Photo: Christopher Brown, 1980
This article orginally appeared in the Capital Letters section of the November 27, 1979 Boston Phoenix.
Washington – If ideology wasn't already dead in presidential politics, the plug was pulled on its support system last Monday, when the Kennedy campaign announced that its advertising and polling would be organized by Mobil Oil's vice-president of public affairs; Herbert Schmertz, a man who has brought to Adam Smith's free-market philosophy the propaganda tools of 20th-century media. Informed of the announcement, UMass journalism professor Ralph Whitehead cracked "Teddy just deregulated his conscience."
Schmertz is not just another flack; he is, contends Boston political consultant Thomas J. Vallely, "the father of corporate political advertising," a man who has built a communications empire compromising $21 million annually in Mobil advertising and a staff of almost 1000 persons that monitors every – yes, every – news broadcast in America on oil-related matters. Thus armed, Schmertz's operation contests with letters to the editors and paid advertising any views contrary to the interest of Mobil and the oil industry. When decontrol was before the Congress, for example, Mobil placed a newspaper ad in every congressional district in the country. Among Schmertz's prime targets have been some of Kennedy's staunchest allies in the fight against deregulation and the fight for a tougher windfall-profits tax; they have included Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and William Winpinsinger, president of the International Association of Machinists, which mounted the direct-mail campaign to draft Kennedy. Winpinsinger is also the prime mover in the Citizens Labor Energy Coalition, which Schmertz once assailed as "just a letterhead committee."
"This is a guy who knows how to play hardball," says Vallely. And Schmertz's brushback pitch evidently will not be left in Mobil's locker room. He recently telephoned TV reporter Roger Mudd to complain about the now-infamous CBS interview of Kennedy. Schmertz said he had a transcript of the show and was reviewing it. When Mudd asked if he was working for Kennedy, Schmertz's reply was elliptical and noncommittal.
After the Kennedy campaign's announced that Schmertz would "set up a structure" for Kennedy's TV and radio commercials, Jody Powell said, "I hope Mr. Schmertz is as successful with Senator Kennedy's image and credibility as he has been with the image and credibility of the major oil companies." Powell's statement is as notable for its inaccuracy as for its glibness. It is more likely that as a result of Schmertz's ingenuity, Mobil has been saved from public demands for its nationalization. "Herb Schmertz has helped to engineer a sea change in American public opinion" says Whitehead. "He has proteced one of the major profit centers in the American business oligopoly for 10 years." If the two principal forces that move public opinion are corporate and progressive, and Whitehead blieves, "Herb Schmertz is the Jim Farley of the corporate force." He has, it should be noticed, succeeded in keeping Mobil's image relatively clean during a decade in which the company has supported the white regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa and has been accused of criminal restraint of trade, conspiring to raise prices by creating an artificial energy shortage, and conspiring with other large energy companies to monopolize the refining of petroleum products – to name just a few, as they say in the advertising trade.