Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle Always Leads to Trouble

It had to happen. On Thursday, July 31, the day after John McCain’s new “celebrity” campaign ad hit the airwaves – that television spot featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in an implicit comparison with Obama, the one that upset so many people, as it was perhaps desperate, or misguided, or implicitly racist, or right on target – or just silly – the locals out here in Hollywood reacted. Tina Daunt in the Los Angeles Times reports:

 

To Hollywood it smacked of desperation. That’s why the reaction to a new John McCain ad attempting to portray Barack Obama as a kind of mindless celebrity – likening him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears – drew collective yawns and shrugs of irritation from politically active members of the entertainment industry.“I didn’t think McCain could look silly,” mused Norman Lear. “But that ad diminishes him and makes him look silly.”

 

Of course Norman Lear is an unapologetic all-out old-fashioned liberal, founder of People for the American Way – they helped stop Bork in 1987 and want to keep religion out of politics. Lear also purchased a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence – that cost him well over eight million dollars – and puts it on display everywhere he can, thinking people should read the damned thing and wake up. So the man who brought us Archie Bunker is disappointed. Perhaps he didn’t expect to see one in real life.

 

Otherwise, the problem was in the details:

 

Just for a start, industry types say the ad is wrong: In the Hollywood lexicon, Obama is not a celebrity. He’s a rock star. (Note to McCain strategists: That’s the difference between Jessica Simpson and Bono.)

 

Then there’s the small inconvenience that Paris’ parents, Rick and Kathleen Hilton, are supporters of McCain’s Republican presidential bid. According to federal campaign records, they gave the maximum $4,600.

 

No word on their plans for the general election, but this much is certain: Their daughter has never paid to attend an Obama campaign fundraiser. (It’s unclear whether she’s even met the senator, or whether she’s even registered to vote. The same goes for Spears.)

 

Britney Spears just wants to be left out of the whole thing, but Daunt reports that “McCain’s latest attempt at discrediting his handsome, photogenic young rival particularly galls stars and executives with a memory” – as McCain had been out here eight years ago. Daunt says McCain had been “a fixture in Hollywood fundraising circles.” Back then he was trying to raise money from the same people he now ridicules, so this was a bad move.

 

The gritty details:

 

At the time, dozens of people in Hollywood Рincluding Lear, Harrison Ford, Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy and Michael Douglas Рgave to McCain because they thought he was a Republican celebrity ď with a great personal story. And, dare we say, some celebrities, namely Warren Beatty, even became friends with the Arizona senator.

 

But the truth is most of Hollywood won’t return McCain’s calls nowadays because many of the stars and executives he initially impressed now believe the maverick stance they found so attractive was just a pose. Hollywood doesn’t object to a good pose – unless, of course, it doesn’t work.

 

That’s Hollywood for you – everyone knows when you’ve jumped the shark. No one returns your calls. You lunch alone, and not at the Ivy on Robertson – too humiliating.

 

Daunt goes on to cover all the Obama enthusiasm in the industry – but you knew all that. And you also know Obama is careful. As Daunt explains, “Obama has kept Hollywood at a friendly but slight distance” – he’s not Bill Clinton. Daunt doesn’t elaborate at all – but you do sense Obama doesn’t have Clinton’s massive ego and self-destructive need for approval and for adoration anywhere he can get it. Bill Clinton obviously fit right in out here.

 

Daunt goes on to quote Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman – and yes, that is the man’s name, for you lovers of self-referential irony – saying Obama is big out here because he’s not pandering to anyone, while, after this particular ad, McCain seems “inauthentic.” Yeah, yeah – a Hollywood publicist discussing how someone is just “inauthentic” adds one more layer of irony. This is where, as they say, of you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made.

 

Be that as it may, Bragman doesn’t like how things are going with McCain – “All this feels very Roveian to me.” And he adds this – “McCain is trying to use Obama’s popularity against him, but guess what? Obama is popular.”

 

Out here you don’t argue with success.

 

And Obama is on this like white on bread – probably not the best metaphor, actually – but Obama has been arguing that President Bush and McCain have little to offer voters so Republicans will simply resort to a strategy of fear to keep the White House in the right hands. So he has been saying this – “What they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name, you know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” And that Obama is too popular, of course.

