The selling of a president:

Published 1:04 am Sunday, May 25, 2008

By Staff
1968 versus 2008
In his book, “The Selling of the President, 1968,” author Joe McGinniss examines the repackaging of Richard Nixon during the presidential campaign of 1968. With his loss to John Kennedy in the battle for the White House in 1960, followed by his crushing defeat at the hands of Pat Brown in 1962’s California gubernatorial race, the press subsequently labeled Nixon a loser. Nixon himself thought his political career was finished.
Then in November 1963 came the unexpected — the assassination of President John Kennedy. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, eventually ended up presiding over an unpopular war in Vietnam. Add to that excessive federal spending and the tax increases to pay for it, and Johnson, one of the most skilled politicians ever, was in political trouble. Not only were Republicans anxious to have at him in the ’68 general election, but others within his party were ready to go after him as well. A fissure opened within the Democratic Party. In considering the rising tide of anti-war protests and demonstrations along with having to watch a protracted and contentious primary battle for his party’s nomination, Johnson decided not to seek another term.
Nixon now felt that, miraculously, the karma was with him. He saw an opening — one more attempt at the prize he believed was stolen by Jack Kennedy eight years earlier — the presidency of the United States.
In his book, McGinniss takes us behind the scenes to see how Nixon was packaged to appear as the strongest presidential candidate; someone who could bring an end to a war that was dividing America and get this nation back on track. He had, after all, been the vice president in Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, an eight-year period in the 1950s during which our nation enjoyed peace abroad and prosperity at home.
With very careful scripting, Nixon’s campaign capitalized on the increasingly important medium of television, ironically the same mass communication venue that failed him in the 1960 presidential debates with Kennedy. He successfully manipulated an unwitting and impatient public into believing that he possessed the leadership skills necessary to lead America over the next four years. Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace in 1974 — in the middle of his second term — his character flaws skillfully hidden from us until it was too late.
As in 1968, politicians today are also being sold as a product and/or super-heroes. Savvy marketing people are hired to convince the electorate that their candidates are best-suited for office. With all of the fanfare of a Hollywood studio introducing a new movie, each candidate is made to appear bigger than life.
Leadership is not necessarily revealed by a candidate’s skills at salesmanship, showmanship or staging. It should have nothing to do with trying to please everyone either, which in the end pleases no one. Leadership is about courage, not complacency. It’s about standing up for those beliefs one holds dear and that are deeply rooted within, no matter the cost.
Voters should consider candidates’ values because those qualities will influence a person’s behavior when faced with making decisions. What skills do the candidates possess that give them the knowledge and ability they’ll need in fulfilling their duties as our next commander and chief?
Voters need to examine very closely traits like honesty and competency, as well as courage, commitment and candor. Leaders are needed who will tell it like it is and then share their vision for the future.
In the 40 years since McGinniss completed his book, the actual selling of a president hasn’t changed all that much, but there are some new wrinkles added to the marketing mix — primarily the Internet, which fosters the blogosphere.
There are other similarities between the 1968 presidential election and this one. Johnson and Bush each had high approval ratings early in their presidencies, only to see them plummet as a result of unpopular wars. The opposition, then and now, wanted change. A candidate was marketed, then as an agent of change that unfortunately was not the change America really needed. A candidate for wholesale change is being marketed now. Will we make a similar mistake again this November?