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The Daisy Commercial

 We handled 211,000 Voter’s Research Hotline calls that 1992 Election, with many times that number of calls not able to get through at all.  You would think I could do the math and listen to reason.

 If we grew as the numbers suggested and I thought we would and mostly did, we would need a room big enough for a thousand phones. 

 Scott Langley, a young genius grad student who volunteered in our IT Department, gave a lot of thought to our dilemma, when he was not thinking about Gundula, a drop-dead gorgeous brainiac intern from Germany. Unrecognized by me, the love affair, unrequited I think, forecast a number of future Vote Smart trials. Life with the young!

 Scott approached me one afternoon and suggested that we create a web site, put all our researched data on it and let people review it for themselves.

 Like many of an older generation I dismissed this innocent naive young pup. “No way Scott, isn’t gonna happen” I firmly ruled. “It took the telephone a hundred years to saturate 97% of American households. Everyone has access to a phone, you do not need to know how to type, you do not need to have an education, you do not need an expensive computer, you just need to be able to dial. Hell, you do not even need your own phone, you can just go to a pay phone on any street corner and dial our 1-800 number. Forget it.”

 I successfully fought Scott and his growing number of young web site intern advocates from burdening us with some real progress. Finally, they got so irritatingly bothersome that I chucked a couple thousand dollars at them just to shut the Hell up.

 I do not really know how they did it, I didn’t pay much attention.  In hindsight, they put in a few bazillion extra hours and then asked if they could go live and announce our data was on the “Vote Smart Web.”

 You have to understand here that this is back in the early 90s, no one had such a website, not news organizations, universities or anyone else.

 “Jesus Christ! OK, OK, get out of here,” I bellowed.

 Some weeks later, Scott and his little gang surrounded me and handed me a single white sheet of paper.  It turns out that they had in those weeks more inquiries for our data on the Vote Smart Web than we had in the prior three years over my cherished phoneasaurus.

 We attracted a great many more users of our factual data, which attracted some curiosity from other foundations.

 Foundations do not often fund good governance efforts, or what they called “googoos,” largely because it is difficult to measure success in governance or in our case, making smarter voters.  In fact, there was considerable evidence that American voters were becoming dumber.

 Anyway, those foundations willing to give a pittance of what they have, saw some pretty solid evidence of our success with those we could reach.  We could show a lot of people trying to use what we had done, quite a few that would send in contributions to help, and actually generating more volunteers and interns willing to work for free than we could afford to accommodate.  Most importantly to foundations, we were a new group and thus a new find for some foundation staffer that wanted to look good in a board meeting.

 Most major foundation staff had an attitude: all had the power (dollars) to lord over non-profit startups, they knew it, and insisted that you knew it too. Having a humble, subservient hang-dog demeanor was the rule for all non-profits. Even as the staff of large foundations existed on the droppings of some dead person’s pile of success from long ago. As consequence, a lot of groveling was involved.

 My discussions with smaller foundations, where the source of their funds was often still breathing and happy to meet with me, were very different, always fun, and included lively conversations where I could harvest new knowledge and ideas.

 Russ Hemingway, a 78-year-old with rugged good looks, created a foundation that supplied millions to congressional candidates. Because of his political bent, I would not accept money from him but that was not all I was after. Firsthand experiences on how things got to be such a mess could be as valuable as cash in hand.

 As a young man Russ had been Adlai Stevenson’s (a Democratic presidential nominee beaten by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s) Campaign Manager. Of all the wisdom he pumped into my brain this unknown story is amongst the best.  Adlai was campaigning from the back of a caboose somewhere in the mid-west on what was called a “whistle stop tour” when Russ saw the first political television commercial ever produced. It was done by Eisenhower.  Rushing to catch up with the train, Russ told Adlai he had to get off that caboose and go cut a commercial, that Eisenhower was talking to millions in their living rooms on these new televisions while Adlai only a few hundred at each stop.  Adlai refused to get off the train, saying, “If we are to advertise ourselves like boxes of cereal, democracy will die, for you could not win the Presidency without proving you were unworthy of the job.” 

 Russ, the “young pup” of his day, eventually broke Adlai down and they did cut a silly commercial with some woman singing “Vote Stevenson, vote Stevenson, a man you can depend on-son……!”

 Candidates quickly caught on to the new power of simplistic mass massaging soon enough. A few years later Lyndon Johnson cut one of the most effective political ads ever aired.  It was anchored in the height of the Cold War. In 1964, Goldwater had responded to a reporter questioning whether he would ever consider using a nuclear weapon with, “It is just another weapon” and he would not lay his cards on the table in front of our nation’s enemies.  A pretty stand answer that had been given by our other leaders for almost 20 years.  But this was right after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Americans had been digging holes in their back yards to hide from the end of the world. Johnson saw his chance and created what was called the “Daisy Commercial.” It filmed an innocent little girl in a pasture counting the petals on a daisy while a nuclear bomb explodes in the background, and Goldwater saying, “It is just another weapon.”  Its point: Goldwater is crazy and if president, would start a nuclear holocaust should conflict with Viet Nam escalate.

 The commercial was incredibly successful even though Johnson paid to play it only once. It was played over and over as a news story on all the networks, and started a media feeding frenzy that Goldwater would not survive.  Johnson would not even have to play his grossly unfair back up commercial, one no one saw, where he unfairly imagined Goldwater with the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan.

