Film is courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
While thinking about how last minute events like Hurricane Sandy, speeches and political commercials might influence the outcome of the 2012 election, I recalled hearing about one chilling commercial of 1976, never aired, that might conceivably (along with so many other factors) have changed the result of that year’s Presidential race between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, one of the closest in American history.
By courtesy of the Ford Presidential Library, I’ve viewed it and found it emotionally powerful. I think it would have been even more affecting, had it aired as planned, in that national atmosphere 13 years after President Kennedy’s murder and in the immediate wake of America’s traumas over Vietnam, urban riots, campus demonstrations and Watergate. Especially since it advertises a President not known for his emotional appeal, the commercial does an impressive job of presenting, on an emotional level, the best case for Ford’s election — that he had healed a ravaged country.
Late in his 1976 campaign, Ford’s media team produced the 5-minute commercial that shows Ford (who had survived two near-miss assassination attempts) giving a speech. A cherry bomb goes off, the President clearly presumes it is an assassin firing, and flinches. In the following scenes, we see Ford parading through Dallas in a motorcade similar to John Kennedy’s fatal caravan of 1963. “Neither the cherry bombs of a misguided prankster nor all the memories of recent years can keep people and their President apart,” says the narrator. “When a limousine can parade openly through the streets of Dallas, there’s a change that’s come over America.”
Ford’s team hoped the commercial would show that their man had closed down the bad years that led from JFK’s assassination to Vietnam and Watergate. But when pollster Bob Teeter showed the commercial to a secret focus group, he discovered that “it was shocking to them,” as he later told Jules Witcover, author of “Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976.” “It was just too emotional. …It was just frightening.”
Memories of the Kennedy murder — and of Ford’s close calls — were too recent. Some on Ford’s team feared that the spot would harm the campaign in Texas. The Secret Service would also have been right to worry that the film might incite a third assassin to assault the President. The commercial was kept in the vault and never aired.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is a regular contributor to PBS NewsHour. You can find him on Twitter @BeschlossDC.