 

But that, as in Alice in Wonderland, led down a rabbit-hole:

 

John McCain accused Barack Obama of playing politics with race on Thursday, raising the explosive issue after the first black candidate with a serious chance of winning the White House claimed Republicans will try to scare voters by saying he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”

 

Until now, the subject of race has been almost taboo in the campaign, at least in public, with both sides fearing its destructive force.

 

“I’m disappointed that Senator Obama would say the things he’s saying,” McCain told reporters in Racine, Wis. The Arizona senator said he agreed with campaign manager Rick Davis’ statement earlier that “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.” The aide was suggesting McCain had been wrongfully accused.

 

In turn, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said, “We weren’t suggesting in any way he’s using race as an issue” but that McCain “is using the same, old low-road politics that voters are very unhappy about to distract voters from the real issues in this campaign.”

 

All of that is very odd, and hard to sort out. Any attack on Obama runs the risk of being seen as slightly racist – as Obama does seem to be black. It is far safer to attack his policies, not his personality and popularity – unless, in the first case, you want to send a message that “they” are all like that, and in the second case, that those who like him are just stupid dupe and don’t’ matter because you wouldn’t want the votes of such stupid people anyway.

 

Of course much of it didn’t seem to have much to do with race:

 

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, Obama steered clear of race as he chided McCain, saying: “So far, all we’ve been hearing about is Paris Hilton. I do have to ask my opponent: ‘Is that the best you can do? Is that what this election is really all about? Is that worthy of the American people?’”

 

At campaign headquarters in Chicago, Obama’s campaign unveiled a new Web site that accuses McCain of “negative attacks and false charges.”

 

In Wisconsin on Thursday, McCain expressed pride in his “celebrities” ad but also had words of praise for his rival after a questioner at a town hall meeting said Obama “terrifies me.”

 

Ah, so McCain had to defend Obama and calm down a terrified supporter. He seems to have let a dangerous genie out of the bottle – in the fairy tales those wishes never work out well.

 

And Marc Ambinder notes this:

 

McCain’s campaign is trying to play the aggrieved victim card, trying to generate the type of outrage that legitimately follows when the “race card” is played illegitimately. Also, by putting on their poker face a day after the Britney/Paris ad, McCain’s campaign might be trying to associate criticism of McCain’s tactics with the allegedly laid down race card. McCain’s aides have been waiting to use this “race card” card for a while, saving it up like one of those Uno Draw Fours.

 

So the genie is out of the bottle. The long-planned trap has been sprung. From now on the word is that you should vote for McCain because he is the aggrieved victim – that black man is picking on him for telling the truth, and damn it, some of his best friends are black, or something.

 

You win the white-resentment vote that way. Hillary Clinton couldn’t scare up enough of those voters for her purposes. Perhaps McCain can for his.

 

A campaign based on harvesting resentment might actually work. It’s just too bad there’s such a large pool of alternative resentment – with Bush. And if you want to continue his wars, and add another in Iran, only jacking up the intensity far more this time, you might have a problem. And if you want to continue and intensify his economic policies – dropping the taxes on the very wealthy and the corporations even further, even if you once said that was madness – you might have a problem. There’s far too much resentment floating around. Perhaps it’s best not to mess with it.

 

But the votes may be there. From the Chicago Tribune, a visit to a Crown Point coffeehouse:

 

Ann Coulter books sit stacked by the fireplace, and a picture of Ronald Reagan hangs on the wall. Fox News plays on all the televisions, and stock market quotes scroll along an electronic ticker above the cash register.

 

Behind the counter, owner Dave Beckham smiles proudly in a khaki T-shirt that reads “Zip It, Hippie.” The shirt is for sale at the Crown Point, Ind., cafe, along with ones that say “Peace through Superior Firepower.”

 

“It’s a change from the traditional liberal bastion coffeehouses,” Beckham says. “No one is going to bad-mouth America in here.”

 

Think back to 2004 and that Club for Growth thirty-second spot:

 

Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading … [dramatic pause] … Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.

 

Now latte-drinking is okay. The rest still stands. People learned to resent Kerry – particularly when they found out he spoke French fluently. The same team is now advising McCain. It worked before, after all. It must have seemed a good idea.

 

But Obama is far less stiff and defensive than Kerry, and McCain less of a goofball frat-boy sneering bully than Bush. This may not work.

