducted for us by the National Center for Telephone Research in New York pegged Seith 30 points behind Percy, 26.0 to 55.7. That was before our media campaign began. By mid-October, the last poll we took boosted Seith to 44.5, with Percy at 42.8 — a difference which fell within the 3 percent margin of error.
Percy never trailed in his own polls. A Market Opinion Research survey conducted for him and reported on October 20 showed Percy with a 52-48 lead. Of course, for the strategic purposes of his counterattack, it was convenient for Percy to accept the underdog role conferred on him by the Sun-Times poll.
On Monday, October 30, the Sun-Times reported the first sampling in its second straw poll sweep. Those ballots gave Seith nearly a 17-point margin. But we never took those numbers seriously, and neither did the Percy camp. Only a relatively small number of ballots were included from a handful of areas in the state — hardly a representative sample. As more straws were added to the total, and as more areas began to come in, the artificial gap began to close. By the Sunday before the election, with the second round completed, Seith’s lead was miniscule — 50.4 to 49.6. It was too close to call.
Although many voters and some in the press may have believed that Percy faced a huge deficit in the polls, the Percy campaign knew better. The race was merely evening up, and their strategy had to be to stop Seith’s momentum, then chip away if they could at what support he had mustered. While the mea culpa spot was great theatre, it did little to knock Seith down to size. That was the purpose of the counterattack against the Butz spot and our “campaign tactics,” followed by the “mob” advertisements.
The efficacy of the Percy counterattack can perhaps most graphically be gauged by the depictions of Seith in editorial cartoons that appeared around the state. Before the Butz controversy erupted, the dominant Seith image in these trusty barometers was a wholly benign, rather quixotic one. Pokes were taken at his lack of campaign contributions and low name recognition. Because he was a foreign affairs expert by background, some caricatures suggested he was boring people to death with lectures on arcane aspects of international relations — although the truth was Seith never gave a foreign policy address during the entire campaign.
Once the Butz spot controversy began to dominate the news media, the caricatures turned ugly. Suddenly, Seith was depicted in grotesque fashion as, among other things, a madman wielding a hatchet, a werewolf, a goblin with a bag of money, a dunce, and a garbage man. One of the most malevolent was never run. It was sent by its creator to his subscribers for use after the election in case of a Seith victory. In this one, Seith was drawn as a vicious-looking genie, holding a sword labelled “campaign tactics” which is dripping with blood. Blood is also spattered on the wall behind him. “I won, didnIt I?” exults the evil-eyed Seith. (A selection of these cartoons is included at the end of this section.)
Another curious result of the Percy counteroffensive was the effect it had on the public’s perceptions of our commercials. Until Percy and the press began to tell people they were “dirty,” hardly anyone thought they were. Day after day in the release of the early Sun-Times straw poll results, people marking their ballots for Seith told poll takers they were doing so on the basis of having seen or heard a Seith commercial. If there was any significant negative reaction at this early point, it was never reported.
Admittedly, many of the spots we were running were anti-Percy, or “negative.” To test their so-called “wear rate” — whether people seeing or hearing them over and over were being turned off by them — we developed a special question for our October poll. Of those respondents who had seen or heard a Seith ad, only 11.3 percent even thought they were “negative.” When asked their impressions of the spots they had seen or heard, 46.6 said they were favorably or very favorably impressed. Only 3.0 viewed them unfavorably at that point.
In a post-election piece in Illinois Issues magazine, media columnist Tom Littlewood — a former Sun-Times reporter — noted the press Is preoccupation with our media campaign: “[Seith] was being riddled with criticism for his ‘negative’ Butz racism commercial, although as far as I am aware this was the only Seith spot that went beyond the limits of aggressive but fair campaigning against a senator with a long record.”
Unquestionably, the “mob” ad was the devastating blow. After the Royko column was reprinted, we had to remove Seith from street campaigning due to the harassment he was receiving from ordinary people. Epithets of “gangster” or “mobster” were sometimes heard. Even our volunteers passing out leaflets calling attention to a half-hour TV show we were running the night before the election were coming back to the campaign office with reports of nasty incidents.
