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"WIN": How Gerald Ford tried to whip inflation with a button

Gerald Ford's weapon against inflation: A button
Gerald Ford's weapon against inflation: A button 06:41

When he was thrust into the presidency in 1974, Gerald Ford's plain-spoken optimism was seen by many Americans as his greatest virtue. "There's great public support for Ford when he first becomes president; he's such a contrast to Nixon," said Mirelle Luecke, curator of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. "He's seen as this very honest, down-to-Earth, well-meaning president."

That honeymoon wouldn't last. Public anger over Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon was made worse by a rapidly-deteriorating economy. "When he becomes president, inflation is at 10%, it would later cap at 12%," said Luecke.

Rocca said, "And we can we just say right now inflation is bad, but 12%? That's crazy!"

"And to top that off, there was also a really high unemployment rate as well."

Just two months after becoming president, on October 8, Ford addressed a joint session of Congress about the urgent economic situation. "We must whip inflation right now," he said. "I say to you with all sincerity that our inflation, our public enemy number one, will, unless whipped, destroy our country."

Luecke said, "The country was depressed, cynical, and people in the Ford administration hoped that with a campaign like this, the American public could really come together again like they had done in World War II."

The speech, which invoked FDR and likened inflation to the Nazis, was short on policy. There was, however, a button!

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WIN buttons (short for "Whip Inflation Now").  CBS News

"WIN" was short for "Whip Inflation Now." The phrase had a down-home ring to it, and had been dreamed up by the same New York ad agency responsible for one of the most successful campaigns in advertising history, for Charmin bathroom tissue.

Soon, the "WIN" logo was everywhere. At Ford's Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there are thousands of WIN artifacts, including a WIN coffee mug, a hand-knit WIN sweater given to Ford by a supporter in Nantucket; and a WIN Victory Garden. "The advertisement was that if you bought this gardening set for $10, you could save $290 in growing your own vegetables," said Luecke.

And since no war is complete without a fight song, the White House drafted Meredith Willson, composer of "The Music Man," to write one.

"Win together. Lose? Never! If you can win, so can I!"

The song was Broadway; the acronym, Madison Avenue. But "WIN" had been inspired by Main Street's favorite financial columnist, Syvia Porter. Equal parts Suze Orman and Martha Stewart, her newspaper column was read by 40 million Americans.

"Her idea was that individual consumers should be enlisted in the fight," said Porter biographer Tracy Lucht. "This meant things like conserving energy, not wasting food, planting gardens, taking measures that individually would help someone's budget, but taken collectively might also help to hold down prices."

But Ford's top economic advisors – like future Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan – were deeply skeptical. Greenspan later called the idea "unbelievable stupidity."

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President Gerald Ford sports a WIN button, in a speech to the Future Farmers of America in Kansas City, October 15, 1974. CBS News

A week after unveiling the "WIN" button to Congress, Ford hit the road to tout the program. In a speech to the Future Farmers of America, in Kansas City, the president said, "The first words I can remember in my dad's house were very simple but very direct: clean up your plate before you get up from the table. And that is still pretty good advice."

Reporters were expecting details; what they got was a litany of homespun tips, like, "When you aren't using them, turn off the lights, turn off the television, turn off the radio, turn off the water, use less hot water."

The speech was widely panned. And by March 1975, Porter herself made it official," telling "CBS Morning News," "Let us get this straight on your program, please: What has been abandoned, and for good reason, is the acronym 'WIN.'"

Lucht said, "It didn't have policy behind it, it didn't have any teeth. It was just sort of an ad campaign."

In the end, "WIN" didn't whip anything. Inflation remained high until the 1980s, when the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates to record highs, bringing on a punishing recession.

But "WIN" did leave us with the only inflation-related jingle written by a Broadway legend!

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"Win!" by Meredith Willson. Meredith Willson Papers, The Great American Songbook Foundation

Win! Win! Win! We'll win! Together!
Win! Together!!
That's the true American way today.
Who needs inflation? Not this nation!!
Who's going to pass it by?
You are, and so am I!
Win together, lose? Never!!
If you can win, so can I.

From "Win!" by Meredith Willson

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The cast of "The Music Man" at SALT Performing Arts, a community theater in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, performs Meredith Willson's "Win!" CBS News

      
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: Chad Cardin. 

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