- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What do Paris Hilton and Britney Spears have in common with offshore oil drilling?

All three come together in an odd attack ad from Sen. John McCain‘s presidential campaign. The ad from the presumptive Republican nominee charges Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, of being - wait for it - a celebrity!

Are you shocked? Did you faint dead away?

As attack ads go, this one seems notably inept - at least at first glance. There’s no doomsday voiceover, no sharks-in-the-water music, no grainy slow-motion close-up photos of scary headlines or indicted co-conspirators.

Instead, red-carpet shots of the starlets segue into majestic scenes of Mr. Obama smiling to cheering crowds. It ends with a predictably distorted description of Mr. Obama’s energy policy. In brief: Mr. Obama hugs trees, Mr. McCain hugs offshore oil rigs.

Yet, as attack ads go, this one hardly leaves a mark on Mr. Obama’s constantly-uplifted chin. In fact, “if you shut off the sound,” one somewhat bemused GOP pollster told the Los Angeles Times, “almost all the images of Obama are very positive.” Just as it is hard to make an antiwar movie that depicts what soldiers really go through, it is not easy to make an anti-Obama ad that shows Mr. Obama in front of cheering crowds.

But the ad’s value soon proved itself. By highlighting Paris and Britney, it received millions of dollars worth of free airplay and chatter on cable TV and the celebrity gossip shows and reporters. Mr. McCain’s ad people understand TV’s weakness for the spoiled celebrities that audiences love to deplore.

Ironically it was not that long ago that Mr. McCain was tagged in Republican circles as a star-seeker. He’s hosted “Saturday Night Live,” acted on “24” and in “The Wedding Crashers” and enjoyed such favorable coverage that NBC’s Chris Matthews, among others, used to call the media Mr. McCain’s “base.”

And Hollywood folks loved him, too. Hollywood names like Norman Lear, Harrison Ford, Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy and Michael Douglas have made campaign donations to the “maverick” John McCain. Now he’s belittling Paris Hilton, the daughter of Rick and Kathleen Hilton, two of his campaign contributors, according to the Los Angeles Times. Great way to say thanks, senator.

Nowadays Mr. McCain looks like a wallflower at the prom while his former adoring media runs off after the new dreamboat. Like most media-driven campaign narratives, it’s overblown. Although Mr. McCain received less coverage than Mr. Obama in recent weeks, a George Mason University study found that Mr. Obama’s coverage tended to include more criticism of him than Mr. McCain’s did. The media giveth and we taketh away.

Mr. Obama was expressing more concern with the media that his opponents pay to put on the air. On the day Mr. McCain’s ad rolled out into TV markets in 11 states, Mr. Obama said in Missouri that Mr. McCain and other Republicans would try to frighten voters by talking about Mr. Obama’s “funny name” and the fact that “he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” Mr. McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis took umbrage. He accused Barack Obama of playing the “race card … from the bottom of the deck,” borrowing a line that us old-timers remember from the O.J. Simpson trials.

Times have changed. You used to have to be engaged in actual bigotry to be accused of “playing the race card.” These days you can be accused of racism merely for bringing up the subject of race.

Soon a viral idea spread across the blogosphere and talk shows that, in juxtaposing Mr. Obama with the two fame queens, the ad delivered subliminally racist messages. Could this, many asked, be a more subtle version of the bimbo ad that undermined Democratic Rep. Harold Ford’s senate campaign in Tennessee?

I don’t buy it. Unlike the Ford ads, the McCain ads imply no relationship between Mr. Obama and the blondes.

Besides, if you want to argue subliminals, this ad might just as easily sway some of the “Leave Britney Alone” crowd to vote for Mr. Obama, if they can find their polling places.

On another front, Mr. Obama had to take time to denounce a new song by the rapper Ludacris, “Politics (Obama is Here).”

Besides taking cheap vulgar shots at Mr. McCain and Hillary Clinton, the song includes a line that echoes a recent controversial New Yorker cover: “We gonna paint the White House black,” he raps, “and I’m sure that’s got ‘em terrified.” Most terrified is the Obama camp by Ludacris’ subliminal gift to the McCain campaign, as both vie for the support of working-class white Americans who are not all big fans of rap.

That’s show biz. It’s not enough to run against your opposition. You also have to keep your supporters on-message.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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