We pointed out that their experience was not relevant because in this case we were not trying to win a large number of white votes, only enough to put us over the top. Chicago’s north lakefront neighborhoods, while only a fraction of the overall population, were packed with white liberals who we knew would be alarmed at any association with racism.
We believed they would respond to the kind of TV spots we were proposing. Furthermore, we argued, the polling showed that the election was already lost. Remaining on the same course was suicidal. The dispute was intense. There were shouts and slammed doors.
Eventually, we were given a budget to produce two new TV spots that would directly address racism, but permission to air the spots or even show them outside the campaign was withheld pending the approval of the finance committee. Harold Washington himself remained aloof from these discussions, preferring to leave them to campaign staff so he could spend all of his time actively campaigning for votes.
Raw material for the new spots was readily at hand. Over the previous several weeks, many national Democratic leaders, outraged by the overt racism of the city’s leading Democratic officeholders and fearful that it would harm the party nationally, came to Chicago to campaign with Washington. One of them was former vice president Walter Mondale, who accompanied Washington to St. Pascal’s Church in an all-white working class neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side on Palm Sunday.
When Mondale and Washington walked to the church with press and campaign staff, an angry crowd awaited. Stones and threats of serious violence followed spiteful screams and racist catcalls. The police had to hustle the two leaders into the church. Fortunately for us, the entire episode was captured on film by CBS, including a tight headshot of an angry man bellowing “nigger lover” at the former vice president. So shocking was the news footage that it was aired over and over, first on local news outlets and then across the nation.
Working with his then partners, Sid Galanty and Daniel Dixon, Bill used the footage to make two new spots. The first, called “Pledge,” starts tight on a four-year-old white boy struggling through the first line of the Pledge of Allegiance as the camera pulls back to reveal him standing with other children. An abrupt cut takes the viewer to the near riot at St. Pascal’s Church and features the man screaming “nigger lover.” The spot then cuts back to a young black girl as the group of children continues to recite the pledge. After she delivers the next line, the St. Pascal’s footage repeats.
The spot returns to another child continuing the pledge, followed for a third time by the scene at St. Pascal’s. Finally, a somewhat older white boy finishes the pledge, the camera freezes on his face and slowly the spot fades to black. A tiny picture of Harold Washington appears at the bottom of the screen next to very small titles that read, “Harold Washington for Mayor.”
Over the fade to black at the end, an announcer’s voice is heard for the first time. He says, “When you vote for Mayor, make sure it’s a vote you can be proud of.” The spot’s emotional power derived not only from the kids reciting the Pledge against the backdrop of ugly racism but also because viewers were never asked to vote for Washington, only to watch the action and consider what was at stake.
The second spot, “Shame,” also relied on the footage from St. Pascal’s. It began with a series of well-known and emotionally evocative photographs that appeared on screen one by one with ominous music in the background: the Kennedy assassination, the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam, the killing of Martin Luther King, a dead student lying prone at Kent State University.
Over these powerful images, an announcer says, “There are moments in our country’s history of which all Americans are thoroughly and profoundly ashamed. One of those moments may be happening now, here in Chicago.” As the last sentence is delivered, the video cuts to the St. Pascal’s footage, holds on it for some time, and then ends in the same way as the first spot.
The four of us who had argued for this new material were pleased with the results. We thought we had powerful new tools to convince white liberal voters to once again support Washington. Yet, when we showed the two new spots to the businessmen on the finance committee, they reacted not with congratulations but with anger. They reiterated their belief that the spots provoked guilt and that guilt about racism would backfire with white voters.
Once more we countered that we were not targeting whites in general but only those with some liberal inclination. Caddell and Maslin presented convincing data that enough of them could still be converted to our camp to overcome our polling deficit, which still showed support below 50 percent and dropping further. We finally prevailed by proposing that we run the spots in combination with daily tracking polls. If the spots were damaging, we would quickly see it and have time to withdraw them. Reluctantly, the finance committee gave us permission to air “Pledge” on that basis, but forbid us from airing the more provocative “Shame.”
