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.

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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.

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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?”

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