It could be said of all politicians, but Josh Marshall says it of one politician in particular:
John McCain has a big ego. And if there’s one thing John McCain prizes it’s the high regard many prestige Washington reporters hold him in.
But that is changing, as Marshall cites Time’s Joe Klein, the man who wrote that book Primary Colors and is the insider’s insider, now saying he was wrong to think McCain was an “honorable man.” And Klein is blunt, as you can see:
A few months ago, I wrote that John McCain was an honorable man and he would run an honorable campaign. I was wrong. I used to think, as David Ignatius does, that McCain’s true voice was humble and moderate…
Courage is grace under pressure. McCain showed it when he was a prisoner of war, and on many issues – yes, even on his stubborn insistence that the surge would work – but he is not showing it now. He is showing flop sweat. It is not a quality usually associated with successful leadership.
And Marshall notes that Klein has a new post – The Scum Also Rises:
It seems to me that Britney-boating isn’t going to be as lethal to Obama as swift-boating was to Kerry – indeed, it is more embarrassing than devastating – but that doesn’t make it any less intolerable. I mean, we’ve got two wars, an energy crisis, an economy teetering on the edge of real serious trouble – and this is the campaign John McCain wants to run?
I know, I know, it’s all part of politics. And Obama is probably going to have to get down in the gutter with McCain. But it’s pretty depressing, all the same.
Well, John McCain’s “celebrity” campaign ad, featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in an implicit comparison with Obama, has upset many people and has been analyzed enough. But Marshall has a point:
Klein’s out in the lead on this. But he’s not the only one-time McCain fan thinking the same thing. And you’re already starting to see some editorials in regional dailies calling him sleazy and a liar. So given McCain’s temper, when can we get some questions posed to him about that?
The answer is obvious – probably never. As Marshall also notes, McCain has insulated himself:
Let’s see how this works. McCain runs his Britney/Paris ad on the alleged but improbable basis that they’re the #2 and #3 celebs in the world, according to Rick Davis. McCain camp seizes on Obama statement that Obama has made multiple times before, accuses him of playing “race card”. Now McCain repeats Race Card, Race Card, Race Card a hundred times.
McCain has made the strategic decision that he can only win the election on the basis of Obama as friend of terrorists, unpatriotic suspicious outsider and radical, black guy who’s really more a flashy showbiz star (call it playing the Diddy card) than someone with the heft to be president. He’s probably right. That’s his only chance. And it may work.
As before, the word is that you should vote for McCain because he is the aggrieved victim. That flashy black man is picking on him for telling the truth, and damn it, some of his best friends are black, or something, and he’s not the racist, the black man is. Go figure.
Marshall puts it this way:
It seems we’re in for another bout of that great biennial bit of sad-sackery – they just can’t help unwittingly stumbling into racialized imagery and code-words when all they’re trying to do is create a good old fashioned smear ad. I feel their pain. Love is a battlefield.
But he also notes Theda Skocpol here arguing that whatever the McCain camp is doing, the Obama campaign, on any level, from surrogate to Obama himself, will only play into McCain’s hands by getting into an argument about race.
That’s obvious. That seems to be one of the things the McCain camp is trying to do. Skocpol says what the Obama folks need to do is go on the offense, hitting McCain with vivid ads on his abundant vulnerabilities, like, as she argues, the fact that McCain embraces all of Bush’s policies “and his own evident desperation.”
And Marshall completely agrees:
As a matter of messaging and campaigning, parrying this sludge requires a deft hand, and the Obama campaign can’t let itself get sucked into a debate about race and racialized campaign messages. But that’s their issue. Not ours. My interest is on shining a spotlight on what McCain’s doing.
It was always clear that it was going to be hard for John McCain to emerge from this campaign with his reputation and the presidency, simply because of the rough terrain any Republican faces this year. At this point, it’s clear that by the end of this, the reputation is going to be shot. There’s just been too much demonstrable lying on the candidate’s part, too much sleazy campaigning, too much outsourcing his campaign to Karl Rove. More and more editorialists and even some of the prestige pundits are starting to see it.
So you parry the sludge – or scum or what ever – because McCain has to win:
Because if he doesn’t, he’s got nothing left. All he is is a four-term senator from a medium-sized state with no legislative record. It’s an eminently worthwhile task to chronicle his descent.