 

But people have been hitting Obama hard on this – Obama telling congressional Democrats, in a closed door meeting, that his becoming president is “the moment, as Nancy [Pelosi] noted, that the world is waiting for,” and that “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”

 

That seems arrogant, but Chris Bodenner argues fair is fair:

 

Isn’t McCain’s candidacy largely built on the awe-inspiring symbolism of his own personal sacrifice and duty to country? (And rightly so.) Thus, without equating the two, why isn’t Obama’s life and candidacy also grounds for symbolic importance (whether you personally agree it’s important or not)? And why is it arrogant of him to acknowledge the obvious? McCain acknowledges his own symbolic greatness in public all the time.

 

James Kirchick says no:

 

I see two problems with this comparison. The first is that, unlike Obama, McCain has not predicated his campaign on his identity or personal story. He’s predicated it upon his experience, namely, his more than two decades of service in the House and Senate. A part of his campaign narrative is, yes, his character. But it’s hardly the crux of his campaign, whereas Obama – given his utter lack accomplishments befitting a potential president – has little else to base his campaign on other than his winning personality and vague calls for “change.” Obama’s greatest tangible accomplishments are two books, both of which he wrote about himself.

 

Secondly, to the extent that McCain has used the “awe-inspiring symbolism of his own personal sacrifice and duty to country” as a campaign theme, it’s relevant to being president. Contrary to what Wesley Clark says, getting shot down over Vietnam and being tortured for five years, while certainly not a requirement for presidential office, is a qualification. It’s a real demonstration of love of country, honor, and leadership capability. These things rightly matter to Americans when electing a president. The “symbolism” of John McCain is attributable to what he did, “his own personal sacrifice,” not who he is. What has Barack Obama “sacrificed” for America?

 

Bodenner is having none of that:

 

McCain has not predicated his campaign on his identity or personal story? That’s not just generally wrong, it’s literally wrong; McCain’s first campaign ad was titled “624787,” and it featured grainy, B&W footage of McCain as a POW. (The ad was so overt, my colleague Jenn Skalka unveiled it with: “John McCain. … American hero. Let the branding begin.”) And McCain’s first act of the campaign was a biographical, cross-country tour of McCain’s old stomping grounds.

 

Also, for the record, McCain has authored five McCain-centered books over the past nine years (plus a made-for-TV movie). And he seems to have been even more MIA than Obama in the Senate (which says a lot). But beyond those quibbles, the point remains: Mr. HopeChange and the Mr. Straight-Talk Maverick Express are both self-aggrandizing political brands, second only to Billary.

 

And as for getting shot down over Vietnam and being tortured for five years being a qualification for president, that sacrifice doesn’t work:

 

It’s certainly arguable that McCain’s narrative has more practical worth for the presidency. (Though one could also argue that Obama’s “awe-inspiring symbolism of his ability to transcend barriers and bring people together” is more relevant in the wake of Bush-Rove than “duty to country” – a theme the White House overplayed and perverted.) However, the premise of my post wasn’t the pragmatic power of their narratives, but rather their symbolic relevance (which has real, if intangible, impact). On that score, Obama clearly trounces McCain. McCain’s POW experience is unique, awe-inspiring, and timeless. But it isn’t timely; Obama’s “post-racist” persona provides the country a desperately-needed chance for symbolic healing – not just on race, but on three decades of Bushes, Clintons, and boomers in general.

 

You let those genies out of the bottle – all that crap about authenticity (who is real and who just a celebrity) and who is or is not the real victim of racism (McCain sort of hinting that he’s the victim now) – and everything cuts both ways. A basic rule – don’t play with knives.

 

And Obama could win this knife-fight, as Bodenner explains:

 

His life narrative – born to biracial parents in the 60s, abandoned by his father, raised by a hardworking mom and two modest Midwesterners of the greatest generation – was largely chance. While McCain’s crash was chance, he chose to go to Vietnam in the first place, and his POW experience was an active display of sacrifice, suffering, and endurance. So let’s assume McCain’s narrative makes him a better man; Obama’s narrative makes him a better candidate. And we’re electing a president, not a father to tell us amazing war stories (I’m lucky to have one already). The country will always have war heroes. But an Obama administration/generation in the wake of segregation, the 60s, the culture wars, and the Bush GOP only happens once.

 

Damn, dueling celebrities. Choose your favorite narrative. Every star has a back-story. But Bodenner doesn’t have much use for how McCain is playing this game:

 

McCain not only refuses to recognize Obama’s symbolism, he openly mocks it. Obama, on the other hand, has always praised McCain’s symbolic force as a POW. The country, and now the world, also sees Obama as a symbolic force. Yet when he references that reality to colleagues in a private meeting, the McCain camp twists his words into a character assault (a tired, cultural one, at that).

