Bad Rap: Making the Case for Political Attack Ads Professor John Geer talks about his op-ed piece that appeared in Sunday's Los Angeles Times in which he argues that political attack ads serve a useful purpose in a democracy. Geer says the ads should be judged on whether the information they present is useful and not just on their tastefulness.
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Bad Rap: Making the Case for Political Attack Ads

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Bad Rap: Making the Case for Political Attack Ads

Bad Rap: Making the Case for Political Attack Ads

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION opinion page. With mid-term elections coming up, most of us will see and hear loads of political ads over the next few months. Many of them positive. I'm so-and-so and I'm great, and many more negative. My opponent stinks. While most people complain about these negative commercials, political scientist John Geer says they're actually good for you. In the Sunday current section of the Los Angeles Times this weekend, Geer wrote an op-ed column praising the positive aspects of attack ads.

If you question whether attack ads have any redeeming qualities, or which type of ad you deem more informative or useful to you as a voter, give us a call, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is John Geer is professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He's been kind enough to take time from his vacation to join us now from a golf course in Maryland. Professor Geer, thanks very much for being with us today.

JOHN GEER (Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University): Oh, not a problem. Not a problem.

CONAN: In brief Professor, polls show that most Americans think attack ads are unfair, uncivil, and often untrue. Is that what you found?

Professor GEER: Well, no, it's not what I found. In fact, most Americans think negative ads are just personal attacks. If in fact you get them to think about attacking someone on whether they'd raise taxes or whether they support job training, or whatever, don't support it, then all the sudden the public thinks it's a little bit more fair. I think part of the problem is that the media's coverage of the negative ads is a little misguided at times.

CONAN: Really? So attack ads, for the most part, aren't personal?

Professor GEER: Well, the book that I write was at the presidential level so I'm talking about those ads that appeared in the Kerry-Bush contest, and then, since actually Kennedy-Nixon in 1960. But in point of fact, most of the attacks are on issues, they're not very personal, and when they do talk about personal traits, they tend to be about integrity and issues of experience, which are pretty important if you want to know whether someone's going to lead the free world in a reasonable way.

CONAN: The book you just referenced is In Defense of Negativity: The Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. And one of the things just says, having a chance to glance at it earlier today, beyond reading your op-ed, is your contention that of course attack ads are nothing new in American politics, and certainly not isolated to the television age.

Professor GEER: Oh, that's absolutely true. In fact, if you take a really close historical look, you really begin to realize that the ads we've seen on television over the last 40 years are pretty tame. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest president of all time, is attacked in 1860 as an ape, as an idiot. Unbelievable scathing attacks. Andrew Jackson is labeled as a murderer, and even a cannibal. So, the terms today are pretty mellow by comparison to the 1800s.

CONAN: We're going to play an example of a recent attack ad that most people might remember, this from the 2004 presidential campaign. The television ad showed an image of John Kerry windsurfing, and was edited deliberately to show him tacking back and forth, or switching directions, or as the ad would have it, flip-flopping with every statement. Obviously an attack ad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In which direction would John Kerry lead? Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it, and now opposes it again. He bragged about voting for the $87 billion to support our troops before he voted against it. He voted for education reform, and now opposes it. He claims he's against increasing Medicare premiums, but voted five times to do so. John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.

CONAN: Obviously an attack ad. What makes that useful do you think?

Professor GEER: Well, I mean, John Kerry did have a record of changing his mind on a couple of issues, and that ad brought it out. I mean, if you listened only to John Kerry, you'd hear that he was consistent every single time, but this ad brings it out that he wasn't. Imagine the flip side. Could you see John Kerry running an attack ad against President Bush for flip-flopping? It wouldn't work. Why? Because the public's perception was that President Bush doesn't flip-flop, that he sticks to his guns as best as possible.

And so these ads often have some basis in truth and they were referring to specific votes in Congress and other things. I mean, they're actually more informative because they contain documented information, whereas positive ads tend to be about, you know, hugging children and saying you're going to support a strong economy, which everybody of course does.

CONAN: Now you would call that an issue ad, everything cited in the audio we heard, but some of it was definitely personal. John Kerry's choice of being a wind surfer, for example, sort of derided as a fĂȘte.

Professor GEER: Absolutely. That personal, there is a personal attack and an issue attack. The personal attack is flip-flopping and attacks on integrity. In fact what you see is that when the attacks are made they're often about integrity because you can document it. That is, someone has taken a position in 1997 and then they changed their mind in 2003, that's evidence that you can bring forward. Attack ads, you can't just attack someone vaguely. I mean, imagine John Kerry attacking George Bush in 2004 saying, He supports a weak economy. He supports an insecure nation. Well, President Bush doesn't! It needs to go further. But the positive ads, you can remain that vague, and so if you want specific issue-based information, it turns out that's what attack ads have to offer.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And this is Lisa. Lisa's calling us from St. Louis, Missouri. Lisa, are you there?

