Is McCain's New Ad Racist?

The failure of imagination that is John McCain's new "Celeb" ad against Obama has yielded unintended results in the form of exaggerated reactions to it. The most salient comes from Obama himself, who, speaking in Rolla, Missouri yesterday, said this: "John McCain right now, he's spending an awful lot of time talking about me. You notice that? I haven't seen an ad yet where he talks about what he's gonna do...And so the only way they figure they're going to win this election is if they make you scared of me. So what they're saying is, ‘Well, we know we're not very good but you can't risk electing Obama. You know, he's new, he's... doesn't look like the other presidents on the currency, you know, he's got a, he's got a funny name.'"

Had Obama stopped at the penultimate sentence, it'd have been a simple and excellent rebuttal. He might have then ironically thanked McCain for using his own money and resources to point out just how popular and well-liked Obama is at home and abroad. But was it accurate to imply McCain was using racist scare tactics in his latest YouTube salvo?

Obama was quick to climb down from the accusation. He clarified his original statement by saying it was intended against the conservative talk show hosts and smear artists, not the campaign itself. Then he repeated the original line again later that evening, prompting questions as to whether he has the courage of his convictions to call McCain out on scurrility.

There are those who argue that "Celeb" tries to depict Obama as either a fascist leader in embryo or a scary minority looking to rape white women — or both. Rick Perlstein, author of the well-regarded new book Nixonland, is perhaps understandably hypersensitive to the varied uses of bigotry in politics given his latest historical subject. He suggests the McCain filmmakers were deliberately channeling Leni Riefenstahl.

Is McCain's New Ad Racist?

Perlstein's evidence consists of two still shots of "Celeb," which he then compares to closing scenes of Triumph of the Will. What both sets of images share in terms of perspective they don't share in terms of scale, but there are, shall we say, disturbing resonances.

Is McCain's New Ad Racist?

If the comparison was intentional, it only underscores the incompetency of the ad. As the New Yorker discovered the hard way, the paranoid fantastists this type of innuendo would reach require over-obvious signs of Obama's lurking evil. Students of Third Reich cinematography they are not, and so the allusions would hit home mainly with liberal students of fascist iconography. Exactly the wrong effect.

In fact, the ad's haplessness is its best defense. It makes an agonized attempt to be funny and clever, not minatory in a "gathering storm" type of way. Its only substantive point against Obama is weak—not many people care about offshore drilling or would see it as a fix for high oil prices. But that hardly matters because its purpose is to characterize him as a hollow twit of the Us Weekly stamp. The sound of camera flash bulbs going off gives this the feel of a Pepsi commercial (is he Michael Jackson or Hitler?), which, whether by design or by accident, saps the politics of fear and bolsters the politics of pop. There's also the minor tragedy that it took John McCain to get Paris and Britney back in the headlines.

The GOP candidate may not be a web trawler or fluent in the many tongues of the Internet, but his staff members certainly are. I can well imagine they thought that by associating Obama with facile celebrities, they'd incite a blacklash against what they see as his warrantless fame. Some Republicans even read Gawker, and the sociology of hype is inescapable in the mainstream media.

But as to the racism charge... ABC's Jake Tapper notes that McCain has not just refrained from circulating bigoted, xenophobic attacks against Obama in the past, he's condemned those who have. It's not impossible that his campaign is desperate and demoralized and would begin to resort to nasty "Willie Horton" tactics. Karl Rove is a recent hire, after all, and it was Rove who decided to give voters in South Carolina in 2000 the impression that McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his love child with a black woman. If that can be forgiven, then never say never indeed.

But then, there is something defensive about assuming racism in any and all efforts to mock Obama in effigy, or depict him as an upstart who hasn't yet earned the right to be president. (This doesn't translate so seamlessly into "uppity Negro," as some quick-trigger lefty bloggers would put it). The right similarly bristles and howls that any criticism of McCain's competence or command of facts and reality is coterminous with the charge of senility or worse — that his mind went to mush in Hanoi. Can't it ever be an above-board rebuke?

Your interpretations of the ad welcome below.

[Rick Perlstein: OutFuture.org]
[ABC News]