Malibu’s political powerhouse


    This is the first in a continuing series profiling Malibu-based businesses and the personalities behind them.

    Ben Goddard is an interesting puzzle of a man–a savvy entrepreneur with a creative sensibility, a prominent public advocacy expert who claims to have environmental leanings and an enduring political insider whose soft-spoken manner evokes laid-back images of the bucolic Idaho farm that shaped his roots.

    A founding partner of Malibu-based Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli, one of the nation’s foremost issue-advocacy public relations firms, Goddard is considered a political advertising pioneer, having won difficult campaigns that managed to sway voters and politicos alike on contentious issues ranging from California’s school bond reform (Proposition 39) to the national debate involving U.S. trade with China.

    Some will recall Goddard Claussen’s high-profile campaign on behalf of the Health Insurance Association of America in 1994, to “battle against what seemed like certain passage of former President Clinton’s healthcare proposal,” according to the company. Included in the $28 million, multi-media effort was an array of highly persuasive television spots featuring an American couple simply known as “Harry and Louise.” Though few could rattle off their names, many remember the spot wherein an average, if dowdy-looking couple sat at their kitchen table with a stack of bills discussing the Clinton healthcare plan. Harry and Louise managed to raise more questions than answers, mirroring certain concerns over the healthcare issue common to other Americans. The spots worked.

    As to exactly why “Harry and Louise” touched such a strong chord, Goddard said, “We never run a campaign without researching it very carefully–testing those messages to see what works. You sometimes get incredible feedback out of focus groups.” He added, quickly, “We never trashed the Clinton plan. If you look at all those ads, in every one they say, ‘We agree with the president, we do need healthcare reform, but [we are] worried about these [points],’ and they were things most Americans would be worried about.”

    The campaign was believed to be a pivotal blow in defeating Clinton’s healthcare proposal.

    No stranger to politics, Goddard’s godfather was C. Ben Ross, known as “Cowboy Ben,” who served three terms as governor of Idaho from 1930 – 1936.

    Goddard’s cousin was Henry Agard Wallace, the 33rd vice president of the U.S. from 1941 – 1945.

    “I didn’t know about Wallace until I was 17,” said Goddard. “My dad thought he was [a] communist and wouldn’t talk about him in the house.”

    Goddard forwards another telling sketch later, via e-mail.

    “At age two,” Goddard wrote, “I walked into the middle of a family gathering and started making a speech about something important to me–probably half gibberish. Ross proclaimed, ‘That boy is going to be a politician,’ and the die was cast.”

    Goddard began his communications career more than 30 years ago, first in television, followed by the launch of his own advertising company in 1969 at age 27 in Boulder, Colorado.

    After selling the company in ’75, Goddard emerged as Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager for the Western states and later formed another company, First Tuesday, a political consulting outfit out of Prescott, Arizona before transferring it to Phoenix.

    “I was a wag-the-dog guy,” Goddard said, “a political media consultant. I did campaigns mostly for Democrats.”

    Former presidential hopeful Gary Hart and Arizona Congressman Morris Udall were among them, according to Goddard, who said he later transitioned from “handling candidates to ballot issues and public policy sorts of things. Most of my background was in democratic politics.”

    To what extent does Goddard’s personal politics influence which issues or what clients his firm will take on?

    “There are clients for whom we will not work,” said Goddard. “We don’t do guns. We don’t do tobacco. We will not do any campaign that interferes with a woman’s right to choose–those are fundamental beliefs of mine, and we have turned down large sums of money [relating to tobacco and guns].”

    “There are other projects that I feel passionately about,” Goddard continued. “When we worked on trade relations with China, for example. I believe what we did was good for American business and Chinese citizens who want a more open society.”

    On the local front, Goddard cited his support of Malibu’s “slow growth” movement as an example of his pro-environmental stance.

    But a look at his company’s track record might suggest that dollars may have influenced Goddard Claussen’s environmental position more than once, though not according to Goddard.

    During the Clinton administration, the company represented the American Automobile Manufac-turers Association “to change the White House’s position on the United Nations’ treaty on global warming,” according to the company’s Web site.

    The firm’s keen influence is perhaps best illustrated in their statement, “By the time Vice President Gore left the conference in Kyoto mere months later, he was quoted on our side of the position, promising that the U.S. won’t sign a treaty that is not global and won’t work.”

    Though some might argue that any environmental protection effort thwarting mounting greenhouse effects is a good one, Goddard defended his firm’s position by saying the Kyoto treaty was a case of “right problem, wrong solution. It wasn’t a good plan.”

    In 1998, Goddard Claussen was hired to “create and execute a paid media effort to defeat Oregon’s Measure 64,” then a major battle between the timber industry and environmentalists who wanted to ban massive clear cutting efforts in Oregon’s state forests. The measure would have also banned the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides in state forests, and allowed citizens to sue to enforce the law.

    With the loss of jobs and timber revenue at the heart of their campaign, Goddard Claussen said Measure 64 was “an outright assault on Oregon’s timber industry … [and] had the potential to bring the industry to a complete halt.”

    Goddard Clausen’s well-oiled machine of broadcast, print and collateral communication to vote “no” on Measure 64 helped, if not insured, its overwhelming defeat.

    As to future challenges for Goddard, he offered, “What keeps the job interesting is figuring out how to move and shape public opinion on a particular issue–and it’s always a complex process. There is no silver bullet. You just can’t produce a 30-second commercial and it will all be done. You have to use the Internet, grassroots and build coalitions to spread the word.”

    As to any set ideologies Goddard may be guided by, he said, “Strategy always changes–you have to keep flexible.”