Professor GEER: I guess Lisa's not.

CONAN: I guess Lisa is not there, so we'll hang up on Lisa and we'll go to, this is Robert. Robert's with us from Burlington, Vermont.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Say, I just wanted to bring up the swift boat ads that we saw in the last election. They were both personal, and they were also untrue, essentially. I think that Nightline, Ted Koppel on Nightline did a special once, basically verifying that John Kerry's story was essentially true. But they were personally attacking John Kerry's, his integrity by, you know, implying that he padded his resume with some, you know, Vietnam experience that he didn't really have. And they were untrue and they were personal. And I just thought that's not a policy and that was not, it was not a truthful ad. And it just would be nice if they could find some way to legislate against actual, outright falsehoods made in attack ads.

CONAN: John?

Professor GEER: The swift boat ad is a very controversial ad for the reasons Robert just laid out. The problem is that if you tried to legislate such ads issued by these various 527 groups, is that you're also legislating against first amendment rights. And those individuals, even though their claims turned out to be false, they did make these claims as individual statements, and so that they were just a personal observations. And it's really hard to deal with them.

The big mistake in that case, I suspect, was that Kerry didn't deal quickly enough and forcefully enough with the attack. Because it was proven to be false, but he let it sit there too long. And so, there are lots of examples that you can come up with, with negative ads being misleading. And those ads, the problem with 527s is that they're not run by the candidates, and so they don't have the same kinds of accountability. But at the same time, lots of these ads do contain information, the swift boat is certainly an example of one that gets people fired up for the reasons Robert just laid out.

CONAN: And so you think the risk of ads that are half-truths, or in the case of the swift boat ads, majority untrue, it's worth that to bring up a whole bunch of other issues?

Professor GEER: Exactly. And it's also true, you've got to remember is that we tend to look at the negative and see whether it's true or not, but sometimes the positive ads, as Bob Squire, a very famous political consultant once said, there's more lies told in positive ads than negative ads. And if you take, for example, a Michael Dukakis ad from 1988, where he claimed that 12 budgets were balanced while he was governor, that's technically true. However, it turns out that Massachusetts has a constitutional provision that says it must be balanced, which takes a little bit of the credit away from Dukakis. So that we have to realize that exaggeration is part of campaigns, and it goes on both sides. And we need to have this battle between the negative and the positive so that the electorate can make an informed judgment at the end of the day.

CONAN: Robert, thank you very much.

ROBERT: You're welcome.

CONAN: And of course Michael Dukakis was the subject of a famous attack ad, I guess at least in part it was. This is an ad during the 1988 presidential campaign that showed him riding around inside of a tank. Let's listen to a bit of it.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we've developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the stealth bomber, and a ground emergency warning system against nuclear attack. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our Commander in Chief. America can't afford that risk.

CONAN: And the image of Michael Dukakis riding around with a helmet inside the tank, well, he looked, I don't think I'm taking this too far a stretch, like an idiot.

Professor GEER: Yeah, he did not look good. And the irony, of course, is that Dukakis, that was his soundbite. It was his clip that he was hoping would make him look strong on defense. Greg Stevens, who was a political consultant working for Bush, saw this and immediately realized there was a spot in there. A lot of people have criticized this ad because it attacks Dukakis and in some cases exaggerates his record on defense. But the bottom line is that if you compare overall Bush's record to Dukakis' record, Bush was stronger on defense. He wanted to spend more money on more weapons programs, and the Cold War was still raging. I find this ad a totally legitimate effort to bring out the differences between the candidates.

CONAN: Mm hmm. A lot of people said, in effect, George W. Bush was trying to do much the same thing when he landed on that aircraft carrier with mission accomplished there, up in big letters. Of course that clip didn't end up being used.

Professor GEER: That's right. And the reason it didn't end up being used is it backfired. And so that the Iraqi war didn't work out, you know, it hasn't worked out very well, and so he didn't use it. But you could imagine that if, all of sudden, the situation worked out in a much more effective way in Iraq, that would have been used a lot. But it wasn't. That's the part is that you have a burden of proof when you go on the attack. If I suddenly said to you Neal that you lied and made all these claims, if I don't have any evidence backing it up, I'm the one who looks bad. And so you need a little bit of evidence. And I'm not suggesting that all these ads are accurate or perfect, but by comparison to the positive ads, they are a heck of a lot better on the grounds of issues and being specific and more documented.

