Last month, Virginia Republicans claimed to be shocked shocked! that
Democratic Senate candidate James Webb, a former Republican who served as Navy
secretary and assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, would
run a TV ad showing a clip of the former president extolling Webb in a speech 21
years ago. Now Democrats in Massachusetts are having a similar attack of the vapors.
They profess to be scandalized by Republican gubernatorial candidate Kerry Healey's
new commercial, which includes clips of Democratic politicians praising her at a
recent bill-signing ceremony.
File both complaints under: Spare us. It's tiresome enough to hear politicians
denounce "negative campaigning" whenever their opponents criticize them. Are they
now going to cry foul over compliments too?
The Webb and Healey campaigns have refused to pull the spots in question (which can
be seen on their respective websites). And rightly so. Both ads fall squarely within
the bounds of truth-in-advertising. If anyone deserves to be whacked, it is the
complainers, for making much ado about absolutely nothing.
In Webb's ad, Reagan is seen addressing the Naval Academy's graduating class of
1985. "One man who sat where you do now is another member of our administration," he
says. "Assistant Secretary of Defense James Webb the most decorated member of his
class. James's gallantry as a Marine officer in Vietnam won him the Navy Cross and
That brought a protest from Webb's Republican opponent, US Senator George Allen, as
well as a request from Nancy Reagan, via the Reagan Presidential Foundation, not to
use the 1985 footage. "Using the president's name, image, or likeness implies
endorsement, which is neither fair nor respectful of any candidate," the
foundation's letter said.
Webb is running for the Senate as an antiwar Democrat, and there is no reason to
believe that Reagan would have endorsed his candidacy. But the ad doesn't imply that
he would have. Reagan's words are seen and heard in context, and even Virginians who
couldn't care less about politics are probably aware that the Gipper, who died two
years ago, hasn't endorsed anybody in the Senate race. On the other hand, if Reagan
admired Webb enough to salute his wartime heroism and government service, why
shouldn't voters know about it?
Even more meritless is the demand by a clutch of Massachusetts Democrats that
Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey yank a TV spot in which they are seen praising her
efforts to push through a tough new law on sexual predators. One of those Democrats,
state Senator Steven Baddour, declares in the ad that Healey "deserves a great deal
of admiration and respect" for her work on the bill yet complains now that his
words have "been twisted to appear as though I am endorsing Kerry Healey, when in
fact nothing could be further from the truth."
But Healey's commercial twists nothing. Its opening words precisely set the scene:
"Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006," the announcer says. "Kerry Healey signs historic
sex-offender bill. Democrats praise Healey's leadership." Several of those Democrats
are then shown doing just that.
Unlike Reagan's comments about Webb, the Democrats' praise for Healey was uttered
not two decades but two weeks ago, in the midst of a heated gubernatorial campaign,
by experienced politicians who knew exactly what they were doing. Baddour and the
others may claim to support Democratic nominee Deval Patrick, but that wasn't the
impression they gave on Sept. 21. As the nonpartisan State House News Service
reported that day, the bill-signing event "quickly turned into a contest over which
urban Democrat could lavish Healey with more praise." Some of those Democrats even
used the occasion to comment on Patrick's left-wing politics, and to air concerns
that a Democratic victory would, as one of them put it, "bring Massachusetts back to
. . . the Mike Dukakis era."
Indeed, so fulsome was the acclaim for Healey that day that some State House
reporters assumed they were seeing the emergence of a Democrats-for-Healey
committee. Were they? Sure, Baddour & Co. loudly swear fealty to Patrick now. But
they're the ones who made Healey's TV spot possible in the first place, then stirred
up enough controversy to guarantee it plenty of free publicity. The idea that none
of that was intentional is a little tough to swallow.
While political junkies try to figure out the angles, all that Massachusetts voters
need to know about Healey's ad, and Virginia voters about Webb's, is that the words
they quote are presented in context, and were not repudiated by those who spoke
them. Whether they like it or not, what politicians say publicly is in the public
domain. Even when they say something nice.