Meet the Man Who Helped Kill Hillarycare

Political advertising executive Ben Goddard launched a wave of lobbying-by-television.

In September 1993, first lady Hillary Clinton responds to applause from a joint session of Congress after President Bill Clinton saluted her as the "talented navigator" for his proposed national health plan.
National Journal
Marina Koren
March 31, 2014, 1 a.m.

Two dec­ades ago, it took just 30 seconds to kill health care re­form.

In 1993, Amer­ic­ans were in­vited in­to the fic­tion­al homes of Harry and Louise in a series of short tele­vi­sion ads. Sit­ting at their din­ing table, the couple lamen­ted Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s health care pro­pos­als, wor­ried that they would raise taxes and re­duce pa­tient choice.

The $17 mil­lion TV cam­paign was fun­ded by the lob­by­ing group Health In­sur­ance As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica to stop Clin­ton’s sweep­ing re­forms. And the com­mer­cials worked, fright­en­ing the real Harrys and Louises — middle-class poli­cy­hold­ers — in­to ac­tion. Voters fought back, and Con­gress re­ceived 250,000 calls and let­ters after the spots aired.

In­siders were shocked. The Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­pos­al, dubbed Hil­lary­care for the first lady’s in­flu­ence, was dead.

The man be­hind that cam­paign was polit­ic­al ad­vert­ising ex­ec­ut­ive Ben God­dard. In that mo­ment, God­dard be­came the fath­er of is­sue-ad­vocacy ad­vert­ising. Back then, lob­by­ists al­most nev­er used com­mer­cials; they were ex­pens­ive and un­tested in is­sue cam­paigns. The Harry and Louise cam­paign launched a wave of lob­by­ing-by-tele­vi­sion, and cor­por­a­tions quickly real­ized the power of tar­get­ing con­sumers to mo­bil­ize pub­lic sup­port be­hind policy is­sues they wanted to bury. God­dard and his busi­ness part­ner, Rick Claussen, were “polit­ic­al hired guns with a knack for find­ing the bull’s-eye,” Busi­nes­s­week de­clared in 1995.

Get­ting “Harry and Louised” be­came a real fear in Wash­ing­ton.

{{third­PartyEmbed type:you­tube id:Dt31nhleeCg}}

No oth­er ad cam­paign from that time has stuck in the cap­it­al’s col­lect­ive memory quite like Harry and Louise. The no-frills spots were, above all, be­liev­able. Hun­dreds of Amer­ic­ans were sit­ting around their din­ing tables, talk­ing about their health in­sur­ance. That was God­dard and Claussen’s spe­cialty: strip­ping down com­plex is­sues to ex­pose a re­lat­able mes­sage that in­spired view­ers to reach out to their elec­ted of­fi­cials.

“They didn’t want to hear about these is­sues from ex­perts; they wanted to hear from real people,” God­dard, 71, tells Na­tion­al Journ­al, more than two dec­ades after the ads ran. “And that’s what Harry and Louise were.”

God­dard star­ted his com­mu­nic­a­tions ca­reer early, as a 16-year-old DJ in Idaho. After a stint as a tele­vi­sion re­port­er, he foun­ded an ad­vert­ising agency in Boulder, then sold it six years later to help run then-Geor­gia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s suc­cess­ful 1976 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. A year later, God­dard foun­ded First Tues­day, a Malibu, Cal­if.-based polit­ic­al me­dia shop whose cli­ent list in­cluded gov­ernors and mem­bers of Con­gress, such as Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., and Rep. Mo Ud­all, D-Ar­iz., as well as former In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Bruce Bab­bitt and the Rev. Jesse Jack­son.

God­dard once came close to an­noun­cing a run for Con­gress him­self, in Col­or­ado as a Demo­crat. “I fi­nally real­ized that I couldn’t do a cam­paign and still be in­volved in my busi­ness, and that was more im­port­ant for me,” he says now.

In 1988, God­dard shif­ted from the cam­paign trail to cor­por­ate work. Two years later, he merged his com­pany with Claussen’s me­dia firm to cre­ate God­dard Claussen, which even­tu­ally opened an of­fice in D.C. The polit­ic­al ad­vert­ising firm that would de­rail a pres­id­en­tial ini­ti­at­ive for na­tion­al health care was born.

The first Harry and Louise spot was shot in Au­gust 1993. God­dard had cast act­ors Harry John­son and Louise Caire Clark to play his av­er­age Amer­ic­an couple. “I was not in a good mood be­cause it was a table com­mer­cial,” Louise re­calls. “I had not seen a copy of it, and I didn’t know what the com­mer­cial was about when I showed up on the set.”

Her mood worsened when she saw the script. “They give me a copy and I said, ‘Hou­s­ton, we have a prob­lem. I’m a Demo­crat and I be­lieve in na­tion­al health care,’ ” Louise said.

