The first strike was launched in October. The missile was a 30-second television commercial showing a childlike drawing of stick figures, a simple house and a glum-faced sun. A Little Miss Muffet voice chirps, "I asked my daddy what this Star Wars stuff is all about. He said that right now we can't protect ourselves from nuclear weapons, and that's why the President wants to build a Peace Shield." Chunky red missiles begin to rain down, but they harmlessly disintegrate (pop! pop!) when they hit a bluish , Crayola arc in the sky. Presto, the arc becomes a shimmering rainbow, and the frowning sun begins to smile.
A counterstrike swiftly followed. The competing commercial showed a small carrottop boy playing with wooden alphabet blocks that spell Star Wars; he is vainly trying to arrange them to spell Peace Shield. A portentous voice intones, "Matthew's learning what adults already know: when someone wants to mislead you, they try to change the name." Then, an epiphany: "I got it!" Matthew says. "Space Wars."
The "rainbow" ad, sponsored by the pro-Star Wars lobbying group High Frontier, peppered the Washington airwaves as the President was preparing to leave for the Geneva summit. The "building blocks" commercial, hastily put together for the Committee for a Strong Peaceful America by Democratic Media Merlin Robert Squier, was created to deflect the impact of the first ad. These two commercials are merely the first and most publicized round in the great Star Wars Public Relations War, a duel of imagery that is bound to escalate even faster than the arms race.
As the U.S. and the Soviet Union fence over the implications of the space-based defenses at the arms-control talks in Geneva, proponents and opponents of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative are vying for the allegiance of the American public. On college campuses and television screens, in board rooms and scientific symposiums, the two sides are intent on persuading Americans that Star Wars is either a) an impossible and dangerous dream or b) the ultimate nuclear umbrella. Declares retired General Daniel Graham, head of High Frontier: "Both sides realize it's a political issue and grass-roots support is very important." Obscured by the often kindergartenish imagery, however, the real debate over SDI remains murky and complex.
High Frontier is the most conspicuous and conservative of the outfits lobbying for SDI. Graham says that this year his organization spent half of its $3 million budget on pro-SDI ads in print and on television, and forecasts a budget of $5 million for next year. The group publishes a newsletter with a circulation of more than 60,000. Graham zigzags across the country blithely suggesting that the U.S. could build SDI (he loathes the term Star Wars) with today's off-the-shelf technology. While Graham may be the most zealous of the pro-SDi salesmen, he is an amateur compared with its leading pitchman, Ronald Reagan. The pro-SDI forces count on the President's uncanny ability to convince the public that good old American hard work and know-how can make any dream come true.