New play ‘Daisy’ explores the commercial that changed U.S. politics
Jul 05, 2016
Originally published July 3, 2016
Originally appeared in the Seattle Times
The television commercial that changed American politics ran just once — but once was enough.
It was 1964 and Lyndon B. Johnson, who had become president only because John F. Kennedy was assassinated, was desperate to discredit his Republican presidential opponent, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater.
The “daisy ad,” as the commercial came to be known, starts with a young girl plucking petals off a daisy, incompetently counting to 10 (“four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine”) before an authoritative male voice takes over and counts down from 10 to zero. Then a nuclear mushroom cloud erupts and the little girl is presumably annihilated — and, the ad implies, it’s Goldwater’s fault.
“Daisy,” a world-premiere play at ACT Theatre by Sean Devine, dives into the eccentric characters behind the commercial. “Daisy” is, he said, one in a three-part series of plays about how American politics changed during the 1960s — it also follows in the wake of a recent obsession with the Johnson presidency, including multipartite biographies by Robert Caro, Robert Schenkkan’s two-part play “All the Way” (which ran at Seattle Repertory Theatre and has become an HBO movie starring Bryan Cranston) and now “Daisy.”
Through the course of the play we meet stern, African-American White House legal adviser Clifford (played by Tre Cotton) who’s deeply invested in getting Johnson re-elected to keep pushing for civil rights; a sweet but agoraphobic sound-engineering genius named Tony Schwartz who’s afraid of walking more than eight blocks from his apartment (Michael Gotch); a sharky ad boss (R. Hamilton Wright); an advertising copywriter who’s nervous about the idea of introducing attack ads into American politics (Kirsten Potter); a boisterous, “Mad Men”-style ad writer named Sid Myers (Connor Toms); and others who made “daisy” into a reality.
“The daisy ad,” said ACT artistic director John Langs, “was the first time the White House and Madison Avenue held hands” to run a serious attack-ad campaign during a presidential election.
Its legacy has come all the way to this year’s presidential campaign, with Trump launching ominous, old-fashioned black-and-white attack ads against Hillary Clinton. Eerie music plays in the background while women sob and talk about Bill Clinton’s sexual advances. The Clinton campaign also recently released an ad about Trump’s response to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. it ends with: “In a volatile world, the last thing we need is a volatile president.”
Attack ads — accurate or otherwise — have become part of our political metabolism.
In “Daisy,” the characters argue fiercely over whether inventing the country’s first successful attack ad is a good idea. “The Great Society isn’t going to come easy,” says Clifford, the White House liaison, in the middle of an argument about how far to push the ad campaign. “The president wants a landslide.”
“What did you call them, attack ads?” replies Louise, one of the ad copywriters. “You hired us to sell a product, which is the president.”
“Please,” Clifford says icily, “do not refer to the president as a product.”
But, “Daisy” argues, that commercial ushered in the era of politicians as products — whether we like it or not.
In a recent interview, the real-life Myers talked about whether he thought “daisy” had tainted the political process. “Absolutely not,” he said. “In our advertising, we always started from a place of truth.” His firm’s boss, he added, had a saying: “‘The fastest way to kill a bad product is to do good advertising about it.’ If people go to the product and it’s bad, they’ll know it’s bad very quickly.”
The “daisy ad” worked, Myers said, because Johnson was a better candidate than Goldwater.
Devine, the playwright, isn’t so sure. The people who made the “daisy” ad, he said, “knew it would just draw up everyone’s fears. It said, ‘If you do not vote for Lyndon Johnson, the fires of hell will be unleashed upon us all.’ Then Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, unleashing the fires of hell. Is it ethical for a candidate to frame himself as a peace candidate when he’s planning something else?”
During a recent rehearsal in an upstairs room at ACT Theatre, the sound-engineer character Schwartz tried to explain to the ad producers why he thought the “daisy” commercial was the right way to go. “What I do can only be used for good,” he said.
“Wait until someone just as brilliant, but nowhere near as nice comes along,” Potter’s ad-writer character shot back. “You’re a cynic,” Schwartz replied. “I guess I have more faith in people.”
“You only know eight blocks’ worth of people,” she said.
In the end, “Daisy” is about human fragility — the agoraphobic sound engineer, the ad writers, the idealistic White House liaison who’s willing to make a deal with the devils of Madison Avenue — and how, during one fall, in 1964, they changed the way we elect presidents.