As Romney's lead in Florida solidifies, and an unfocused Gingrich rages in all directions -- he's his own attack dog -- I want to come right out and say it. Romney's Brokaw commercial is one of the most devastatingly effective negative spots I've seen in years. I believe it will go down with the LBJ
"Daisy" spot in the annals of fatal, thunderbolt blows.
The Daisy spot was constructed out of symbolic -- but not abstract components -- that rolled up to a mushroom cloud and a Johnson landslide. By contrast, the Brokaw spot's strength - it's called, in deadpan fashion, "History Lesson -- springs from its unconstructed simplicity. It opens on a television screen with a super that reads "NBC Nightly News, January 21st, 1997."
Brokaw intones the following, in a voice that if not dripping with irony, is certainly maximally saturated:
"Newt Gingrich, who came to power, after all, preaching a higher standard in American politics, a man who brought down another Speaker on ethics accusations, tonight he has on his own record, the judgment of his peers Democrats and Republicans alike, by an overwhelming vote they found him guilty of ethics violations, they charged him a very large financial penalty, and several of them raised serious questions about his future effectiveness."
That's it. It doesn't parse perfectly, but it wounds deeply. Every word Brokaw utters is deadly for Gingrich; the devastating indictment hurtles from the past into the mental decision box that has been in such Floridian turmoil for the last two weeks.
Finally, in what feels like a reputational eternity, the spot ends. The ominous music subsides, the commercial slams shut, and we hear Mitt Romney saying with ill-disguised glee that he approved this message. Who the hell wouldn't?
The commercial ends with that same black and white shot of Mitt we've now seen countless times; he's holding hands with Ann and wearing a white shirt and dark slacks; she's wearing a vaguely (very vaguely) hippyish flower-patterned skirt, with a sweater knotted Wasp-style around her waist. If Mitt wins, and he can find the dude with the camera, at least he's got an official photographer.
Even though Pew found that only 25% of Americans trust the media to get the news right, they are obviously believing ol' Greatest-Generation-Tom. This is an example of negative advertising at a level of the sublime. Unlike the conventions of the genre, "History Lesson's" unedited directness sends a powerful psychological message.
There's no post-production manipulation, wily photoshopping, or yanking quotes and scenes out of context. Its savagery lies in its narrative purity. And its strength lies, subliminally, in making Romney appear as someone confident enough to let the facts speak for themselves and incriminate the sinner. It's negativity draped in, well, a kind of religiosity.
Romney may be out-spending Gingrich 3- or 4-1, but with this spot he could have saved some of his money. Then again, since he only pays federal taxes at a 16% rate, he probably doesn't have to.
By contrast, Gingrich's attack ads are your garden-variety take-downs. This spot, titled "What Kind of Man," is a litany of alleged Romney lies.
It's totally predictable and hence unconvincing. It reaches deep into the generic toolkit of negative campaign tactics, using out-of-focus shots of a grim-visaged candidates, splashing "False" over his face, and intoning a laundry list of transgressions that's complicated to follow and leaves no unifying message other than "Don't trust this man." Its wild-eyed viciousness is no match for Brokaw as the calm killer.
So what's intended to be a sweepingly powerful closing argument to the jury comes across as nasty, unfocused and unconvincing. It's just another leak of venom in a long and numbing campaign. "History Lesson," though, is far from a conventional assault, because Romney's people found some fatal footage that lets someone else -- someone with the anchor gravitas -- deliver the fatal blow. Daisy used a thermonuclear explosion; "History Lesson" goes nuclear in another, no less powerful way.