Remembering Tony Schwartz : The Bryant Park Project Memories of the inventor of TV political attack ads.
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Remembering Tony Schwartz

All the coverage of Tim Russert's death overshadowed another death in the world of media and politics last weekend.

Tony Schwartz, media consultant, adman, sound designer, and teacher, died on Sunday at the age of 84. Among other things, many other things, he made the now famous LBJ "Daisy" television ad which is widely recognized as TV's first political attack ad. Because of it, he's often considered to be the founder of the modern era of negative campaigning. Yet, though there were obituaries that outlined some of the highlights of Schwartz's wide-ranging and idiosyncratic career, there was little discussion of the impact of this singular and eccentric man in the very media environment he had helped to create.

I never had the privilege of knowing Tim Russert, though I always enjoyed watching him. But I did have the good fortune to have known Tony Schwartz a little bit.

Schwartz's daughter went to my high school, and, as a result, Schwartz taught an after-school seminar for high school students about the media. Well, it was nominally about the media, but it was really about the effects and the impact of sound. That's what he was really interested in talking to us about -- but he was perhaps even more interested in hearing from us.

Each week, roughly a dozen of us over-privileged and under-appreciative teenagers made the trek to Schwartz's Hell's Kitchen townhouse. We never crossed paths with any of the political luminaries who traveled there, and there were lots, because Schwartz disliked leaving his own home. As a result, anyone who wanted his services, including presidents, made the trip to see him.

We sat around in couches and armchairs in Schwartz's amazing studio, cluttered with equipment and recordings. He regaled us with stories and theories and played us plenty of examples of audio, often his own work, to demonstrate those theories and stories.

If as high school students we learned anything at all, it was the strength of Schwartz's belief in the power of sound. In addition to his political and advertising work, he had documented the sound of the neighborhood in a project that he donated to the Library of Congress shortly before his death, along with his other archives, which included the sounds, words and music of people from all around the world. Much of it will soon be available online.

Schwartz told us anyone who thought of television as a purely visual medium was making a mistake. He stressed the importance of the audio, pointing out how often people leave their sets on without watching them. But if the sound's on, he said, they hear it. And sound can get to us in all sorts of ways.

Schwartz told us about how he could use sound to reinforce ideas that people already held. He played us lots of examples of one of his signature techniques: overlapping sound allowed him to sharpen the points he was trying to convey as well as create a sense of urgency. It got to the point that my friends and I could easily identify commercials he'd made through their style alone.

It was sitting in his studio that we all saw the Daisy ad for the first time. Interestingly, as most of the obits pointed out, it only aired once, pulled after widespread criticism, but many people say it was in large part responsible for electing Lyndon Johnson by reinforcing fears about his opponent Barry Goldwater.

But my personal favorite out of all the ads Schwartz showed us was the anti Spiro Agnew ad, the "laughing" spot he made for the Humphrey-Muskie campaign in 1968. Perhaps it got fewer mentions in Schwartz's obituaries because, even four years later, people had already gotten used to political attack ads on television.

Or maybe it was because that time, it didn't work.