There was never any chance that it would be a placid affair, a presidential race free of mud-slinging and shabby attack ads. It will surprise only the political naif that Sen. John McCain’s promised campaign of high-mindedness is entirely dependent on favorable polling data, or that Sen. Barack Obama’s platitudinous calls for “hope” and “change,” his admonition that we must knock down “walls” and erect “bridges,” are tactfully short on specifics.
But it is with a certain amount of puzzlement that many observers have watched the issue of race injected into the campaign. Last week, after the McCain team released two seemingly innocuous, though pointed, advertisements — one accusing their opponent of vapidity, the other of messianism — a steady stream of mainstream, Obama-friendly commentators and bloggers cried foul. In a video titled “Celeb,” McCain juxtaposed Obama with famous paparazzi quarry Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. To most, the message was clear, if a little ham-handed: Like Hilton and Spears, Obama is famous for being famous; he's more flash than substance.
But was there a deeper message? In the past week and a half, the liberal blogosphere has become a virtual Bletchley Park of racial cryptographers teasing out the sinister motives and subtexts of McCain’s campaign advertising.
In a web-only column, The New York Times editorial page charged that the ad was a “racially tinged attack” like the one that “ran against Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. That assault, too, began with videos juxtaposing Mr. Ford with young, white women." The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein huffed that the McCain campaign is “running crypto-racist ads.” Bill Press, former co-host of CNN's Crossfire, proclaimed that the “Celeb” spot was "deliberately and deceptively racist." Polk Award-winning blogger Josh Marshall wrote that “the McCain campaign is now pushing the caricature of Obama as a uppity young black man whose presumptuousness is displayed not only in taking on airs above his station but also in a taste for young white women."
The online hyperventilation quickly passed through to the Sunday chat show circuit. If this wasn’t dog-whistle politics, said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," then “why not use Denzel Washington or Bono?” (Brazile is a frequent decoder of subterranean racism, having previously accused former President Bill Clinton of being racially insensitive for calling Obama’s view of the Iraq war a "fairy tale.") MSNBC’s perpetually outraged host Keith Olbermann inveighed against the “almost subliminal racism, a black man with two women.” When the video briefly flashed Berlin’s Victory Column on the screen — where Obama addressed 200,000 adoring fans — New York Times columnist Bob Herbert saw a “phallic symbol.”
But it wasn’t just the Britney-Paris ad that channeled voters’ inner Orval Faubus. McCain’s follow-up video joked that the star-struck press corps had anointed him “The One,” a man that could not only “do no wrong” but could also probably, with powers bestowed by the media, part the Red Sea. Cue the clip of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
Here, too, was the specter of racism. “When you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,’ that’s code for, ‘He’s uppity; he ought to stay in his place,'” political consultant David Gergen told his mystified co-panelists on “This Week.” “It’s the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that.” To no one’s surprise, Brazile agreed.
And if that wasn’t enough subliminal race-baiting for one week, Slate’s Tim Noah wondered if a playful Wall Street Journal article on Obama’s eating habits was — you guessed it — larded in racial code words. “My point is that any discussion of Obama’s ‘skinniness’ and its impact on the typical American voter,” Noah wrote, “can’t avoid being interpreted as a coded discussion of race.”
McCain hasn’t run a clean campaign, but neither has he run a back-handedly racist one. As Stephanopoulos remarked on “This Week,” the senator has been “scrupulous about not raising race in any way” and has gone out of his way to denounce anti-Obama ads run by local Republicans.
But for those who believe America to be irredeemably racist, those who believe, contrary to all available evidence (such as the astounding success of the Obama campaign), that racial prejudice in America hasn’t diminished but has simply shape-shifted and “gone underground,” it must be profoundly disappointing that McCain hasn’t submitted an updated “Southern strategy.” It is, therefore, vital that he is at least accused of doing so.
It would be wise for the Obama campaign to either discourage or leave these schizophrenic, and often scurrilous, accusations to his legion of online and media supporters. And so far, it has done just that, responding that while the “Celeb” video displayed a deep cynicism, it didn’t suggest racist intent.
Indeed, the Obama campaign has deliberately minimized discussion of divisive racial issues. Once an unambiguous supporter of affirmative action, he now argues that his support for the policy is nuanced, and he recently said that he doesn’t believe his children should benefit from racial preferences. At a campaign stop last week, he squashed the idea that, as president, he would support financial reparations for the decedents of slaves.
So let us dispense with a few important caveats: Racism remains a persistent, though much diminished, force in American life. There exist voters, motivated by irrational racial animus, who will pull the lever for McCain, and there will doubtless be those who accept the fantastical misinformation of anti-Obama chain e-mails claiming a relationship between the senator and Islamic radicalism.
And it can be convincingly argued that, regardless of who played the race card first, this election is inextricably linked to the issue of race in America. It is no small achievement that merely a half-century after the legal dismantling of Jim Crow, an African-American is a half-step from the Oval Office.
But readers of racial tea leaves should tread carefully. If McCain’s ad blitz is responsible for narrowing Obama’s lead, those vacillating voters won’t take kindly to suggestions that they have been swayed by their own subconscious racism.
Michael Moynihan is associate editor of Reason magazine.