And one of the readers at Marshall’s Talking Points Memo offers a place to start – by going beyond saying it’s sad and all that:
I think the whole “McCain’s going negative” snit is a really defensive and weak position for the Obama camp.
Sure – mention that McCain went negative, contrary to all his stated values – “All it take is a little dip in the polls for John McCain to cast aside his values.” But it seems to me there is very simple way to turn this around on McCain, and be on the offensive: “How bad does John McCain want to avoid talking about real issues? He’s running ads with Britney and Paris. Is that what American’s are concerned about?
Britney and Paris? Do you want to know how we are going to right the ship of our economy? Or do you want to hear about Britney and Paris? Want to talk about how we are going to extract our troops from Iraq? Or do you want to hear about Britney and Paris?”
Just pound away at this. This is what John McCain wants to talk about. Point out how frivolous it is to even spend any time developing this ad when there are so many important issues to address. Bitching about it being unfair or over some imaginary line that Karl Rove can’t even see is going to get them nowhere.
Okay – the best defense is a good offense and all that. That’s sometime true. And sometime the best defensive is laughing at the other guy – step up one level and people often step up with you.
It’s all a matter of the best way to deal with sludge. Marshall adds this:
Now, I note that the McCain/Britney/Paris ad seems to be getting panned pretty widely, quite apart from any suggestion that it’s pushing any offensive race-laced messages about Obama. And we’ve gotten a few emails from regular readers who write in and say, in so many words, “Yes, that’s a trashy ad. But the Britney and Paris stuff isn’t about race. They’re just trying to say Obama is frivolous and insubstantial like so much else in our celebrity culture.”
That may be so, but we’re told that Robert George says something else is in there – in addition to the racial angle, he believes the ad is even more clearly “designed to politically emasculate Obama.”
Marshall thinks this implicitly gets at “the fallacy inherent in how many people think about the way race is used in political messaging.” People see race “operating in some hyper-linear, almost Newtonian fashion.” But that doesn’t hold up:
Is the ad designed to say Obama is a frivolous part of the celebrity culture? Or is it meant to associate him with white women half his age, most of whose public notoriety is tied to their sexuality? If it’s one … well, it obviously can’t be the other.
And in this case, if all McCain’s ad guy is trying to do is make the apparently unobjectionable argument that Obama really isn’t a politician but more like a flashy showbiz act then it’s not his fault if he also happens to hit Obama with a handful of themes and bits of imagery that have been used about black men for a century or two. Because that’s not what the ad is about … it’s about saying he’s a frivolous dandy. And if it’s one, it can’t be the other any more than 2 + 2 equals 4 and not 5.
The problem is that the whole thing isn’t either-or at all, and Marshall sees not Newtonian mechanics but quantum theory here:
Effective messages hit multiple themes, different messages in different people’s minds and even read differently on the first or the third reading. So is the Britney ad about emasculating Obama, as Robert George says? Yes. Is it also about simply pairing Obama up with Britney and Paris? Absolutely. It’s both. And a lot more. In many cases, this game is simply a matter of taking charged images out into the public consciousness. They don’t necessarily “mean” one thing or another. You just push them out and they take on a life of their own.
So it’s sawed-off shotgun marketing:
In this case, if the point is to say that Obama’s a celebrity, how exactly do you get from there to Britney Spears? Paris Hilton? Mull on that for a second. Are those the most logical analogues to Obama? Play it any way you want but somehow at the end of the day we end up with a campaign message based on promoting Obama as a song and dance man and paired with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. How’d we get here? It’s the GOP race and sex equivalent of all roads lead to Rome.
And we are reminded of what Karl Rove has been saying – Obama is kind of like a “trash-talking” basketball player who’s both cocky and “lazy.” And then you have Obama as the cocky black guy at the country club with a hot chick on his arm who’s looking down at you. Neither makes much sense – but you just toss such things out there. Trust the target audience to make of them what they will – they’ll figure out some narrative that fits it all together.