CONAN: We're talking today with John Geer on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. He's a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, and he's the author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaigns. He wrote an op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times titled, In Defense of Negativity. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get some more questions on the phone. This is Art. Art's calling us from Riverhead, in New York.

ART (Caller): Yes, hi. I just think that attack ads just reflect the level of discourse in American society that we're in today. I think there are two types of people in America. The ones that listen to NPR and read the newspapers and magazines and like discussions about politics and intellectual things, and everybody else. And I'm a Democrat, but we have lost our street smarts. We're all about thinking like university professors and not about what some guy on the street thinks, or how he operates. The ads work, because that's where most people are at. I might sound elitist when I say it, but when the swift boat thing happened, Kerry was just stumped. He just was not, he just had no street smarts, or his people anyway, had no street smarts, and we just didn't have the mentality to respond to that type of thing. And I don't know what the answer to that is. Part of it is the, of Democrats and how we operate, and part of it is just the level of discourse in American society.

CONAN: Do you think that this is relatively new, Art? Or that the number of negative ads is greater than it has been before?

ART: No, the professor is probably right. I'm sure that, it's, politics will always be nasty. Except that people in politics were from the street. They understood that. It's really, the world is really, it's about the sandlot, you know? It's about high school, really. It's about, it's, you know, there's book smarts and there are street smarts. And, politics, and somehow we've, at least the, at least we've lost, a lot of people have lost that, just going for the jugular and thinking, and just, and you know...

CONAN: Yes, I think we get your point, Art.

Professor GEER: Yes.

CONAN: Appreciate the call. Professor Geer, you know, obviously, one solution is to nominate candidates who have more street smarts. But the other one is this, this lack of civility. You suggest that in fact when the stakes are this high, and again you're talking about presidential elections here, civility ought to take second place.

Professor GEER: That's right. I mean, Art's earlier point is that there was this decline in the rhetoric and the discussion in American politics. That's partly because our political parties are now polarized, much more so than they were 40 years ago. The parties have real differences, and that's one reason why we have more attack ads. Because there are differences, and they need to be spelled out as clearly as possible. And so that, this is part and parcel of what's unfolded in American politics, and maybe the Democrats need to have a candidate with more street smarts. I suspect that most people would think Bill Clinton would qualify, and perhaps some other candidates as well. But the bottom line is that we have these attacks because there are real differences and we want to highlight those differences. People, for instance, who are very pro-life, they want to know about candidates' views on abortion, and that requires clear spelling out. Or individuals who happen to have strong opinions about Iraq, or whatever the case may be. And, you know, 30 years ago, when this country was less polarized, the complaints of the pundits was, there's not enough differences between the parties, so voters can't really make a good choice. Well now we have differences, and now they're complaining about other things. Which is part and parcel of, you know, the game. But, it's, you know, it's one way, you're always going to find something wrong with the system.

CONAN: There was one attack ad in history that was deemed so unfair that it only ran once, yet it's probably the most famous attack out of them all. This is the Daisy spot out of 1964, Lyndon Johnson's spot that attacked Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, as being irresponsibly cavalier about the prospect of nuclear war. Let's listen to a bit of it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: One. Two. Three Four. Five. Seven. Six. Eight. Nine. Nine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.

(Soundbite of explosion)

CONAN: Almost sounds crude by today's standards, doesn't it?

Professor GEER: Well, you know, that is obviously, as you mentioned, one of the most controversial ads to this day. But if you take a really close look at the ad, first of all, Goldwater's name is never mentioned explicitly. And it only works because Goldwater had made statements prior to the '64 campaign that suggested he might use tactical nuclear weapons. And so the interesting thing about that ad and its creator, who is one of the most famous advertising people of all time, Tony Schwartz, will defend that ad. And I think he's got good grounds to defend it, saying that ad only worked because people had this nagging concern about Goldwater. It was very powerful. It was only aired once, but it got discussed enough that it kind of carried the day. And there were lots of other nuclear themes in the Johnson advertising that year that brought these concerns to light.

CONAN: So, in the next several months we're all likely to see a flood of new political advertising, and much of it negative. And John Geer, you say, hurray.

Professor GEER: I say that it's not anything to worry about, and in fact you can learn something from these ads. And that democracy is not, you know, just a feel-good exercise. It's, as I said in that op-ed piece and in my book, it's a pitching battle for control of government, and let the best team win.

CONAN: Professor Geer's op-ed appeared in the Sunday Current section of the Los Angeles Times. His and all the previous stories in this series are linked at the TALK OF THE NATION page, at John Geer, thanks very much for being with us. Good luck with your book.

Professor GEER: Thank you.

CONAN: John Geer's book is, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaigns. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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