Media mogul bows out of the political ad game. Why Guggenheim won't do those strident TV spots

Charles Guggenheim used to be a political media consultant, the kind that got almost as much attention as the candidates in the recent elections. And things were going pretty well. He was the acknowledged master of the cinematic campaign biography, portraying his candidates as individuals of warmth, character, and depth. His clients included prominent senators such as Democrat Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Republican John Danforth of Missouri. Business was good. Campaigns are ``cash cows'' for consultants, he acknowledged in a recent interview. His views were sought out by the national press.

But after more than 30 years in the business, Mr. Guggenheim sat out the fall elections. And he doesn't intend to work on future campaigns either. There are those in Washington who say that his narrative style was growing pass'e in an era of quick-hit 30-second spots. But Guggenheim was making those, too. And he wasn't very happy about it.

``I found myself using all kinds of half-truths about the other candidate,'' he told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently. ``I wasn't liking myself very much.''

So now Guggenheim is back where he started, making documentary films. (He has done the official biographies of John and Robert Kennedy for the JFK Library, for example.)

In a wide-ranging interview at his Georgetown studios - a converted warehouse near the old B&O Canal - he talked about the political media business and the big egos that inhabit it. He reflected on why campaign ads have become so truculent, and on what it will take to clean them up.

Guggenheim is a spry, soft-spoken man who, except for his whitish hair, hardly looks like a veteran of Adlai Stevenson's 1956 presidential campaign. A native of Cincinnati, he began making documentaries on social issues. Then St. Louis enlisted him to do a television film in support of a city bond referendum, something unusual at the time. Mr. Stevenson hired him to direct his 1956 media (all half-hour speeches; Stevenson would not agree to a film biography.)

Soon, Guggenheim was helping unseat Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus, who fought integration in Little Rock, and helping launch George McGovern's Senate career in 1962. His film for Robert Kennedy's 1964 New York Senate campaign, showing RFK with his children in the days after his brother's assassination, can still bring a lump to the throat.

In those days, he recalls, it was possible to make an enormous impact with an even-tempered (if obviously laudatory) 30-minute film. In the early 1970s, he saw polling swings of 20 to 30 percent within two weeks.

Soon, however, everybody was doing it. During the '70s, moreover, the scale of political TV shrunk: first, to five minutes, then, to 30-second spots. And at the same time, the tone became nastier. Guggenheim sees a connection between the two. And he says the television networks must share a large portion of the blame.

``The broadcast industry is dictating how the political process in the United States is to be carried out,'' he says.

It's not just the politicians who made campaigns a war of 30- and 60-second TV spots, Guggenheim says. Often, they can't buy prime-time slots any longer than that. The networks will cut a late-night movie or talk show to accommodate a five-minute political ad. But prime-time shows are sacred, he says. Which means that ``Cheers'' and the rest determine the time left for the nation's political debate.

In dictating the length of political discourse, Guggenheim says, the networks influence content as well. ``Create doubt. Build fear. Exploit anxiety. Hit and run,'' he told the Senate Commerce Committee in 1985. ``That's what can be done best in 30 seconds.''

There's a more subtle influence as well. Forced into the time slots of TV commercials, political ads partake of the idiom of those spots. ``Today, on television commercials propositions are as scarce as unattractive people,'' Neil Postman wrote in ``Amusing Ourselves to Death.''

Ads convey impressions rather than present facts. Guggenheim says the public comes to expect the same lack of substance in 30-second political ads. ``We know they don't have time to go any further into the issue and explain it, so we accept it,'' he says.

Added to this is the anonymity of TV spots: Candidates get actors and paid announcers to do their dirty work. ``It's not the candidate who is saying these things'' on negative spots, Guggenheim says. ``It's the surrogate. The candidate does not get blamed for the meanness. He doesn't get blamed for the half-truth, the rabbit punch, the lie, the deceptiveness.''

Technically, political ads do contain ``disclaimers,'' stating who's behind the ad. But these flash across the screen so quickly as to go largely unnoticed.

``I am convinced that if you change the time frame,'' to make ads longer, Guggenheim says, ``and you make it very clear who's responsible for the message, the political dialogue would change dramatically in this country.''

Guggenheim got a taste of this kind of system in two British elections. There, each party got free prime time, for broadcasts 10 minutes in length. In Britain, he told the Commerce Committee, ``the commercial broadcasters do not make the rules.''

In fact, most Western democracies have stricter ground rules for television than does the United States. In France and Israel, for example, TV time is allocated according to a party's strength in the last election. Voter turnout in both countries is much higher than in the US, where it has declined as television's role has increased.

The problem, however, as the Bush presidential campaign illustrated, is that negative ads work. Guggenheim recalls the 1982 Senate race in Missouri, where Republican John Danforth was determined to keep his media positive. His Democratic challenger, Harriett Woods, went negative from the start, however. And as election day neared, she was pulling ahead in the polls. Only a Danforth counterattack saved the seat.

``Now, if you do that, and you see what happened, you avoid negative advertising at your peril,'' Guggenheim says.

Danforth has sponsored a bill to restrict negative ads. But most political incumbents in the US like the present system just fine. With almost a 3-to-1 fund-raising margin over their challengers, House members have no problem using TV to their advantage. And many that don't like the present system are not eager to antagonize local broadcasters.

Guggenheim doesn't see any grass-roots constituency for change, either. ``There is nothing in the Constitution or in federal law that says the process should be carried on in 60 seconds. We just accept it. We don't question it.''

Guggenheim has a lot of good memories from his years in the campaign business. The late Democratic Sen. Phillip Hart of Michigan, for example, who was so self-effacing that he didn't bother to look at his own TV ads. And the time Harry Golden, the humorist, did a segment aimed at the Jewish vote for a Robert Kennedy campaign film. Sitting in front of the New York Public Library, cigar in mouth, Mr. Golden was talking about RFK's civil rights record.

``It all has to do with human dignity,'' he said in his rich Jewish accent. And then, leaning into the camera, he said, ``We understand this better than anybody.''

Guggenheim's favorite campaigns were in Southern states like Louisiana, where the politics are raucous but the politicians don't take themselves too seriously. ``When they can't pay their bills, they really are concerned about it,'' Guggenheim says. ``That's not true of Eastern liberals.''

But there's a lot he doesn't miss about the business. The late-night plane rides to Omaha, Neb., for example. Guggenheim says many consultants are running ``cookie cutter'' operations, taking on up to 12 clients and devising similar ads for many of them. (``I'm sure there were times we were guilty of cloning,'' he allows.)

Then too, there's the big egos in the media consulting field. ``You begin to feel you are responsible for the direction of America,'' he says. ``Even if it's true, I don't think one should feel particularly good about it.''

Speaking of the media consultants, he adds, ``We have the wrong people in charge.''

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