Categories for Musings

In Tuesday’s Sun: what’s Harper’s Daisy going to be?

Fifty years ago on Sunday, politics was changed forever.

It begins quietly, with a little girl. She’s in a field somewhere, and she has long, straight hair, and big eyes. She can be no more than three or four years old.

She’s holding a daisy. In a child’s singsong voice, she counts the petals as she removes them. “One, two, three, four, five,” she says, softly.

She stops and looks up, frightened. A man’s echoing voice starts to count. As he does, the camera moves closer. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four,” he says, and all that can be seen are the child’s eyes, which are afraid. The shot moves into the dark centre of her eye.

Then there is an explosion — a huge, lingering explosion — and the child’s iris is filled with a grainy image of an atomic bomb being detonated. As the mushroom cloud reaches upward, another voice is heard: the voice of Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States.

“These are the stakes,” he says in his Texas twang. “To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.” Pause. “We must either love each other, or we must die.”

The screen goes black, and a few words appear in white: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3.” Then the last voice-over: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

Ran once, that ad did, on September 7, 1964. But everyone involved modern politics agrees: it changed everything.

Some say the ‘Daisy’ ad represented the start of attack ads. But it’s wrong to suggest that ‘Daisy’ is akin to the despicable Jean Chrétien “face” ad, produced, in part, by Toronto mayoralty candidate John Tory. That was just a vicious, empty-headed attack on the Liberal leader’s facial paralysis, and had nothing to do with policy. ‘Daisy,’ on the other hand, did not mention once the name of President Johnson’s opponent, but it was all about a policy: nuclear deterrence.

It led to Johnson’s re-election, and the evisceration at the polls of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, whose name was not mentioned once in the ad. And, as noted, it changed politics.

As the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Daisy’ is marked – about whom, full disclosure, I named my own consulting firm! – it is hard not to wonder what ‘Daisy’ equivalent the Conservative Party wishes to unleash on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

Since he became Liberal leader in April 2013, the Harper Cons have produced a barrage of attack ads about Trudeau. None have had a measureable effect. In almost every poll taken since April 2013, Trudeau has enjoyed a significant lead.

‘Daisy’ worked, its creator Tony Schwartz later told me, because it “surfaced” pre-existing emotions about Goldwater. It gave visual expression to what they already felt.

So what, then, can the Conservatives do to avoid being wiped out by Trudeau? The same polls that show him ahead also show Canadians – including Liberal voters – have some misgivings about his experience and judgment. Could a Daisy-style ad “surface” those worries, and turn the tide against the Grits?

Maybe. Perhaps. But the fact is that Harper has been highlighting Trudeau’s relative inexperience and judgment for months – in ads, in speeches, in mailings, in every scrum. None of it has worked.

‘Daisy’ worked because it evoked profound emotions about a matter of life and death. Can Harper persuade skeptical Canadians that Trudeau’s judgment is a matter of life and death, too?

It’s unlikely. So, as the Conservatives continue frantically casting about for their own ‘Daisy,’ one thing cannot be denied:

Time is running out. 2.2 million page views a year! 13 million since 2008!

A friendly inquiry this morning about how many people come to my web site elicited this response: “I don’t know.” So I decided ask the guy who would, from Team Propellerhead.

His response:

“In the last year you had 2.2 million page views– spread over 1.3 million sessions, and 355,000 individual users.

Since we’ve been keeping records (2008) there have been 13 million page views, 8.3 million sessions, 1.7 million users. Though number of users over such a long period can’t be very accurate given how many IPs circulate dynamically.”

In other words, the numbers really aren’t that big, given that many are repeat customers. But, overall, encouraging.

I really should get around to accepting advertising, eh? Maybe I could actually retire or something.

In Friday’s Sun: September 4, 1984 and the people

[I’m putting this up today, early, because I have been actually shocked by how little coverage there has been of the significance of this day. W]

September 4, 1984: thirty years ago today, I was on an Air Canada flight from Ottawa, heading home to Calgary to start law school. The pilot came on the blower.

“For those of you who are wondering, we are hearing that the Liberal Party has lost every one of its seats,” he said. “And we have a new Conservative majority government.”

The plane erupted in cheers and applause – lots of it. Having just said goodbye to many of my Liberal friends at Ottawa polling stations, and having just finished working for a Liberal cabinet minister on the Hill, I slid further into my seat. A woman beside me noticed I wasn’t as deliriously happy as everyone else.

“I take it your friends have lost?” she asked.

“You could say that,” I said.

On the ground in Calgary, my Dad was there to collect me. We silently listened to John Turner’s concession speech on the way back to my folks’ home on the Bow River. Near the end, Turner said: “The people are always right.’

“I’m not so sure about that,” I responded, but – on reflection – I reckoned that Turner was indeed correct: the people are always right.

And the people had chosen Brian Mulroney, in record numbers. More than seventy-five per cent of eligible voters turned out to give Mulroney an astonishing 211 seats. The Liberals were reduced to a paltry 40 – only ten ahead of the New Democrats.

So began the Mulroney era, and a decade in the wilderness for the Liberal Party of Canada. It was an extraordinary decade, a time of great change, and it is hard to believe it all started thirty years ago today.

Not many in the media marked Mulroney’s September 4, 1984 triumph, and that is a shame. He changed Canada – not always for the good, but not entirely for the bad, either.

Meech Lake, Charlottetown, and assorted ministerial resignations, are always cited as the principal failures of the Mulroney era. But the former Conservative leader had successes, too: free trade, which his Liberal successor – my future boss, Jean Chretien – refused to undo. So, too, some of his major economic reforms, which arguably helped return the federation to balanced budgets and surpluses.

To not a few of us, his most singular achievement was his unflagging opposition to South Africa’s evil apartheid system. This placed him squarely against his closest conservative allies, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan. But Mulroney’s determination to end apartheid put him on the right side of history – and earned him the enduring friendship of Nelson Mandela.

Why does all this matter now, thirty long years later? Two reasons.

First, Mulroney extraordinary victory on September 4, 1984 – and the historic events that followed that day – should not be forgotten. Whether you approve of his tenure or not, Mulroney truly changed Canada.

The second reason really has nothing to do with Brian Mulroney at all. The second reason we should recall September 4 is this: when democratic political change comes, it sometimes comes in a way that is dramatic, decisive, and defining. It can be shocking.

As in the Fall of 1984 – and as in the Spring of 2011 – you can sense another earthquake of political change is imminent. You can feel the tremors of it under your feet. And it is unlikely to end well for the Conservative Party or the New Democratic Party. Quietly, therefore, smart Tories and New Democrats are preparing for a rout.

That may be good, that may be bad. Depends on the team you belong to, I suppose.
One thing cannot be disputed, however:

As on September 4, 1984, as today, the people are always right.