The ex­ec dir­ect­ing the ad, who hadn’t yet in­tro­duced him­self to Louise, poked his head out from be­hind a cam­era and looked at her. “Well, I’m Demo­crat too,” God­dard said. “Let’s talk about this.”

He took Louise aside and de­scribed the plan in great de­tails, point­ing out what he be­lieved were ir­re­deem­able flaws. It clicked for Louise, and they star­ted film­ing. “And then that night he asked me out for a drink,” she said. ‘I think it was be­cause I was kind of dif­fi­cult — not as an act­ress — but I was really go­ing to walk off.”

That day marked the be­gin­ning of an­oth­er pivotal mo­ment for God­dard. He even­tu­ally mar­ried Louise, and his de­cision to cast her in the ad has been a run­ning joke ever since. God­dard had played au­di­tion tapes of two wo­men, one a red­head, the oth­er a dirty-blond-haired Louise, back to back dozens of times. “It be­came clear to me — I just felt in my gut — that the pub­lic would re­spond bet­ter to Louise,” God­dard re­calls.

“It was a tough call for me be­cause I was very much in­to red­heads at the time,” he adds, laugh­ing.

Harry and Louise was no doubt God­dard’s most high-pro­file cam­paign. But just a few months be­fore it took off, God­dard was in the middle of an­oth­er his­tor­ic pro­ject in Rus­sia.

In spring 1993, a chief strategist for Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Bor­is Yeltsin reached out to God­dard’s firm. Yeltsin’s party had a ref­er­en­dum com­ing up — in three weeks, ac­tu­ally — that would pre­serve his free-mar­ket re­forms, and he needed West­ern-style ad­vert­ising to get Rus­si­an voters’ sup­port.

God­dard hopped on a plane to Mo­scow, tak­ing with him John A. Ridg­way, whose TV pro­duc­tion firm de­signed graph­ics for CBS Even­ing News With Dan Rather and En­ter­tain­ment To­night. Dur­ing the day, the pair, speak­ing through trans­lat­ors, met with top Yeltsin aides and mem­bers of the Cen­ter for Rus­si­an Demo­crat­ic Re­form to talk strategy. At night, they sketched ideas on cock­tail nap­kins in their hotel lounge.

They came up with five TV spots in one week — and they did it for free. “They have no money to pay for any­thing over there,” God­dard said at the time. The ads pushed the idea of a new, demo­crat­ic Rus­sia, jux­ta­pos­ing bleak im­ages of the old So­viet gov­ern­ment with pho­tos of smil­ing chil­dren. They aired on Rus­si­an TV net­works just a week be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, which passed.

“No one is claim­ing that the ads vastly changed the out­come of the ref­er­en­dum that kept Yeltsin in power and Rus­sia on the road to demo­crat­ic re­forms,” wrote Bruce Horovitz for the Los Angeles Times in May 1993. “But after the vote, sev­er­al of Yeltsin’s foes gave back­han­ded com­pli­ments to the ads by de­cry­ing them as mis­lead­ing — a cri­ti­cism com­monly leveled at suc­cess­ful Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al spots.”

Two dec­ades later, God­dard re­mem­bers his ex­per­i­ence fondly. “It was just in­cred­ibly fas­cin­at­ing to be in­volved in — com­mu­nic­at­ing with people in a lan­guage that I didn’t un­der­stand and be­ing part of a cul­ture that I only vaguely un­der­stood,” he said.

One of those people was the deputy may­or of Mo­scow at the time: Vladi­mir Putin. “I liked him, per­son­ally,” God­dard re­calls of the now Rus­si­an pres­id­ent, who seemed to him “a man on a mis­sion” when they met. “I thought he was very, very tough. That came through loud and clear to me,” God­dard says. “I re­mem­ber telling someone af­ter­wards that there was something go­ing on be­hind his eyes that was — it sort of stopped you in your tracks “¦ even then it was clear to me that he was go­ing some­where.”

A few years after the Yeltsin cam­paign, God­dard and Claussen sold their firm to Om­ni­com, an in­ter­na­tion­al com­mu­nic­a­tions con­glom­er­ate. The part­ner­ship was brief, and the duo an­nounced their de­par­ture — and their re­turn to a smal­ler firm — in 2003. “We had got­ten too busy do­ing cli­ent li­ais­on and deal­ing with hu­man re­sources, ac­count­ing, and man­age­ment is­sues,” God­dard told Na­tion­al Journ­al back then. “We wanted to get back to be­ing in­volved with cli­ents in a hands-on way.” God­dard was used to dir­ect­ing every TV com­mer­cial his firm cre­ated, and he had lost a sense of en­tre­pren­eur­ship be­cause he was only do­ing about two or three spots a year.

Also in 2003, God­dard and Louise sold their Malibu home and moved to Wash­ing­ton, where they live now. “We wanted to send a very clear sig­nal that we were com­mit­ted to be­ing in this mar­ket,” God­dard says. “We thought the way to do that was to be here full time.”

