Corporate media were absurdly receptive to the McCain campaign’s charge that Barack Obama “played the race card” by predicting that his opponents in the presidential race would try to use his race against him. The fact is that racialized attacks are a standard part of the Republican playbook—and John McCain has brought on key advisers who have employed that strategy in the past.
The “race card” controversy started when Obama, responding to a McCain ad equating Obama with celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, predicted that Republicans would say of him, “He’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five-dollar bills.’”
ABC News’ Jake Tapper immediately cried foul (Political Punch, 7/30/08), labeling Obama’s prediction of race-baiting “pretty inflammatory”: “There’s a lot of racist xenophobic crap out there,” Tapper acknowledged. “But not only has McCain not peddled any of it, he’s condemned it.”
Tapper’s comments recalled NPR’s Scott Simon’s outrage when Obama earlier previewed the Republican campaign against him with the phrase, “And did I mention he’s black?” Simon declared on the June 21 Weekend Edition:
To my knowledge, Senator McCain has never mentioned Senator Obama’s race, much less in the tone Senator Obama implied. What has John McCain ever done or said to merit the charge that he’s going to make Senator Obama’s race an issue?
The McCain campaign itself chimed in on the “dollar bill” comment (CNN, 7/31/08): “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.” McCain’s surrogates were given time on outlets like the Today show (8/1/08), Good Morning America (8/1/08), CNN Late Edition (8/3/08) and Fox News Sunday (8/3/08) to publicize their complaint—in one case charging that Obama was trying to instigate a “race war” (MSNBC, 8/1/08).
Corporate media so accepted the McCain campaign’s spin on this issue—when an Obama aide acknowledged that the “dollar bill” remark was an allusion to the candidate being African-American, ABCNews.com (8/1/08) headlined the story “Obama Camp Admits Playing Race Card”—that it became necessary to point out the obvious: that McCain seems much more eager than Obama to have the 2008 campaign become a debate about race.
In reality, appeals to white racism have long been a winning Republican strategy against African-American candidates—notably Harvey Gantt, who lost racially charged campaigns against Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) in 1990 and 1996, and Harold Ford, who lost a close race for an open Senate seat in Tennessee in 2006. Gantt’s 1990 loss is remembered for Helms’ TV ad showing white hands crumpling up a job application while an announcer intoned that “they had to give [the job] to a minority.” Ford’s defeat is widely ascribed to an ad with a young white actress saying she met the candidate at “the Playboy party” and winking, “Harold, call me.” That ad’s barely-veiled appeal to white fears of race-mixing has been recalled (Talking Points Memo, 7/30/08) as a possible model for the McCain ad’s juxtaposing Obama with white women with well-known sexualized images.
But McCain would never approve an ad with a covert appeal to racism, would he? That’s the assumption behind media outrage at Obama’s suggestion that racial messages might be used against him in the 2008 campaign. Yet the Republican strategist who created the anti-Ford ad, Terry Nelson, served as McCain’s campaign manager from December 2006 until July 2007; at the time that he produced the ad he was an adviser to McCain (Austin American-Statesman, 10/26/06).
Meanwhile, the person who created the “white hands” ad, Alex Castellanos, serves as an outside advertising adviser to the McCain campaign (New York Times, 5/12/08). McCain’s chief campaign adviser, Charles Black, was a key strategist in Helms’ 1990 race (TheNation.com, 7/4/08) and defended the ad in an appearance on the PBS NewsHour (11/5/90): “I advised Jesse Helms to do what he’s always done.”
McCain himself gets credit for “candor” (Politico, 7/31/08) for acknowledging that he opportunistically described the Confederate battle flag as a “symbol of heritage” in order to win white votes in the 2000 South Carolina primary (CNN.com, 4/19/00).
It seems to be a given in corporate media circles that false accusations of racism are worse than racism itself. But maybe when a candidate has surrounded himself with advisers with a history of race-baiting, journalists ought to look more critically at that candidate’s advertising—and at his charges that his opponent is “playing the race card.”