Percy was successful, with the all-too-willing help of the press, in depicting Seith as mean, vicious, underhanded, etc., through his false characterizations of our media campaign. From there, it was only a small step to stretch people’s credulity just a bit further by intimating that Seith may even have mobster connections, or be possessed of a criminal nature himself. And the Royko columns gave the Percy campaign the ammunition to do just that. “The Royko columns were invaluable,” Percy was quoted as saying after the election. His campaign manager agreed that “our use of the Royko columns caused quite a stir in the coffeeshops downstate.” In Littlewood’s analysis, he noted the only daily newspaper in the state to refuse to run the Royko ad was the Danville Commercial-News. “Any lingering doubt about Royko’s impact can be dispelled by a look at Vermilion County,” Littlewood wrote. “Although Vermilion is a staunch Republican county, Democrat Seith carried it on election day.” Danville is the county seat of Vermilion County.
Another media watcher, Chicago magazine’s Paul McGrath, wrote a February, 1981, piece in that magazine entitled “The Wayward Press: Celebrity Reporters and the Loss of Objectivity.” Lamenting that “nobody watches the journalists,” the journalist wrote:
One reporter — Mike Royko — may have more power over the outcome of local elections than was exercised by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, whom Royko wrote about in “Boss”… His columnsmay have savedSenatorCharlesPercy from extinction in his race against Alex Seith.
Comparing Royko with Daley may involve a bit of hyperbole. But the press’s role on Percy’s behalf in the 1978 campaign certainly lends credence to Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne’s statement that reporters are the new precinct captains.
Not “Because Charles Percy tolerates the Earl Butz insult to blacks,” but “Because Charles Percy wants… the man who made that statement back again.” That’s what I would have changed if I did anything.
Interviewed on Aug. 10, 1979
What went wrong with the Butz spot? How could what we thought was an airtight case against Percy unravel, and be turned back onto Seith with such ferocity? With the benefit of hindsight, there were several ways the message of the spot could have been made less ambiguous, less subject to misinterpretation, thereby minimizing any potential backlash effect.
Of course, every campaign takes on a dynamic of its own. A unique synergism develops among the various elements involved — the candidates, the issues, campaign media, media coverage of the campaign, development of contemporaneous events, etc. No analysis of the use of media in one campaign can have universal application to every other. But in looking back at this incredible episode in campaign advertising, some lessons can be drawn which should be considered in the planning and execution of campaign media.
1. Make sure each spot says exactly what you want it to.
A 60-second radio spot will usually contain only about 150 words, a typical 3D-second TV spot usually less than half that many. The Butz spot consisted of exactly 152 words. Because of the word economy necessary in a spot, words must be used sparingly. Because of the powerful impact of electronic media upon people, each word must be chosen carefully, each phrase cautiously constructed. The object is to clearly and concisely convey your message, avoiding the unintended “loaded” word or inflammatory phrase that can detract from that message — even changing the message in the ear or eye of the hearer or viewer.
The primary point of the Butz spot, in our minds, was not that Percy was a racist. Although we had historical evidence that he had played games with black issues in past campaigns, we had no reason to believe he was prejudiced against blacks. Certainly his Senate record never indicated that, and Seith made that point several times over the course of the campaign.
Rather, we were attempting to paint a picture in the Butz spot of duplicity and insensitivity. Our polling data indicated that voters saw Percy as essentially fuzzy on the issues, inclined to speak out of both sides of his mouth given the audience he was speaking to. The Butz spot was intended to capitalize on this feeling, showing Percy saying something to one audience that he would clearly not want another audience — in this case blacks — to hear. It was a “racial” spot only in the sense that we thought the subject matter would be of interest to blacks.
But the message of duplicity and insensitivity was eclipsed totally by the perception that the spot accused Percy of being racist. Once that perception became widespread, we knew that the spot had turned into a liability for us. We knew that people already had an intuitive feeling that Percy was wishy-washy; all we had to do to successfully capitalize on that was to fill in the blanks with actual instances of Percy’s flip-flopping or inconsistency. But people had no perception of Percy as a racist, and any allegation that he was one would obviously meet with incredulity and rejection.
The offending words in the Butz spot were “racist” — used in describing the Earl Butz joke — and the phrase “Because Charles Percy tolerates the Earl Butz insult to blacks.” Obviously, the Butz joke was racist, and in that sense our describing it as such was factual. But whenever a loaded word like “racist” is combined in a spot with the name of an opponent, a combustible situation results. The ear will make a connection, whether that word is used to describe the opponent himself or someone altogether different.
