Tom Tomorrow, who draws the This Modern World cartoon, often comments on how hard it has been to write political satire in the Bush era. Every time he thinks he has exaggerated Republican mendacity and evil to the limits of humor, they manage to top him. It makes it hard to figure out where to draw the line. He cited this problem last year when the right-wing noise machine demonized the family of 12-year old Graeme Frost who appeared in a Democratic radio pitch urging the expansion of the popular and successful State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which the Republicans were then filibustering in the Senate and Bush later vetoed. Graeme and his sister relied on the program for the treatment of severe brain injuries sustained in a car accident. As Tomorrow wrote at the time:
“I’m … reworking a cartoon I finished before I went on vacation, in which I used the idea of the Republican Hate Machine going after a child as one of those really wacky cartoon examples meant to parody their extremism. Except, in the intervening week, they actually did it. I’ve said this before, but these are difficult times for satirists; there’s almost nothing you can think of that’s more ridiculous or appalling than the things that are really happening.”
[Here’s the cartoon he eventually came up with.]
Similarly, just when you think political campaigns and their media coverage couldn’t possibly get any more stupid and trivial, a presidential candidate thrusts Paris Hilton onto center stage. It’s too ridiculous even for a good Onion parody. John McCain deserves a special place in Hell for making Paris Hilton the focus of our limited national attention span at a time we need to concentrate our collective will on repairing the damage from eight years of the worst president in US history.
But Hilton got the last laugh. Her video response to the McCain ad has now been viewed six and a half million times (and, no, I’m not going to link to it – she doesn’t need my help). She says of McCain, “He’s the oldest celebrity in the world, like super-old. Old enough to remember when dancing was a sin and beer was served in a bucket. But, is he ready to lead?” And she refers to him as, “the wrinkly white-haired guy.” I’m not sure this was the message the McCain camp was hoping to communicate (suggesting Hilton might actually be smarter than the McCain campaign team).
Of course, by labeling Obama a “celebrity,” the McCain camp intended to convey the impression that Obama is lacking in gravitas – a shallow creation of pop culture. Speaking to a crowd of over 200,000 Germans after a triumphant series of meetings with world leaders and a policy-altering tour of war zones was portrayed as the equivalent of the tabloid travails of a vacuous rich heiress (whose family, as it turns out, are maxed out McCain donors).
Let’s talk about “celebrity” – specifically, the “world’s oldest celebrity.”
What is a “celebrity”? Some people are celebrities because of some kind of truly outstanding talent or accomplishment – someone like Einstein or Gandhi, for example. Or a Tiger Woods. In the current context, however, the term is probably being used to mean someone who is famous simply for being famous. And how might one distinguish this less flattering form of “celebrity” from talent or accomplishment? You might begin by looking at his or her sheer volume of pop culture appearances bearing no relationship whatever to any particular talent or accomplishment – the fame of the famous.
So, let’s take a look at the imdb page for John McCain (actually, I was going to copy the entire page, but it’s too long – so to summarize). By my quick approximate count, just since 2002 he’s appeared on the following TV shows (always as Himself):
Saturday Night Live (2 times)
Jay Leno (10 times)
Letterman (8 times)
Conan O’Brian (3 times)
Entertainment Tonight (2 times)
Live with Regis and Kathy Lee
Paula Zahn Now (3 times)
The View (2 times)
Tony Danza Show
Daily Show (12 times)
Larry King Live (9 times)
The O’Reilly Factor (4 times)
Beyond the Glory
This is just a sampling. And this is just a few years worth – he has a three-decades long career of self-promotion. He even had a cameo in The Wedding Crashers. Life must be grand!
(How, you might be asking yourself, does McCain make time for all of these TV appearances? He is the only member of the Senate to have missed over half the votes since this Congress began in January 2007 – missing fully 63% of all votes. Even Tim Johnson who suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrage and spent several months recovering has managed to cast more votes than McCain. McCain has missed 96 straight votes since April 8. He has missed 32 out of the last 36 meetings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he is the ranking member.)
The thing about negative campaigning is that in order for a line of attack to be effective it must play into some kind of pre-existing or credible media narrative. For example, Democrats are always weak, phony, effete, unpatriotic and not entirely manly (especially if they are women). Whereas Republicans are strong, consistent, straight-talking, “regular” guys (even if they are women).
In every presidential campaign since Dukakis in 1988, the Democrat has been portrayed by the Republicans as a “flip-flopper”. That narrative was spun out briefly against Obama, but it failed to get much traction. That is probably because John McCain has changed his position on just about every issue you can imagine in the past two election cycles (and had, earlier in his career, changed his position on just about every issue you can imagine once before). So it doesn’t make a very effective line of attack against Obama. But it is NEVER a line of attack against a Republican. When they flip-flop, it is just conveniently-pragmatic ideological flexibility. Similarly, when John Edwards gets a $400 haircut it tanks his presidential campaign (fortunately for the Democratic party, as it turns out). But when John McCain wears $520 Ferragamo shoes wherever he goes … well, it is simply irrelevant. What’s wrong with a nice pair of shoes? But seriously, can you imagine the media narrative if Obama was wearing expensive designer shoes? Talk about being “elite” and “out of touch” (and above his station).