And Marshall says these are the vague themes that are going to be returned to, again and again, in this campaign:
They’re what McCain is running on. Obama as a flashy entertainer, the guy reaching above his station, the guy who ends up in video montages with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The Rove-McCain line is that none of this stuff is beyond the pale. How are they supposed to help it if they’re running against a guy who’s more suited to be an entertainer than a leader and uppity and lazy to boot?
That may work, or over at the Wall Street Journal, now owned and controlled by Rupert Murdoch, we get other questions. See Amy Chozick with Too Fit to Be President? The subhead – “Facing an Overweight Electorate, Barack Obama Might Find Low Body Fat a Drawback.”
“Listen, I’m skinny but I’m tough,” Sen. Obama said.
But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama’s skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them.
Damn, you can throw anything out there, and find anecdotes:
“He’s too new … and he needs to put some meat on his bones,” says Diana Koenig, 42, a housewife in Corpus Christi, Texas, who says she voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
“I won’t vote for any beanpole guy,” another Clinton supporter wrote last week on a Yahoo politics message board.
Most people think anecdotes are actually data, but for those who do not, she throws in some history:
The last overweight president to be elected was 335-pound William Howard Taft in 1908. As for tall and lanky presidents, “you might have to go back to Abraham Lincoln” in 1860, says presidential historian Stephen Hess. “Most presidents were sort of in the middle.”
Ah, whatever works, and Cassius has a mean and hungry look, as you recall. Shakespeare knew his stuff.
But for a look at the silliness of this all, the go-to guy is Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott:
I don’t pretend to be a jargon-gargling semiotician. Nor do I pretend to be a dean of media studies, though I’d be happy to accept an honorary degree if there was a little “moolah” attached. But I have watched enough television during incarceration to have a few points to make about the McCain campaign’s new anti-Obama “celebrity” ad.
And his first point is telling:
Obama looks so cool, upbeat, and confident in the ad that his smiling, waving, striding presence provides a “lift” that doesn’t simply contradict the admonitory tone of the voiceover text, but visually drowns it out through sheer pow of personality. It’d be like trying to warn teenagers in the fifties about the dangers of rock and roll, then showing concert footage of Elvis at his most charismatic – great way to create converts, guys!
And there’s this:
Regardless of the racial-sexual subtext being purveyed, referencing Britney Spears and Paris Hilton seems a bit tired and dated, the older generation scolding the younger. Picking on Spears in a political ad seems like poor sportsmanship (she’s hardly done the harm to the culture that Ann Coulter has), and in her wealth, privilege, and lathed blondness, Paris Hilton resembles a younger version of Cindy McCain -there’s an almost daughterly resemblance, an enjoined twirl of ruling class DNA. So using her as an object of derision doesn’t quite gel.
And there’s McCain himself:
The closing profile shot of McCain, head tilted as if basking in the soft heavenly glow of Reagan above, is not only corner and kitschy but reduces the candidate to a postage stamp – this, after portraying Obama as a fully engaged energy packet.
Static is never good, of course. Those who do not move at all are often on display in coffins.
And Wolcott also reminds us of just who we are:
America is a country based on celebrity, a country where nearly everybody wants to be a celebrity, an American Idol, and decrying the cult of celebrity is an empty exercise in moralizing. After JFK, Reagan, and Bill Clinton, the candidate as glamour figure is already wired into our collective psyches, and Fred Thompson’s celebrity status didn’t seem to trouble Republicans when he looked like a contender, until they realized his gravitas was indistinguishable from indigestion.
Wolcott comes to the obvious conclusion:
The real message of the McCain ad is that they’re envious of Obama’s elan vital, and are reduced to mocking what they covet, Envy makes a person look petty, and a petty, peevish John McCain will be indistinguishable from the Bob Dole of 1996 if he doesn’t “big up.” Right now his campaign is making Obama look like the mature one, which may explain why at least one longtime McCain loyalist is barking from the shadows.
Yeah, a life-long friend of McCain is appalled.