 Over the coming years our board meetings would take place at the Capitol Building or in various congressional offices in Washington, where most of our founding board resided. Little ever changed from the original concept of collecting factual data and laying it out in free, easy-to-access categories.

 And, of course, the three basic rules to protect Vote Smart’s integrity were scrupulously maintained: 1.  Board members with political reputations had to join with a political enemy. 2. We accepted no funding from any organization that lobbied, supported, or opposed candidates or issues. 3. All staff signed up for a two-year election cycle or whatever remained of one, and was paid only Peace Corps-style wages—just enough to subsist on.

 My foundation groveling became modestly successful, raising a few hundred thousand dollars during each of a half dozen election cycles.

  To give you some idea of how we attracted foundation support: A most promising grant was given so we could test our programs in disenfranchised communities with low civic involvement. We selected a few dozen precincts around Atlanta and San Francisco and saturated them with Vote Smart programs while staying completely out of other similar precincts.  When the election ended, I asked a wonderfully supportive good friend, prominent professor, and survey specialist, who I asked to join our board, Dr. Brent Steel to do a survey. Using a team of students making calls he went back into those precincts to see if any impact could be measured. To our happy surprise we found that those groups receiving our programs got excited about their ability to impact governance and each of these precincts measured a 5% higher “confidence in government” rating than those not receiving our programs. As Brent reported, in the world of civic engagement in a single election season, that is huge movement. But then, as happens with large foundations, their board leadership changed and neither they nor any other foundation was interested in continuing what had been a previous board’s idea.

 After some years of such foundation behavior my anger with large foundation arrogance would boil over in an interview, I gave a publication for foundation executives called The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The interview would scald Vote Smart for years to come.

(New chapters will be added roughly once a week)

Richard Kimball, Vote Smart Founder

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 The election was still some weeks away, but the race was over. I continued to go through the motions, giving little club speeches and media interviews but it was a hapless time for me.  Knowing that I owed it to my supporters who were hoping for a miracle that would never come and to other Democrats running for other offices, I submissively marched on.

 Although it would have no impact on the race or even be apparent to me at the time, the most fortuitous event of the campaign was yet to come.

 It was not long before the election when I had to fly back to Washington for an evening fundraiser held for me by Arizona’s Democratic congressional delegation.  It was not much of an event. Maybe a hundred people, mostly lobbyists, along with a few other dignitaries, thinking it party obligatory to show up. It was becoming clear to most in the know that I was going to go down hard.  

 That evening my mind was not on shaking more hands or raising money.  My thoughts were entirely of the person I had met with earlier that afternoon.

 I had walked into Barry Goldwater’s office just to see if he was in and say a quick hello.

 He had been friends with my dad and since then had become Dad to the entire Republican Party, a thoughtfully conservative party, not the one that has him spinning and thrashing in his grave today. Despite our political differences, I admired him greatly.  He had somehow been able to survive election after election saying any damn thing he wanted, to anyone he wanted, on any subject he wanted, and that had become unique in politics.

 As I walked into his office he stood up, not to greet me, but to shoo his staff out. He then told me to sit down and walked over to his door and slammed it shut.  I thought I was in for it, but the next few minutes were a revelation. Agitated, he began recalling his early days in politics when he was running for a city council seat in Phoenix.

 He had thought he saw a better way to manage the city, he wanted to have his say and did, but had not been able to do that kind of thing for many years, because he was now spending all of his time raising money to defend himself from well-healed Democratic challengers viciously attacking him with commercials that spoke nonsense to people by the thousands. Then he got to his point: he started talking about my closing debate remarks.  It was as if he had spoken every word himself.

 He talked about how politics had changed during his life, that it was a different cut we were selecting our leaders from, a nastier, less able group. He was sickened by what was now required to win.  He thought the behavior of campaigns and candidates was “dangerous” and “dishonorable” and that was part of the reason he was getting out.

 It all made me think back to when he was friends with Jack Kennedy, and they had agreed to campaign together across the country in Lincoln-Douglas style debates just before Kennedy was shot. What a difference, what a new standard that would have made!

 I left that meeting locked in thought.  He’s a Republican, one of the most prominent conservative Republicans in the nation, he sees what I see.  There is something here, there is something to be made from this, but what?

 On Election Day, the staff was in good spirits or at least putting up a pretty good show, the office was filled with excited volunteers coming and going.  This is what it was all about, the day the people got their say, got to choose their representatives.  It was an easy day to forget all the tracking polls that showed my plummeting numbers, to forget our lack of funds, to forget we had no commercial buys, to think, well . . . it could happen.

 I knew better, but I did dream a bit that evening as we all waited for the returns, particularly after John finally got around to taking that swing at me. Unfortunately, his swing hit one of my volunteers instead.  I ran into her as I was entering our campaign office. She was standing outside in tears.  When I asked what the matter was, she just looked up at me, mumbled “McCain’s gift,” and motioned inside.  

  I walked in where everyone was pretty angry. “Fuck him!” “What an Asshole!” “Let’s call the press and let them see what he is really like,” were a few of the blasts I heard.  “No,” I said, “the race is over.”

 The results rolled in showing things were worse than anyone expected – a humiliating rout of some 18 points.

  My efforts at the traditional call to concede were met with “John is very busy sleeping,” but I did have his gift.  It was surprisingly beautiful, upset as everyone was, no one had ever seen anything quite like it: an enormous funeral wreath of dead black roses.

(New chapters will be added roughly once a week)

Richard Kimball, Vote Smart Founder

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