Johnson and his advisors instinctively knew that the Daisy Girl spot would create a sensation and that much of the reaction to it would be adverse. More cautious than Johnson's younger, more-aggressive aides, advisors like Clark Clifford and some DNC officials worried about the Daisy Girl spot and other hard-hitting, edgy DDB spots. Johnson's men, however, would take the calculated risk that they could safely push the edges of political advertising and the limits of good taste.
"We all realized it would create quite a reaction," Lloyd Wright recalled, adding in a subsequent interview that the campaign's strategy was to first define Goldwater "as too impulsive to trust with the nation's defense systems, using his own words to illustrate the point." The second stage, Wright explained, "was to posit LBJ as the experienced, thoughtful, analytical opposite, imminently trustworthy on defense issues and committed to achieving what would later be known as a 'Great Society' domestic agenda." Wright confessed that, instead of fearing a backlash against the negative advertising, they feared that the first two stages of their strategy would succeed so well that "voter apathy might limit turn-out."
In another interview, Wright admitted that a potential backlash did worry some Johnson aides, "but we judged it to be so effective in pursuit of our strategy that any risk involved was worth taking." Johnson aide Richard Goodwin later recalled, "The spot was a winner, but it would almost certainly be attacked as 'unfair,' even 'dirty politics,' by establishment pundits and publications." Goodwin and the others concluded that "a few objections were meaningless, but a sustained attack on our campaign tactics would ultimately be taken up by the rest of the media — including television commentators, whose views were invariably derived, after some time for reading and discussion from the 'bellwether sheep' of their profession."
To avert a media backlash, Johnson's men developed the following strategy: "We would saturate prime-time viewing hours for a few days (or more, if we could get away with it)," Goodwin recalled, "and then respond to the inevitable protests by withdrawing the spot." Goodwin imagined the conversation he or another staff member might have with a reporter: "It seems fine to us, but if that's how you feel about it, Mr. Reston [or Mr. Sulzberger . . . or Mr. Bradlee], we won't use it anymore."
Also in the spot's favor was the clever way that DDB had conceived it. As psychologist Drew Westin observed in his 2007 book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, DDB insulated the Johnson campaign from the worst possible criticism by the way it carefully positioned the president in the spot. While Johnson's voice and name were present, like all the nineteen other twenty- and sixty-second spots DDB produced for the campaign in 1964, the spot did not show the president's image. (While absent from DDB's spots, Johnson would appear in several four-minute and half-hour programs during the campaign's final weeks.) That eliminated the visual association of him with the incendiary subject of nuclear war. Westin also noted that Johnson's language "invoked God and love, even though they ended with a frightening warning. It is difficult to see this as a 'hateful' message." While certainly a negative spot, Westin believed that "central to its power is a message designed to resonate with people's love of their children, families, and God." Finally, as many others have noted, Westin observed that the spot never mentioned Goldwater.
DDB scheduled the spot to air the day that Johnson would formally inaugurate his fall campaign — Labor Day, Monday, September 7. That day, in Detroit before a crowd of 100,000 in Cadillac Square, Johnson tore into Goldwater's views about the acceptability of using "conventional" nuclear weapons, thereby setting the stage for the very unconventional campaign weapons he would deploy on national television that evening. In his speech Johnson insisted, "Make no mistake, there's no such thing as a 'conventional nuclear weapon.'" Reminding the crowd that the U.S. had not used nuclear weapons in nineteen years, Johnson said, "To do so now is a political decision of the highest order. It would lead us down an uncertain path of blows and counterblows whose outcome none may know." Referring to Goldwater's disputed remarks about giving the NATO commander the authority over use of certain nuclear weapons, Johnson said, "No President of the United States can divest himself of the responsibility for such a decision." The speech, despite its grave subject matter, did not resonate with the crowd. A New York Times reporter noted, "As he spoke, mostly in abstractions, his listeners were stirred only to occasional desultory applause. They were not moved." That evening's paid, televised message from Johnson, as Johnson's people knew, would certainly not be abstract. And it would, they were confident, resonate with millions of Americans.
NBC's main prime-time fare that evening was its popular "Monday Night at the Movies," which the network had inaugurated the year before and would soon move to Wednesday nights. The program would run until 1999 and featured edited versions of major motion pictures and, later, made-for-television movies. On the night of September 7, 1964, NBC broadcast the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. Sometime around 9:50 p.m. Eastern time, the Daisy Girl spot aired. By one estimate, as many as 50 million viewers saw the spot. Among those who did not see it were the parents of the little girl who plucked the flower petals. At their home in Pine Beach, New Jersey, Fred and Colette Corzilius had no idea that the spot their daughter had taped earlier in the summer was for Lyndon Johnson. They had no inkling that the girl's counting would be linked with a nuclear explosion. Until shocked family and friends began to call their house that evening, they had no idea that their daughter's image — and her imaginary nuclear annihilation — had been witnessed by 50 million television viewers. It seemed they had never thought to ask DDB executives about the nature of the commercial — a rookie mistake they would not make again.
At the White House, the response was immediate. According to Moyers, the White House switchboard lit up with calls of protest. Johnson, too, began getting calls from friends concerned that the spot had gone too far. The critics included several guests who were at the White House for a small, late-evening dinner. Johnson interrupted the meal to phone Moyers, who was still in his West Wing office. Despite the ostensible urgency of the call, Moyers sensed immediately that Johnson "was having a wonderful time putting on an act" for the benefit of his dinner guests. "What the hell do you mean putting on that ad that just ran?" Johnson asked. "I've been swamped with calls, and the Goldwater people are calling it a low blow." Moyers recalled that Johnson's "voice was chuckling all the time."
Excerpted with permission from Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics by Robert Mann. Copyright 2011 by Robert Mann. Published by Louisiana State University Press.