God­dard Claussen split in two — geo­graph­ic­ally — in 2010. Claussen headed to Sac­ra­mento to run God­dard Claussen/West, which later merged with the Gins­berg McLear Group to be­come Red­wood Pa­cific, a pub­lic-af­fairs firm. God­dard stayed in Wash­ing­ton, run­ning God­dard Gun­ster with his long­time pu­pil, Gerry Gun­ster. The pair even­tu­ally opened of­fices in Lon­don, Cairo, and Brus­sels.

Over the years, God­dard’s ex­tens­ive list of cli­ents has in­cluded everything from life in­surers and util­ity cor­por­a­tions to non­profit groups. For Cures­now, he cre­ated com­mer­cials pro­mot­ing stem-cell re­search in 2002. For the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive, God­dard wrote and pro­duced two films in 2005 about the push to stop the spread of nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons. For the Amer­ic­an Bever­age As­so­ci­ation, Gun­ster helped de­feat former New York May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg’s con­tro­ver­sial soda tax in 2013, a pro­ject that the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of Polit­ic­al Con­sult­ants gave its best ad­vocacy-cam­paign-of-the-year award. God­dard won an Emmy award for his work in tele­vi­sion, and his com­mer­cials are in the Smith­so­ni­an.

Last year, God­dard began slowly step­ping away from the desk at God­dard Gun­ster. He will con­tin­ue con­sult­ing and re­main chair­man of the re­cently launched God­dard In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs, which of­fers is­sue-spe­cif­ic ad­vocacy train­ing for cor­por­ate and non­profit groups.

As for Harry and Louise, the pair re­cently made a comeback in Au­gust 2008, dur­ing the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion. This time, they were on the side of na­tion­al health care re­form. “Who­ever the next pres­id­ent is, health care should be at the top of his agenda,” Louise tells Harry. “Bring every­one to the table and make it hap­pen.” They popped up again in Ju­ly 2009, in sup­port of the Af­ford­able Care Act. The ads were sponsored by Fam­il­ies USA, the Amer­ic­an Hos­pit­al As­so­ci­ation, and phar­ma­ceut­ic­al in­dustry trade groups.

{{third­PartyEmbed type:you­tube id:fOr17a4ZOIU}}

The couple that sty­mied Demo­crats two dec­ades ago has re­mained in the shad­ow for this year’s battle over Obama­care, set to boil over dur­ing the midterm elec­tions. Re­pub­lic­ans are gain­ing ground in their cam­paigns by rail­ing against the health care law, and Demo­crats are try­ing to hold onto their seats by chan­ging the sub­ject. Look­ing ahead, though, God­dard and the real-life Louise are op­tim­ist­ic about a Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­id­en­tial bid for 2016. Louise says she would vote for the former first lady she helped bring down in 1993.

She just hopes Clin­ton isn’t still mad at her. After all, not only did Louise’s act­ing gig kill health care re­form, it also planted the seeds for large Demo­crat­ic losses dur­ing the 1994 midterm elec­tions, when Re­pub­lic­ans swept the House, Sen­ate, and gov­ernor’s man­sions.

The God­dards ran in­to the Clin­tons at break­fast at the Old Ebbitt Grill in 1994, after the cam­paign had dealt its fatal blow. “I’ve nev­er been so nervous in all my life. I was shak­ing,” Louise re­calls. “They were both very gra­cious. He was very gra­cious, and she wanted to know why I was there — to make more of those com­mer­cials, or what?”

What We're Following See More »
Trump Jr. Meeting with GOP Members
5 hours ago
US Nukes Rely on Decades-Old Tech
6 hours ago
Eleven States Sue Administration Over Transgender Bathroom Access
8 hours ago

The great restroom war of 2016 continues apace, as eleven states have sued the Obama administration in federal court, claiming its federal guidance on how schools should accommodate transgender students "has no basis in law." "The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on behalf of Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The lawsuit argues that the federal government has worked to turn workplaces and schools 'into laboratories for a massive social experiment.'"

Puerto Rico Debt Bill Passes House Committee
8 hours ago

By a 29-10 vote, the House Natural Resources Committee today passed the bill to allow Puerto Rico to restructure its $70 billion in debt. The legislation "would establish an oversight board to help the commonwealth restructure its un-payable debt and craft an economic recovery plan."

Wyden Bill Would Make Nominees’ Tax Disclosures Mandatory
8 hours ago

"Though every major party nominee since 1976 has released his tax returns while running for president, the practice has never been required by law. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) wants to change that. The senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which handles tax issues, introduced a bill on Wednesday that would force presidential candidates to release their most recent tax returns. The Presidential Tax Transparency Act, as the bill is called, would require candidates to make their latest three years of tax returns public no later than 15 days after becoming the nominee."