Saturday, November 4, 2006

Bile, slime and lies: the American political ad.

The National Republican Campaign Committee has been unrelentingly negative from the start of this Midterm campaign (the Karl Rove strategy play-book). So, admittedly, has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The distinction, however, is between argumentum ad rem and argumentum ad hominem—whether the attack is over an issue or simply the NRCC all-purpose "Bite yer legs" approach.

Malcolm fou
nd himself taken aback by the vitriol—and Malcolm (whose alter ego was once characterised as the "Norman Hunter" of his borough's Labour Group) is an aficianado of political invective.

Two sources are worth wider attention.
The first is Jacob Weisberg, who writes a regular and cogent column on US politics for the Financial Times. The FT website, being subscription, allows the opening "taster" and no more. This is a mistake, because Weisberg is the editor of Slate, where the whole article is available for free. Weisberg's most recent column is a pithy account of the "Poisoned Politics" of the Republican attack-ads:
the form, style, and content of the contemporary attack ad are a specifically conservative contribution to American politics. Republicans have developed most of the techniques, vocabulary, and symbolism at work in these spots over the last couple of decades. Some of the motifs go back to Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but you can trace most of the elements back to the presidential campaign Lee Atwater ran for George H.W. Bush in 1988 ...
One might add, and Malcolm does, that the genre had a far longer tradition. Nixon was a prime exponent; and based both his 1946 House and 1950 Senate campaigns, indeed his whole early political career, on smears. For the younger element, Malcolm recalls:
  1. In 1946 Nixon overcame his Democrat opponent, Jerry Voorhis, for the California 12th congressional district. By all accounts (and there is a full biography by Voorhis's son on the net) Voorhis was an honourable man, even prepared to refer to himself as a socialist. Nixon chose to represent Voorhis's support for the Fair Standards Labor Act and backing from the CIO as collaboration with communist-controlled unions. Dirty stuff, but it got worse.
  2. In 1950 two California Representatives were up for the Senate seat. Nixon had, by then, a reputation earned on the House Un-American Activities Committee and through the Alger Hiss case. His opponent was Helen Gahagan Douglas (pictured left), wife of the Hollywood actor Melvyn Douglas, an acknowledged liberal, and (what would later be termed) a feminist . To Nixon, she was "pink right down to her underwear": her response, presciently, was to label him "Tricky Dicky". Malcolm believes all fellow-politicos either have or should read Greg Mitchell's Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady : Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas - Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950.
The second source to which Malcolm directs attention is, an off-shoot of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This site ruthlessly, without bias and readably, analyses political personalities and statements. We have seen many imitations, but none so authentic or reliable. It is also a good portal for primary evidence, especially in the form of .wmv clips of the ads themselves. Any and all of their articles command attention, but a particularly-deserving one is Republican Mudslinging on an Industrial Scale, and dated 27th October:
several of the NRCC's ads are smears that twist facts or ignore them. A sheriff running for the House is accused of having "fixed" a speeding ticket for his daughter, for example, when in fact the ticket was paid and the daughter got no special treatment. We found repeated examples of this sort of thing, and we detail them ...
One ad which FactCheck considers is the NRCC attack on New York Democrat Michael Acuri. It seems that a misdial from Acuri's hotel room was to a "fantasy hotline". Within seconds, the caller (apparently Sean Byrne, executive director of the New York Prosecutors Training Institute) hung up, and redialled another number (the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services), just three digits different. Even so, the NRCC claimed that Acuri had spent public money (in fact, just $1.25) on the call:

The ad is laden with sexual innuendo. A woman's voice says "Hi sexy, you've reached the live one on one fantasy line." Arcuri is pictured appearing to leer as the silhouette of a woman undulates suggestively in the background.

"The phone number to an adult fantasy hotline appeared on Michael Arcuri's New York City hotel room bill while he was there on official business," the announcer says. "Who calls a fantasy hotline and then bills taxpayers? Michael Arcuri."

This seems a precursor to another ad, the notorious Harold, call me, which was the Republicans' 30-second contribution to political debate in Tennessee, and has been dealt with at length elsewhere.'s Andy Dickerson does a fine job in assessing (and debunking) The Slimiest Campaign Ads of 2006: all three on the short-list come from the Republicans (and, no, neither the Acuri or the Harold Ford attack is the outright winner).

Any one reading this blog, or the sites to which it affiliates (or choose to affiliate with it) is a die-hard pol, and probably of the Left. We fancy we are above such matters, that ideology is what really matters. Malcolm gently suggests this is self-deluding. Both sides of the Atlantic, such dark arts are practised, and we, as electors, are practised upon. Even outside Anglo-Saxonry strange things occur: consider the beach photographs of Ségolène Royal and BBC2
Newsnight's treatment of her:
This 52-year-old mother of four has a figure that a woman half her age would envy, and the stamina too.
However, back to the main thread.

Malcolm's case here is to deplore the unabashed viciousness of a particular genre, the American paid political advertisement. It is over-the-top, over-valued, over-priced, over-charged, and (please! please!) still over there. This is not something we could happily import. However evil, low-minded and disgraceful the British media proves to be, there are yet murkier depths to be plumbed. To the Mail, Express, or benighted Murdochery, alas, that might seem merely a challenge.
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