Senator Joseph McCarthy is long gone from the American scene. No longer
do political combatants try to score points by falsely accusing others
of communist sympathies. But if classic McCarthyism is dead, racial
McCarthyism is alive and well. No election season nowadays seems
complete until someone has played the race card and maliciously charged
someone else with bigotry.
Sometimes the racial slander takes the form of an ad. During the 2000
presidential campaign, the NAACP aired a vile television spot that
showed a pickup truck dragging a chain; in a voiceover, the daughter of
James Byrd who had been dragged to his death in a Texas lynching two
years earlier said that when then-Governor George W. Bush opposed a
1999 revision in the Texas hate crime law, "it was like my father was
killed all over again."
The 2006 edition of racial McCarthyism features TV ads, too. But this
time it is the ads themselves and by extension the Republicans they
are meant to benefit that are being falsely smeared as racist.
In Tennessee, the GOP aired a commercial poking fun at Harold Ford, the
black Memphis congressman who is in a battle with former Chattanooga
mayor Bob Corker to succeed Bill Frist in the US Senate.
The ad parodies several of Ford's political positions through mock
interviews with people defending or agreeing with him. "Terrorists need
their privacy," a woman indignantly insists. "Ford's right," says a
hunter wearing camouflage, "I do have too many guns." A Wilford Brimley
look-alike declares, "Canada can take care of North Korea they're not
busy." And a bare-shouldered bimbo squeals, "I met Harold at the Playboy
party" a reference to Playboy's 2005 Super Bowl bash in Florida,
which Ford attended. The ditzy blonde returns at the end to whisper,
with a wink, "Harold: call me!"
It was a witty, entertaining ad and it promptly had liberals and
Democrats and even the odd Republican screeching about how "racist" it
was. The NAACP issued a press release calling it "racially charged
political propaganda" akin to "The Birth of a Nation," D. W. Griffith's
paean to the Ku Klux Klan. Salon described it as an "attempt to inflame
white bigotry about interracial relationships and white fears of black
male sexuality." Vanderbilt University professor John Geer breathlessly
told AP: "I've not met any observer who didn't immediately say, 'Oh, my
gosh!' It was a race card."
Senator McCarthy, call your office.
Now, it is conceivable that some of the people claiming to see this
inoffensive ad as racist are sincere, and not just going along with a
toxic lie for political reasons. After all, some people once saw
communists under every bed. And even when a cigar is just a cigar, some
people can't help snickering about sex.
But the plain fact is, there is nothing remotely racial about the
Tennessee ad. The best proof of that is that *the ad would be just as
effective if Ford were white.* The blonde party-girl isn't a coded
reference to interracial dating. Her appearance in a Republican campaign
commercial isn't a subliminal reminder of the Democrat's color. It is a
cue that the Democrat, who campaigns as something of a goody-goody
one of Ford's campaign spots was filmed in a church may be a little
less straitlaced than he lets on.
The same litmus test exonerates Republican Kerry Healey's much-maligned
TV commercials against Democrat Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts
In one ad, a woman of indeterminable race is shown walking to her car in
a parking garage, while a voiceover reminds viewers that Patrick has
"praised a convicted rapist." Another ad shows a picture of Carl Songer,
a white cop-killer Patrick represented and saved from death row. Both
ads imply that Patrick is too soft on crime; both are harsh and
heavy-handed. But neither one makes even a veiled reference to race, and
it is disgusting to see them slandered as racist. Patrick may be black,
but either ad would be precisely as effective if he were white.
From the moment Patrick won the Democratic primary, partisans angled to
lob the race mudball at his Republican opponent. Just two days into the
general election campaign, the state's Democratic Party chairman accused
Healey of coming "close to race-baiting" by discussing illegal
immigration. It was a disgraceful accusation and a hint of the racial
McCarthyism to come.
Enough. McCarthy is gone. The race card should be too. In Massachusetts,
Tennessee, and every other state, don't voters of every race deserve