We also thought that Percy was ipso facto tolerating Butz’s insult by asking for his return. But that statement in the spot could arguably have been construed by an intelligent listener to suggest that Percy had condoned the racist joke when it was made.
We did not at the time the spot was made have any information about Percy’s reaction in 1976 when Butz was caught making the joke. But we had no reason to assume that he had done other than condemn it, as did most other politicians who were asked. Because of this ambiguity, however, Percy was able to shift the focus from his call for Butz’s return in 1978 to his condemnation of the remarks themselves in 1976 — thereby destroying the credibility of the spot.
How could we have constructed the Butz spot to make our point, while avoiding the possibility of misinterpretation or purposeful distortion? Several versions would have been possible. This might have been one:
Do you ever get the feeling that Sen. Charles Percy says one thing one day, and something totally different on another? Well, you could have felt that way recently when Sen. Percy said, and I quote, “I wish Earl Butz were secretary of agriculture still today.” Now, you may remember that Earl Butz was fired as secretary of agriculture in 1976 because he told a crude and insulting joke about black people. What did Sen. Percy say at that time? He said that Butz Is remarks were “tasteless”and “unfortunate,” and that Butz should resign, that he had forfeited his right to hold public office. So why does Percy now want this same man back in office? That’s a good question. Sen. Percy, you can’t have it both ways.
Do you want Butz in, or do you want Butz out?
This version would have resembled most of our other spots structurally and substantively. Many of them were designed to point out inconsistencies in Percy’s record or public statements. For example, one radio spot and a TV spot mentioned that Percy had opposed a 10 percent tax cut barely a year before in 1977, but that he was now making such a cut one of his campaign planks. Another noted that Percy had been appointed to the Appropriations Committee not long after he went to the Senate. Percy was quoted at that time as saying that that committee was the most important in the Senate. Barely a year later, the spot pointed out, Percy left Appropriations for the Foreign Relations Committee, saying preposterously that Appropriations really didn’t do very important work anyway.
In addition, this version of the spot could conceivably have been played on both black and farm-area radio, thereby obviating the attack against our use of the spot on black stations only. By working Percy’s earlier call for Butz’s resignation into the spot, that line of attack would also have been circumvented.
Would it have worked? That is hard to say, but the possibilities that the spot could have boomeranged would have been severely diminished, and the point of the spot would have been made much more clearly and credibly.
2. Carefully consider the purpose of each spot.
In designing campaign media, careful thought must be given to the purpose of each spot. If no clear purpose can be articulated, then that spot should probably not be prepared and run.
The purpose of the Butz spot was less to sway black voters than to unnerve Percy psychologically. In retrospect, we should not have utilized a spot dealing with a subject as volatile as race to do that. Many of our other spots were also designed to do the same thing, and they dealt with less volatile issues such as taxes, government spending, and cutting the bureaucracy. The Butz spot in this regard was an unnecessary poison dart in a media attack that already contained a lot of heavy artillery.
The Butz spot probably ended up doing us little good with black voters. It may have hurt us. Seith ended up carrying 18 of the 19 predominantly black wards in Chicago, but as the Democratic organization-endorsed candidate he probably would have carried those wards anyway without any special effort in the black community. We would have been better advised to confine our expenditure of media money in the black community to the same sort of celebrity endorsement spots that Percy used.
3. Insure flexibility in the spot mix.
When our media was prepared, we faced a 30-point deficit in the polls. We saw no prospect that the press would cover the campaign to any great extent, so our ability to engender “unpaid” media was limited. We reasoned that if we were to have any chance of overcoming the numbers and beating Percy, our media campaign would have to consist of a powerful and persistent attack against him. In this sense, it is true that we were attempting to ride an anti-Percy tide. Our media producers agreed with this analysis.
For this reason, we had produced very little “soft” media. We did two versions of a radio bio on Seith, and several spots dealt with his positions on a handful of issues. But for the most part, our spots were anti-Percy. Out of 22 radio spots, 17 of them contained specific criticism of Percy. Of our 13 TV spots, 9 of them were critical of Percy or his stand on various issues.
All of this was very effective initially, as witnessed by our quick climb in the polls. But once the brouhaha over the Butz spot had developed, leading to intense criticism by Percy and the press over our “campaign tactics,” people began to listen to and view our commercials in a different light. We began feeding our own executioner by continuing to play the same “negative” spots that Percy and the press were referring to.