 

Attack Obama’s policies. Attack his thin resume. Even poke fun at how ridiculous Obamaniacs can be. But to launch false attacks suggesting Obama cares more about his campaign than the war and more about his “celebrity” than wounded soldiers is, well, dishonorable.

 

McCain’s favorite new mantra is that Obama would “lose a war to win a campaign.” Increasingly, though, it seems The Maverick would lose his soul to win one.

 

And then Bodenner goes on a tear:

 

Ironically, McCain’s personal narrative could be timely, with all the trauma at hand and all the challenges we face. But beyond sloganeering, what “service to country” is he calling for? If McCain was true to his well-crafted narrative, he would ask Americans to sacrifice for the greater good in a variety of ways. Like, say, returning to the upper-class rates in place before we were engaged in three simultaneous wars. Or perhaps push a bold-but-reasonable plan for national service? (Ya know, something like Obama’s.) Okay, start small: How about asking Americans not to pump so much gasoline? A tax holiday for what?

 

What is McCain asking us to sacrifice? A man who gave 6 excruciating years to his country can’t ask Americans to forgo 6% of their annual income? Does he want all of us to act like the materialistic, self-absorbed hippies he left for Hanoi?

 

Now, now – calm down. McCain is a good man, or once was a good man, even if Chris Hayes at the Nation offers a different back-story:

 

John McCain is an insanely rich individual. He is insanely rich because he married a woman who was insanely rich, who in turn inherited that insane wealth from her parents. They own more houses than I have pairs of shoes. Seriously. They have super fancy credit cards that they carry a $225,000 balance on. He wears expensive shoes. I’m sure his suits and ties cost a lot, too. Whatever. That is what it is.

 

But, importantly, John McCain simply has no connection to working people on a personal level, and most likely hasn’t for most of his political life. The only working class people he encounters are those who come to his campaign events, those who serve him at restaurants, and the small army no doubt employed to clean his ten houses. And, more importantly, he’s the head of a political coalition that while managing to win millions of working class votes, does not have any real representatives of working America calling the shots in the party’s upper echelons. His top economic adviser spent his entire career trying to stick it to the middle class and enrich the banking industry, which he later lucratively joined. Now that the very policies he pushed for helped create a massive Ponzi scheme that is collapsing on the heads of the middle class he sniffs at the rubble and calls those people whiners. Whiners.

 

And he was a real war hero. And Hayes says that, as wonderful as it is, doesn’t matter:

 

Now, if John McCain’s policies were crafted to aid working people, to restore some basic fairness to our economy at a time when inequality is undeniably growing, wages are stagnating and a perfect storm of disparate factors have blown lots of middle-class folks precariously close to the edge of real financial disaster, I wouldn’t really care that much about the fact that marrying a rich heiress has made him fabulously wealthy.

 

But John McCain’s policies have been crafted explicitly to enrich rich people like himself: he is going to take money from the government and put it in his wife’s bank account, and I mean that quite literally… This has been the signature Bush/Norquist tax policy of the last eight years and the policy McCain wants to continue.

 

And on he goes. McCain becomes Paris Hilton, actually:

 

… you have a super rich guy who got super rich not through any of his own genius or hard work (obvious proviso here about his undeniable courage and heroism in Vietnam, but that has nothing to with his net wealth). This super wealthy guy who has married into a family of millionaires flits around in private jets to his many houses while campaigning on an economic policy that tells working people that the economy is great, and if they don’t think it’s great they’re whiners. Meanwhile he’s pushing a tax code that would make him, his wife and his rich donors much richer.

 

At what point does it begin to set in that this guy is just another business-as-usual, out-of-touch rich guy?

 

Ah, that happens when the Obama folks come up with the ad that has McCain and Paris Hilton in the same frame, and a shortened version of Hayes’ words narrated by John Cleese.

 

The genie is out of the bottle. There’s no going back.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Attacks on Obama, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, Exploiting Resentment, Hollywood, McCain, McCain as a Victim of Racism, Obama, Patriotism, Playing Victim, Political Posturing, Qualifications to be President, Race and Politics, Stuck in the Past, The McCain Brand, The Race Card. Bookmark the permalink.

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