This was meant to be the clean Presidential election, a break with the dirty, negative, mud-slinging campaigns of the past. On the Republican side there was John McCain, the military man of honour who in his ultimately unsuccessful Primary battles with the ruthless George W Bush announced that, "I'm not going to take the low road to the highest office in the land. I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."
For the Democrats there was Barack Obama, self-proclaimed apostle of a "new" non-adversarial politics, and who declared in his most recent autobiographical tract that, "I find comfort in the fact that the longer I am in politics... I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience."
Connoisseurs of the dark arts of electioneering need not have worried, however. The 2008 race to the White House has been conducted with exactly the same level of abuse and misinformation as tradition demands: indeed some old-timers among the pundits, like sommeliers savouring an especially tannic fine wine, have happily declared that this is the dirtiest presidential fight that they can remember.
There are two obvious reasons for this – apart from human nature, that is. The first is that it is increasingly likely that this race is going to be as close as any in recent memory. Democrats who had thought that their man could coast serenely to victory on a sanctifying tide of virtue have suddenly realised that they are in a real dogfight, and adjusted their tactics accordingly. The second, more interesting reason, is that this has become a YouTube election: an ideal medium for instant, noisy, 30-second advertisements with a bitterly satirical tone.
Perhaps the most notorious of these was the ad the Republicans posted on the web within hours of Obama declaring of the McCain ticket's claims to represent "change": "You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." The ad featured a distorted quote from CBS's Katie Couric attacking the "continued and accepted role of sexism in American life"– with the clear implication that Obama was describing Sarah Palin as a pig. It ended with a picture of Obama, and the words "Ready to lead? No, ready to smear." Senator McCain had himself, a year ago, described Mrs Clinton's health care plans as follows: "I think they put some lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." The worst that Senator Obama could be accused of was unoriginality.
The charge of crude sexism against Obama was, therefore, completely contrived. The Democrat campaign could, with much more justice, be accused of ageism – in this attack on the 72-year old McCain: "He still doesn't know how to use a computer [and] can't send an email."
This ad deliberately ignored the fact that, as a number of profiles of McCain have noted over the past few years, the Arizona Senator's ability to put his fingers to any sort of keyboard had been very limited by the long-term effects of his torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese: his arms had been shattered and his fingers broken. He depends upon his staff – and his wife – to show him websites and emails. Besides, John McCain – even according to Jacob Weisberg, Obama-supporting editor of the online magazine Slate – is "cybersavvy... [he] learned about the internet early on: young Web entrepreneurs fascinate him".
No dirty campaign would be complete without an attack involving sex – even better if it brings in children, as well. The Republicans hit paydirt with an ad declaring that Obama's "one accomplishment" in the field of education was "legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners". Joe Klein, who seems to have survived the closest intimacy with the Clinton White House with his sense of outrage miraculously intact, fulminated in Time magazine that this was a "vile ... smear". The New York Times described the ad as "flat-out lies".
Actually, while it might have been a smear, and was certainly tendentious, it wasn't a "flat-out lie". Obama had indeed voted in the Senate for a bill which altered the teaching of sex education in his own state of Illinois. The original legislation declared that "each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades 6 through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention and transmission and spread of AIDS." The bill Obama voted for substituted this with the words: "Each class or course in comprehensive sex education in any of grades K" – that is, Kindergarten – "through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV."
Last week, however, the 2008 race for the White House generated an advertisement which truly deserves the highest possible accolade from collectors of electoral emetics. The Democrats put out an ad entirely in Spanish (including Obama's endorsement), quoting the right-wing radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh referring to "stupid and unskilled Mexicans" and with the follow-up – accompanied by a picture of a Hispanic woman – "Shut your mouth or get out!" This is succeeded by images of John McCain. Not only were these words uttered by Rush Limbaugh all of 15 years ago, the Arizona senator has been consistently criticised by the radio host for his liberal attitude to immigrants who have entered the USA illegally: as the journalist Linda Chavez points out, Limbaugh has denounced John McCain as "Juan McShamnesty".
This ad therefore earns the gold award for the smear of the year: not only is it thoroughly dishonest, but it appears designed to introduce a racial tension which hitherto has been absent from the campaigning. Given Obama's great sensitivity over the rantings of his friend and former pastor Jeremiah Wright, it seems especially perverse that he should have endorsed an ad based on such spurious racism by association.
Anyway, this all makes for a wonderfully toxic amuse gueule before the entree: on Friday the televised debates between Obama and McCain begin. Perhaps it might all be most gentlemanly – but seasoned spectators of such bouts will be hoping for a good, dirty fight.
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