If you thought Election Day provided a break from the unsparing torrent of political and issue advertising we've all experienced, you might want to reconsider your optimism.
Last week, a liberal religious group called the American Values Network launched a campaign that imagines the global disaster that could befall us if the START treaty isn't ratified by the Senate. (Why a liberal group would give itself a name that sounds exactly like one of those kitschy, sanctimonious monikers favored by right-wing groups is beyond me.)
Also beyond me is why they decided to make their argument by "updating" Lyndon Johnson's classic but freighted 1964 Daisy commercial that ran just one time, but has become legendary among the commentariat. Daisy II is a failed exercise in self-referential media recursion.
Here's the START ad, followed by its inspiration.
The original spot - launched in the fiery heat and nuclear paranoia of the Cold War - was breathtaking in its power. Goldwater was being portrayed by the media as trigger-happy, and LBJ's commercial connected that stereotype to our deepest fears. Miraculously, it did so without making Johnson come across as "weak" on defense, a charge that has haunted the Democrats to this very day. (And this very treaty extension.)
Those who analyze Daisy I typically focus on the extraordinary power of the visual concept, and the audio track that cross-fades the little girl's petal counting with a missile countdown. So it's easy to overlook the way LBJ wraps it all up at the end, quoting Auden in the process.
"These are the stakes.
To make a world in a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark.
We must either love each other, or we must die."
How shocking to hear a president - and not just any president, but LBJ, who became a failed war president - speaking in the ancient days of 1964 in a syntax of such pre-hippie innocence.
But Daisy II is a commercial lacking any of that emotional payload. Those who know the referent, and I'd have to say that's less than 10% of the viewing public, will struggle to make the connection. It's a long road of cerebration between the fear of Goldwater with his finger on the button, and terrorists getting their hands on loose nukes in the absence of U.S. inspectors on the ground in Russia. (If you don't know the original spot, the new one simply fees out of joint.)
Here's how Daisy II tries valiantly to make the logical connection:
"In a world where terrorists seek to destroy everything we hold dear, Russia's nuclear weapons cannot be left un-monitored."
This simply packs too much together. The nexus between START's provisions - and the vulnerability of Russia's nuclear weapons stockpile - is a complex and winding argument. After all, the issue of Russian "loose nukes" getting into the hands of terrorists isn't directly part of the START treaty.
But if START is rejected or set back, it will damage the mutual U.S. and Russian efforts to secure those weapons. Foreign Policy reports that Senator Lugar has criticized his Republican colleagues for threatening to delay START ratification using that argument:
"Lugar also warned that the failure to ratify the treaty could have drastic consequences for other facets of the U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation - especially the Nunn-Lugar effort to secure loose nuclear materials throughout the Soviet Union.
'There are still thousands of missiles out there. You better get that through your heads,' he said, directing his comments to members of his own party."
American Values Network is spending good money on a good cause in a bad way. They should be making Lugar's argument with a twist - that we can't rely on Russia to protect our nuclear weapons and without START we will lose our ability to secure them.
As the Council on Foreign Relations has noted, Russian authorities have "broken up hundreds of nuclear-materials smuggling deals." This is scary stuff, far more shocking and anxiety-provoking than the abstraction of Daisy II. That's why the Obama administration was able to corral a clutch of bi-partisan eminence geezers to support START ratification, including Kissinger, Baker, Albright, and Scowcroft.
It would have been far more effective to take a documentary approach - the way PBS with their Frontline show about loose nukes. The scenes of unguarded nuclear missiles in a post-9/11 world are far more compelling than 1964's greatest hits.