- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

Britney, Paris and … Barack?

Sen. John McCain on Wednesday charged that his Democratic presidential opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, is more Cosmo than he is commander in chief, running a stark, harsh and groundbreaking ad that matches him with clips of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

“Do the American people want to elect the world’s biggest celebrity or do they want to elect an American hero?” McCain campaign coordinator Steve Schmidt told reporters yesterday in announcing the ad, which he said goes straight to the heart of questions that have been raised about Mr. Obama’s campaign in recent weeks.

The ad begins with pictures of Mr. Obama’s speech in Germany last week, interspersed with pictures of Miss Spears and Miss Hilton, then back to Mr. Obama receiving the adulation of the 200,000-strong crowd in Berlin. The screen flashes the message “Obama: Is he ready to lead?”

The Obama campaign called the ad a debasement of serious politics and a continuation of negative attacks and vowed not to play to Republican charges.

“I don’t pay attention to John McCain’s ads, although I do notice he doesn’t seem to have anything very positive to say about himself,” Mr. Obama said. “He seems to only be talking about me.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ad breaks political ground.

“I don’t know of an ad that’s made this kind of attack in the past about a presidential candidate,” she said, pointing to its use of celebrity status as a way of attacking someone as inexperienced or uncertain.

Ms. Jamieson said the ad is risky for Mr. McCain because it requires viewers first to associate Mr. Obama’s trip with the sort of celebrity culture that Miss Hilton and Miss Spears represent and second to reject his campaign as devoid of substance. But she said the ad is certain to cut through the rest of the pack of political ads.

“It has attention value. If you want to break through the clutter, put Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in a political ad,” she said.

In an ad released Wednesday evening, the Obama campaign accused Mr. McCain of taking “the low road” and distorting Mr. Obama’s record while “practicing the politics of the past.”

Mr. Obama had more celebrity-related woes Wednesday, when his campaign disavowed “Politics as Usual,” a new song by rap star Ludacris, which says an Obama presidency is destiny, uses an expletive to describe Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, calls President Bush “mentally handicapped” and says Mr. McCain doesn’t belong in “any chair unless he’s paralyzed.”

Campaign spokesman Bill Burton said the song was “not only outrageously offensive” to those whom Ludacris attacked, but “is offensive to all of us who are trying to raise our children with the values we hold dear. While Ludacris is a talented individual, he should be ashamed of these lyrics.”

Pointed personal commercials such as the Hilton-Spears comparison usually are sponsored by outside groups. Mr. McCain, though, made these charges himself, and his campaign team continues the hit on the “celebrity” angle in other ways.

“Like most celebrities, [Mr. Obama] reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria,” a spokesman said.

Mr. Obama has been lampooned in the press for saturation coverage of his recent trip to the Middle East and Europe, and the fawning reactions he has received from audiences both in the U.S. and overseas.

The McCain folks say Mr. Obama brought the scrutiny upon himself.

“It’s not our campaign that’s trying to make him into an international celebrity; it’s his campaign,” said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. Asked whether they intended the comparison to the two celebrities, who are usually portrayed as frivolous and draw negative coverage, Mr. Davis said it was “apples to apples.”

Mr. Obama is the cover story of the current issue of People magazine, and his eight-page spread in the magazine is immediately followed by a story detailing Lindsay Lohan’s relationship with her new girlfriend, Samantha Ronson.

But Mr. McCain has been dragged into the celebrity culture himself. A surprise endorsement from MTV reality show actress Heidi Montag earlier this year morphed into a much-publicized meeting between Miss Montag and Mr. McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, earlier this month.