We sent “Pledge” to the TV stations and got it on the air with the election only eight days away. The results were immediate and palpable. Our tracking polls revealed that Washington’s decline among whites had been stopped. By the third day, it was on the increase, if only slowly. We were concerned that in the limited time remaining the rate of increase would not be sufficient to get us over 50 percent. As the last weekend before the election loomed, we appealed to the finance committee for permission to run “Shame.” But before they could respond, we discovered that the spot was flawed.
“Shame” had high emotional impact and was remarkably memorable when first seen, but upon repeated viewings it became evident that what was going on in Chicago, while shameful, was not parallel to the killings and assassinations depicted at the beginning of the spot. The more often it was seen, the less powerful it became.
Ideally, we needed to show “Shame” to every voter in Chicago but make sure that no one saw it more than once. While that would not be possible today, it was possible then because there were only three dominant TV networks and during prime time a large majority of voters all watched one of them. This was an era before cable TV, the Internet, TiVos, DVDs, and all the other technological developments that have fractured the voting audience into various opinion silos.
By purchasing a spot on each of the three networks at the same exact moment during prime time broadcasting, something then referred to by media buyers as a “roadblock,” a large majority of viewers would see the spot but no individual viewer could see it more than once.
It was a good plan but the finance committee rejected it out of hand. They remained as certain that “Shame” would drive away white liberals as we were certain it would encourage them take a second look at Washington.
Early Friday morning, with only four days remaining before the election, the tracking poll indicated that Washington was not moving up fast enough to win. For the previous 48 hours, the two of us had continually grilled the pollsters about the likely impact of “Shame” and had been told that everything in the available data indicated we should use it. The moment of truth had come. We knew there was a Friday noon deadline at the TV stations for locking down which spots would run over the weekend and on Monday.
The two of us agonized over what to do. For two hours Friday morning we weighed the pros and cons of the action we were considering. Chicago was on the verge of an historic change. Through sacrifice and hard work, organizers had mobilized the African American community as never before. It would all be wasted if Washington failed to carry the election on Tuesday.
The finance committee, a group lacking any meaningful experience in media-driven campaigns, was using its authority to block a necessary decision. Clearly, we had a contractual obligation to obey, but did we not also have a responsibility to the candidate to act in his best interests?
Fully cognizant of the stakes—for everyone—and fully aware of the moral ambiguity, we decided to risk defying the finance committee and put “Shame” on the air. Bill convinced campaign manager Bill Ware that copies should be sent to the TV stations in case we were able to alter the finance committee’s decision over the weekend. Then, without informing Ware or anyone else, and in total disregard for the finance committee’s orders not to run “Shame,” we shifted the campaign’s purchased TV airtime to set up a “roadblock” for it at 8:01 p.m. on Sunday.
We did not bring Washington into this decision. We did not want to force him to choose between his consultants and his financial backers, although he had seen the spots and liked them both. “Shame” ran in the roadblock Sunday evening. The next morning, Ware and members of the finance committee were livid. We pretended to be as surprised as they were and blamed the TV stations for misinterpreting our orders. It was pure fabrication, but it got us through the day.
On Tuesday, it no longer mattered. Harold Washington won with 51.7 percent of the vote. In a vindication of our strategy, he carried 19 percent of the white vote. The press talked about both “Pledge” and “Shame” at length and gave them some credit for putting us over the top. We, however, wanted a more scientific assessment. The campaign authorized Caddell and Maslin to conduct a post-election poll to pinpoint how and why we had won. The completed poll clearly indicated that absent both spots, especially “Shame,” which was the more memorable, Washington would have narrowly lost.
After the victory, most of Washington’s supporters and campaign staff, black and white, expressed their appreciation for the powerful closing advertising. They thought it had been an effective counter to our opponent’s racism without having further exacerbated racial tension in the city. But members of the finance committee and a few leading staffers dependent upon them for salaries remained angry and bitter about our insubordination.
Some months after the victory, the finance committee sent Bill’s company a letter demanding $50,000 to replace the money spent to broadcast “Shame.” Bill referred the letter to Mayor Washington, who made sure no further action was taken.