The Amazing True Story of the Last Democratic InfomercialTonight, Barack Obama will appear on your television screen for 30 minutes in order to convince you to vote for him next week. He'll be on CBS, NBC, Univision, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. (But not ABC! Tune in for Pushing Daisies!) Obama's half-hour TV buy tonight has some historical precedent, of course; Ross Perot did it, and look where it got him! But for a good look at how far the Democrats have come, let's all go back to 1983, when the Democratic National Committee hosted, yes, a telethon. It, uh, it didn't go so well. In fact it went unbelievably, comically awry. As the 1980s began, the Republicans introduced and perfected their massive, modern fundraising apparatus, utilizing direct mail and donor targeting to build a database of party supporters willing to shell out cash whenever and wherever it was needed. In 1980, the GOP raised millions more from hundreds of thousands more than the Dems could manage. And they kicked the Democrats' asses. So, heading into the 1984 elections, the Democrats knew they needed a lot of cash to compete. The GOP had more than a million active donors, the Dems had almost 300,000. So the Democratic National Committee somehow decided that a star-studded telethon on NBC would solve the problem. They spent $5 million on the program, hoping to raise an initial $10 million over 18 hours on Memorial Day weekend. And it was a star-studded affair! As the AP reported:
The telethon's lineup of about100 entertainers is being developed by the Pasadena, Calif., production company of Russ Reid. Among many signed up so far are Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Mary Tyler Moore, John Forsythe, Kris Kristofferson, Sally Kellerman, Dennis Weaver, Helen Reddy, Woody Herman, Hal Linden, Rita Moreno, Carmen McRae, Bea Arthur and Jean Stapleton, said Ron Holder, assistant to talent produce Bob Precht.
But not all the celebrity appearances worked out!
Jane Fonda has failed her fund-raising audition with the Democratic National Committee. The DNC plans to edit her out of the portions of its Memorial Day telethon that it will rebroadcast as campaign specials next year. Fonda was deemed too controversial for the shows, which will be test-marketed next month. Her appearance on Memorial Day generated hundreds of hostile telephone calls and letters. Apparently, many still think of her in the role of the left-wing activist who visited Hanoi, and not that of the physically fit liberal she now plays. Says one DNC official, "It's as if they saw Jane Fonda on the screen and suddenly it was the '60s again."
Nor did the telethon itself work out, at all. First, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority jammed the phone lines. But they probably didn't even need to, considering how amazingly stupid the whole idea was to begin with. The telethon grossed $2.75 million, which was $2.8 million less than it cost to produce. In the end, it's amazing that the Democratic Party ever won an election again. So think of those bygone days of astounding incompetence as you watch (or don't watch, whatever) smooth Barry Obama close the deal tonight, thanks to his amazing fundraising abilities and massive donor list. It only took 25 years to catch up! (If anyone, anywhere, has video evidence of the 1983 telethon, we'd love to see it.)