John Lindsay. Ed Koch. Tom Bradley. Menachem Begin. Rudy Giuliani. Mike Bloomberg. Luis Herrera Campins.
They all have two things in common:
1. Superlative, even history-changing political success.
2. David Garth got them elected.
A sickly, homebound little kid from Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Woodmere, New York, David Garth grew up to become one of the most formidable political consultants of our time. He was an unabashed streetfighter with an uncanny knack for picking winners, elevating them from obscurity, and crafting their TV messages with unmatched skill, precision and, possibly most importantly, simplicity.
He said it himself:
“I sometimes think our real strength is in underproducing, in stripping away all the political clichés like blue shirts for TV. You’ve seen one of my campaigns, you’ve seen all of them.”
A classic David Garth ad was easy to spot because it usually contained the same elements: Candidate looks straight into the camera. Speaks in simple, plain-talk, easy-to-grasp sentences: What’s wrong with the status quo; What I’ll do to fix it; Why I’m not perfect, and why that’s OK. All the while, titles cover the bottom third of the screen, reinforcing what’s being said (a tactic Garth claims he originally employed to cover up some scratchy video). Finally, the slogan, exquisitely tailored for the candidate and the occasion. Like Lindsay referring to the NY Mayor’s job as “The Second Toughest Job In America.” Or Koch, the obscure Manhattan Congressman, running for mayor by taking digs at his predecessors, including Lindsay: “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?” Or the two words that knocked off the ruling party and got Luis Herrera Campins elected president of Venezuela: “Ya Basta!” (“Enough, Already!”).
Watch the master at work in these 1977 Koch ads (Koch went on to serve three terms as New York’s mayor):
(Thanks to YouTube and the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives)
Four years later, it was all about Koch’s achievements:
Before Koch, Garth, still perfecting his craft, helped Lindsay recover from a disastrous first term as mayor, by having him fess up to his mistakes in a unique way:
Lindsay was reelected.
Garth specialized in New York politics but he dabbled elsewhere. Venezuela was one example. He also helped Begin get reelected as Israel’s prime minister in 1981.
Many believe one of Garth’s greatest successes occurred in Los Angeles in 1973 when he helped Tom Bradley defeat Mayor Sam Yorty. It was a rematch of their 1969 battle which Yorty won, partly by stoking racial fears, casting Bradley as a radical extremist in league with Black Nationalists. With Garth’s help, Bradley, a former police officer and city councilmember, wiped out those fears in 1973, by acknowledging them, then ridiculing them, right into the camera:
“The last time I ran for mayor, I lost. Maybe some of you worried that I’d favor one group over another. In the first place, I couldn’t win that way; Los Angeles has the smallest black population of any big city in America.”
Bradley served five terms as LA’s mayor.
Garth was not above “going negative.” But when compared to today’s toxic, venomous, go-for-the-jugular, White Lie, Big Lie, Gross Distortion nastiness that substitutes for political discourse, one gets nostalgic, even a bit misty, for the way things once were. Garth played it straight. He kept it simple. He stuck to issues. He told the truth. He picked the right people. And he won.
David Garth passed away on December 15. He was 84.