And Obama gets heckled:
ST. PETERSBURG, FL — The gentleman is asking him about policy brutality and racism against the black community:
So my question is – In the face of the numerous attacks that are made against the African community or the black community by the same US government that you aspire to lead – and we are talking about attacks like the sub prime mortgage that you spoke of – it wasn’t just a general ambiguous kind of phenomena, a phenomena that targeted the African community and Latino community, attacks like the killing of Sean Bell by the New York police department and … right here in St. Petersburg by the St. Petersburg police, and Jena 6 and Hurricane Katrina, and the list goes on. In the face of all these attacks that are clearly being made on the African community, why is it that you have not had the ability to not one time speak to the interests and even speak on the behalf of the oppressed and exploited African community or Black community in this country?
The guy may have been a plant – force Obama to go all black on us – and the crowd jeered, but Obama said – “”I want everybody to respect him… He has a legitimate question.”And look at the response:
I think you are misinformed about when you say not one time. Every issue you’ve spoken about, I actually did speak out about… I’m going to go through the various specific examples. I’ve been talking about predatory lending for the last two years in the United States senate and worked to pass legislation to prevent it when I won in the state legislature. And I have repeatedly said that many of the predatory loans that were made in the mortgage system did target African American and Latino communities. I’ve said that repeatedly.
Number two, Jena Six – I was the first candidate to get out there and say this is wrong, that there’s an injustice that’s been done and we need to change it. That’s number two. When Sean Bell got shot, I put out a statement immediately saying this is a problem.
Apparently the guy tried to jump back in, but Obama stopped him:
I’m just trying to answer your question. On each of the issues that you mention, I have spoken, I’ve spoken out forcefully. I was a civil rights lawyer… I passed the first racial profiling legislation in Illinois… I passed some of the toughest death penalty reform issue in Illinois… that doesn’t mean I’m always going to … [say] what you guys want me to say… which gives you the option of voting for somebody else… or …run for office yourself.”
Cheers followed – Obama wasn’t going to get all racial. The other guy could run for office if that was his thing – and it seems the guy just sat down.
So it seems there’s one adult in the race – not into posturing and nonsense, but into doing the right thing. And he doesn’t like to be cornered by bullshit. The funny thing is that that guy was supposed to be McCain – the straight-talking maverick. Someone convinced him that turning out sludge and vague nonsense was the only way he’d win. That’s what advisors are for. It’s kind of a shame.
But the real shame was that in the same news cycle, Friday, August 1, the McCain folks released a new web ad – this one mocking Obama as “The One” – the idea is “that Obama thinks of himself as some sort of quasi-religious figure who ‘anointed’ himself to lead the world.”
He’s just too into himself, you see, and the derisive narrator asks the question – “Can you see the light?” Of course it’s odd that they blend in a shot of Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. Chuck was, of course, a hero of the conservative right, and long-time head of the National Rifle Association – you’d have to tear his high-powered rifle from his cold dead hands and all that. What’s he doing in there?
No matter. Just understand that Obama is one uppity nig… no, they didn’t say that. They’d never say that. You’re just imagining it.
Ben Smith at Politico reports on what the Obama campaign had to say about this one:
Barack Obama’s campaign responded sharply to a new McCain web ad depicting Obama as a parody of a biblical prophet.
“It’s downright sad that on a day when we learned that 51,000 Americans lost their jobs, a candidate for the presidency is spending all of his time and the powerful platform he has on these sorts of juvenile antics,” said spokesman Hari Sevugan. “Senator McCain can keep telling everyone how ‘proud’ he is of these political stunts which even his Republican friends and advisors have called ‘childish’ – but Barack Obama will continue talking about his plan to jumpstart our economy by giving working families $1,000 of immediate relief.”
Now you see what Klein was getting at with the word “scum” in his title. On the other hand, appealing to people’s reactive lizard-brains has been known to work. That’s why Lee Atwater and Karl Rove are considered geniuses – the both knew how to activate that part of the limbic system.
Some think they’re scum. But McCain needs help in this post-Bush political climate, facing a charismatic young man who thinks clearly, and thinks fast. You do what you must, and think about it later:
In his 2002 book, “Worth the Fighting For,” John McCain offered this confession – an acknowledgment of a restless mind: “Although I seem to tolerate introspection better the older I am, there are still too many claims on my attention to permit more than the briefest excursions down the path of self-awareness. When I am no longer busy with politics, and with my own ambitions, I hope to have more time to examine what I have done and failed to do with my career, and why.”
He really ought to think about all that now. You don’t want to be wondering where all that scum came from.