Keeping 30-second bits of political history on ice


NORMAN, Okla. -- The grainy, black-and-white image of a little girl fills the TV screen, her guileless voice keeping count as she plucks the petals of a daisy.

Before she can finish, she is drowned out by a man's voice, gravely counting down to zero. As the camera zooms closer, an atomic bomb erupts in the darkness of her eye, replacing the girl with a fiery mushroom cloud.

"We must either love each other," the narrator says, "or we must die."

So intense was the outcry over this commercial from President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign that he was forced to yank it off the air after just one showing. Today, it is by far the most-requested, most-viewed piece of tape on file at the Political Commercial Archive, an unrivaled repository of TV and radio advertisements housed at the University of Oklahoma.

With the 1996 election season under way, the collection is poised for another spurt in its exponential growth cycle. Already, it contains more than 55,000 political commercials from the past four decades -- from presidential campaigns to school board races -- some of which are one-of-a-kind recordings even the candidates no longer possess.

"I don't love all the commercials," said Julian Kanter, 69, retiring this fall as curator of the collection. "But I do love watching them."

The archive is Mr. Kanter's labor of love, the product of a lifelong romance with television and politics. Now retired from stints as a general manager at TV stations in New York and Florida, Mr. Kanter began his collection as a hobby in 1956, after working as a volunteer for Adlai Stevenson's unsuccessful presidential bid.

Over the next 30 years, he personally amassed more than 25,000 commercials, attracting the interest of the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Oklahoma.

Although the lure of Washington was powerful, Mr. Kanter didn't want his tapes to end up being "just one more collection in a collection of collections." So in 1985 he settled on Oklahoma, where he believed the archive would be more readily accessible to scholars, journalists and consultants as the centerpiece of the university's Political Communication Center.

"Instead of locking them up in a vault somewhere, we wanted to catalog them and make them widely available," said Lynda Lee Kaid, director of the nonpartisan center, whose only restriction is that candidates not copy the material for campaign purposes.

The tapes, housed in a brick storeroom chilled to 55 degrees, serve as a testament to how much -- and how little -- has changed about political advertising.

In the last decade, advances in computer technology have given candidates new techniques for manipulating video images -- not to mention voters. During George Bush's 1992 re-election campaign, he produced an ad accusing Bill Clinton of flip-flopping on major issues. To punctuate the point, an already unflattering photo of Clinton was reversed as a negative image, like an X-ray, creating a decidedly cadaverous effect.

During South Carolina's 1986 Senate race, challenger Henry McMaster wanted to show that incumbent Fritz Hollings was guilty of excessive globe-trotting at taxpayer expense. In one ad, a photo of Mr. Hollings was superimposed over postcard scenes from around the world. Using computer graphics, an accessory was added to the senator's wardrobe in each destination: sunglasses in Tahiti, a beret in France, a red rose between his teeth in Mexico.

"TV has a tremendous potential to inform," said Mr. Kanter, an earnest, silver-haired man. "Unfortunately, it has an equally large potential to distort and mislead."

What's clear from the spots produced during TV's early days, however, is that cynical, mudslinging commercials are not entirely a modern phenomenon.

LBJ's infamous "Daisy Girl" ad, designed to paint his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a trigger-happy hawk, was countered by a Goldwater ad that aimed to make Johnson appear soft on foreign affairs. As a group of schoolchildren recite PTC the Pledge of Allegiance, their voices are drowned out by a thundering Nikita Khrushchev, who proclaims in Russian: "We will bury you! Your children will be Communists!"

Four years later, Richard Nixon's campaign launched an attack on Democrat Hubert Humphrey, showing photos of him smiling merrily as a band played an upbeat anthem. His carefree face was juxtaposed throughout the ad with photos of warfare, poverty and civil unrest set to a jarring electronic warble. "This time," a narrator says, "vote like your whole world depended on it."

Humphrey's campaign, in turn, fired a salvo at Nixon's Republican running mate, former Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. For an entire 30 seconds, a voice laughs mockingly, finally collapsing into a hacking cough at the suggestion of an Agnew vice presidency. "This would be funny if it weren't so serious," the ad concludes.

Although there are more commercials today, and a higher percentage of them are negative, candidates figured out long ago that "most of us, most of the time, do not make our voting decisions by a process of intellectual comparison and analysis," Mr. Kanter said.

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