New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asks:
Gee, I wonder why, if you have a black man running for high public office — say, Barack Obama or Harold Ford — the opposition feels compelled to run low-life political ads featuring tacky, sexually provocative white women who have no connection whatsoever to the black male candidates.
Paris Hilton and Britney Spears aren’t just “sexually provocative.” These are women whose celebrity, to a great extent, was shaped by very public airing of their sexual exploits and parts. These women have become cultural icons of the infamy that arises from celebrity mixed with unrestrained sexuality.
At the same time, images of nubile, promiscuous women juxtaposed with Barack Obama churn up stereotypes and primal fears held, largely beneath the surface, by many Americans: Black men with their uncontrolled sexuality are out to steal and rape “our” women.
Don’t fool yourself. Hilton and Spears were not simply chosen because of their celebrity. The same ad makes no sense whatsoever with other scandalous celebs substituted in for the starlets.
Take Martha Stewart…a scandal-ridden white woman who is closer in age to Obama than is Spears. Umm…no, doesn’t work. The ad becomes incomprehensible. But why a woman? How about pairing up Keith Richards and Steven Tyler, celebrities who are both closer in age to Obama than are Hilton and Spears, and have well publicized substance abuse problems and public personas of hypersexual rockers. Obama has confessed to drug use as a youth, so isn’t the Richards/Tyler imagery a much better way to paint Obama as an empty celeb?
This doesn’t work at all. We expect our rock stars to engage in hedonistic self-destruction and take on a hyper-sexual persona. It’s in the job description. Obama, by comparison would come out as clean cut, self-restrained, and rigorously responsible. Besides, they look old. The ad would invoke universal puzzlement (if not ridicule).
Let’s try Michael Jackson, who matches the Hilton/Spears celeb-gone-wild bits, but has the advantage of demographic accuracy: Jackson is male, is close to Obama in age, and is black. Surely, this must make for a better ad than using much younger, white women to exemplify indiscretions of celebrity.
This still doesn’t make any sense. Nobody believes Obama is on the Wacko-Jacko track, which is obviously pathologically bizarre. But, when it comes right down to it, nobody really believes that Obama is on the Hilton or Spears pathologically slightly-less-bizarre tracks, either. The analogy is deeply flawed. Obama has become a celebrity as a result of his skills as a politician and orator, not because his sexual imagery was successfully marketed. An certainly not because he was born, like Hilton, fabulously rich.
The fact is, the Hilton/Spears imagery fails any kind of test as a sensible analogy. (This is one reason why the media is all abuzz about it.) Superficially, the ad was supposed to paint Obama as a shallow celeb. The real function of the ad is identical to that of the infamous NRSC hit advertisement on Harold Ford : frame Obama as the frightening “sexual savage.”
Why would the McCain campaign use hateful, racist messages in a political contest against a sitting U.S. Senator whose only scandalous vice is chewing Nicorette? Because the tactic still works, as was demonstrated by the Republican’s smear ads against Harold Ford in 2006.
One thing that emerges clearly from this episode: John McCain has become a shell of the man he was in 2000.