As soon as the criticism of our media took hold, we should have switched to mainly soft spots which emphasized Seith’s background and stands on the issues. By that time, our name recognition was high enough, and our anti-Percy campaign had been effective enough, that further use of the critical commercials was probably unnecessary. But we had not prepared enough soft media, and to remove all the critical spots from the air would have left us with a severely reduced air presence while the Percy campaign was buying every time slot available.
4. Make sure your commercials do not conflict with, or inadvertently exaggerate, the image of the candidate that you are trying to project.
Part of our campaign strategy from the start was to project Seith as a strong, tough, no-nonsense candidate. Seith made this easy. A weightlifter, he was extremely well-built. We decided to subtly use his physique to suggest strength of character and intellect as well. Our campaign poster utilized a photograph of Seith in a body-exposing knit shirt. Seith also spoke in a blunt, direct manner, and his gestures were very forceful.
All of this, we believed, would contrast favorably with Percy’s slight frame, and his penchant for flowery rhetoric when a simple statement of fact would have sufficed. The result we hoped for, of course, was to provoke at least a subconscious comparison in the voters’ minds about which candidate had the strength and toughness necessary to deal with tough issues.
All of our radio spots utilized a professional announcer’s voice. Many of our TV spots, however, featured Seith himself directly criticizing Percy. In some of them, he looked visably angry or perturbed. One of them showed Seith talking to a small group of people under a tree. He tells them that Percy’s switch to support of a tax cut in an election year, after opposing such a cut just a year before, is “election bunk.” As he fairly spits out those words, the spot ends with a freeze frame of Seith in the middle of making a hand gesture. The visual effect was to suggest that he was about to give someone a karate chop.
All of this did make Seith look tough and stern. But it also made it far easier for Percy and his managers to transmogrify this image into one of being mean, nasty, pusillanimous, or bullyish — and ultimately mob-connected. In retrospect, we would have been better advised to allow the brunt of our attack to be carried by our professionally voiced radio spots, and the TV spots that did not contain Seith’s voice or image.
5. Handle press inquiries about your media campaign carefully, and as fully as your campaign strategy will allow.
One Chicago reporter complained that “while Percy’s office held a beer and popcorn party [for reporters] to screen its television commercials, Seith’s campaign manager said ‘watch them on TV’ and then refused to say what times they were running.”
There is some truth to this. Part of it devolves upon the differences between the two campaigns. Percy’s initial ads were bland and uncontroversial, plugging the wonderful things he had supposedly done for Illinois over the years. Our mix was heavily weighted with anti-Percy commercials, and we did not want to tip off the Percy campaign before they hit the air.
In addition, we had a very small staff for a major Senate campaign — only eight persons right up to election day. Percy’s paid staff was over five times as large. We simply did not have sufficient staff time to provide every reporter who asked with a breakdown of all of the time slots our time buyer was purchasing.
Reporters’ calls often did go unanswered for periods of time because of our lack of staff, particularly in the last two weeks after the Sun-Times poll broke, when the demands for the candidate increased geometrically. All of this could have suggested to the press that we had something to hide, and probably exacerbated the suspicion of many in the media that we were engaged in a duplicitous media effort.
With respect to the press, we could have handled the Butz spot in a better fashion. After the controversy erupted, we should have immediately offered the press a “hearing” of the spot in our campaign offices, providing reporters the documentation on which it was based. We should also have more quickly released a list of the small number of stations on which it was playing, and more forcefully rejected the suggestion that targeted media buying was suspect.
Seith too often confused this issue by pretending he did not know on what stations the spot was being aired. “It’s playing where everybody hears it,” he would retort. What he meant was that obviously some whites listen to black radio, and some of the stations we used had significant blocks of programming that were not designed primarily for blacks. But the impression was that he was suggesting the spot was playing on radio stations everywhere, and that plainly was not the case.
Of course, it will never be known whether any of these measures could have successfully forestalled Percy’s counterattack. But it is difficult to avoid speculation as to whether different handling of the Butz spot might have rendered it just another spot in a successful media campaign which defeated Charles Percy, instead of the cause celebre of which Advertising Age wrote: “With ads like this, advertising doesn’t need enemies.”