McCain even gets a free pass when he flies around on his rich trophy wife’s private jet to their eight or ten expensive homes. Life must be grand, indeed! (Cindy McCain explained to Vogue the purchase of her seventh or eighth home: “When I bought the first [beach home], my husband, who is not a beach person, said, 'Oh this is such a waste of money; the kids will never go. Then it got to the point where they used it so much I couldn't get in the place. So I bought another one.” No big deal for someone who runs up $750,000 on her credit cards in one month.)
Oh, and about McCain’s Arizona home. According to the “liberal media”, he has an “Arizona ranch.” Actually, it is 20 acres in a suburban subdivision, owned in trust by his rich former-rodeo-queen wife. But the media – which McCain describes as “his base” – are always getting invited to barbeques at McCain’s “Arizona ranch.” Like Bush’s Texas “ranch” that he bought in 1999 as he was gearing up for his presidential run. (Actually, at least in Bush’s case his “ranch” is 1600 acres in god-forsaken nowhere. And I believe there are actually animals running around for tax purposes.) Of course, John Kerry has an “Idaho ranch” about a mile from my own “Idaho ranch.” But, then, I remember back in 2004 it was just a big vacation home owned by his rich wife. That’s because we all know Democrats are effete elitists beholden to their rich wives, while Republicans are rugged individualists roaming their Western “ranches”.
From a great article on “ranches” as part of the Republican persona:
For months, the media has been reporting that Sen. John
McCain spends weekends at his "Arizona ranch," where he can be with his family,
visit with close friends or occasionally entertain possible vice presidential
The steady reference to the presumptive GOP presidential nominee's "Arizona ranch" projects a powerful image of the American cowboy that has long played an important role in presidential politics. The description of McCain's sliver of Arizona's outback as a "ranch," however, is misleading at best. And, perhaps inadvertently, it allows McCain to obscure his carpetbagger role in Arizona politics with a veneer of American mythology. …
But in McCain's case, his Yavapai County hideout wouldn't even qualify as a ranchette -- a term sometimes used derisively in the West to describe 40-acre parcels carved out of what were once-sprawling working cattle ranches. McCain's acreage is barely half that, coming in at a cozy 20.8 acres.
McCain, in fact, doesn't own his little slice of mesquite-studded high-desert, on the banks of Oak Creek, a lovely stream that meanders into the Verde River, one of the state's rivers most endangered by development. McCain's "ranch" is part of a trust and a limited partnership controlled by his wife -- the Cindy McCain Hensley Family Trust and the Sedona Hidden Valley Limited Partnership. …
The property is located in a "subdivision" where there is no cattle roping, branding or herding of heifers. Far from a ranch, McCain's getaway is really nothing more than a retreat. But the retired Navy captain and surge advocate certainly doesn't want the media stating that McCain went to his "Arizona retreat" for the weekend, lest that conjure up images of French cowardice.
Of course, the most famous Republican “rancher” was also the ultimate political “celebrity” – that Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan. But whereas Obama is “all talk”, Reagan was “the Great Communicator.” See how it works?
As Garrison Keillor wrote in Salon:
And it's an amazing country where an Arizona multimillionaire can attack a Chicago South Sider as an elitist and hope to make it stick. The Chicagoan was brought up by a single mom who had big ambitions for him, and he got scholarshipped into Harvard Law and was made president of the law review, all of it on his own hook, whereas the Arizonan is the son of an admiral and was ushered into Annapolis though an indifferent student, much like the Current Occupant, both of them men who are very lucky that their fathers were born before they were. The Chicagoan, who grew up without a father, wrote a book on his own, using a computer. The Arizonan hired people to write his for him. But because the Chicagoan can say what he thinks and make sense and the Arizonan cannot do that for more than 30 seconds at a time, the old guy is hoping to portray the skinny guy as arrogant.
The son and grandson of four-star admirals, who finished 894 in his class of 899 at the Naval Academy, is calling the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review a vacuous “celebrity”.
It works because it all fits with the standard, tiresome media narratives.
But think about this: If you were running for the highest office in the land and had tens of millions – hundreds of millions – of dollars with which to educate the American people on the problems we as a nation need to address and the kind of leadership you would provide in addressing them, how would you spend that money? What themes would you thrust up into the mainstream of American consciousness, and what would that tell us about you as a candidate and as a prospective president? What does it say – about John McCain, not Barack Obama – that he has given us Paris Hilton?
The Obama campaign has its own video retort.