Come up off your color chart/I know where you're coming from./Call me!
Last week, a fast-paced, clearly satirical ad, funded by the Republican National Committee and produced by Scott Howell, the muckraking media consultant behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, was pulled from circulation after receiving negative attention from the national news media. The ad, which featured a melange of colorfully quaint and comically sleazy miscreants who might have wandered off the set of a Coen brothers movie, attacked Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. on a number of fronts. It was, according to its detractors, a racist ploy created to stir up the lingering Southern white prejudice against interracial relationships.
An editorial in The Commercial Appeal called the ad an "insult." The New York Times described it as a transparently "racist appeal to Tennessee voters." The Chattanooga Times Free Press minced no words, either, saying, "A black man, a white woman, more than a hint of sex. ... [C]learly the hope is that viewers will free-associate to a word like 'miscegenation.'"
And there you have it: a controversy based not on the ad's many misleading assertions but entirely on a presumed hope that voters psychologically inclined to free-associate along stereotypically racist lines may see things that aren't actually in the commercial.
The ad's harshest critics have centered their complaint around only one of the eight oddball characters presented -- a white girl who claims to have met Junior at a Playboy party and who delivers the spot's now-infamous catchphrase, "Harold, call me." But the trampy little snowflake isn't the only character who likes the cut of Junior's jib. The spot begins with an African-American female praising Ford's physical attributes and asking, "Isn't that enough?"
The obvious question: Would critics of the spot still see racist overtones if the race of these two characters were reversed, or if both women had been played by either black or white actresses? The uncomfortable answer: Yes, someone looking for a racist angle could find it no matter how the spot was cast. That makes it pretty tough for the GOP to get their politically expedient and decidedly non-racist message across.
Love him or hate him, Ford has waged a smart campaign, and by getting well to the right of Republican candidate Bob Corker on key issues, he's effectively diffused his opponent's frequent attempts to tar him as a liberal. Ford's mildly controversial use of a church as the backdrop for one of his ads appealed to women and conservative-leaning swing voters, who will certainly decide this tight election. "Call Me" was clearly aimed at these two groups, reminding them that deep down inside all Democrats are American gigolos given to dirty, Clintonian urges.
Any other reading is, as the Times Free Press acknowledges, free association. Why would the RNC go into a tight race and waste good money trying to convince white racists -- the one group certain to vote against a black candidate -- to vote against the black candidate? Factor into that equation an October poll by SurveyUSA suggesting that Corker may receive up to 23 percent of Tennessee's traditionally Democratic African-American vote, and claims that "Call Me" is overtly racist seem even less substantial.
While shooting at Confederate phantoms, almost everyone criticizing the ad has either missed or minimized its real shortcomings. What of the man in camouflage suggesting that Ford wants to take his guns away -- even though the congressman's most recent NRA rating is a gentleman's C? Who's bellyaching about the leather-vested codger who says Ford wants him to pay taxes after he's dead or the comical sleazebag who reminds viewers that Ford once accepted campaign contributions from a pornographic producer. (The RNC, as it turns out, does as well.)
Over the past six years, the GOP, and Scott Howell in particular, have turned out numerous deceitful, hypocritical ads designed to assassinate the character of Democratic candidates. "Call Me" may very well be as dirty as anything Howell and his Republican partners have produced, just not for the obvious reasons -- which, at second glance, aren't so obvious after all.
Chris Davis is a Flyer staff writer.