So far, the most talked about political campaign commercial in 2008 seems to be Hillary Clinton’s 30-second spot that begins with the phone ringing as children are sleeping. “It’s 3 A.M. and your children are safely asleep,” the narrator asks in a too-calm voice, with patriotic music purring in the background. “Who do you want answering the phone?” Six rings later, Hillary Clinton, the supposedly tested, experienced, leader answers the phone. Color streams into the picture, as America sleeps safely and soundly, with the right person in charge.
Putting aside the cynics’ question about why the White House phone would have to ring six times before being answered in a crisis, the ad boosts the Clinton campaign’s main contention that Hillary Clinton is ready to govern from day one. You don’t have to be the former Clinton anti-impeachment flack and now Obama supporter Greg Craig to doubt Hillary’s claim. Craig, however, has written an absolutely devastating memo that goes through each of the foreign policy hot spots where Hillary Clinton claims she helped as First Lady – and shows how marginal a player she actually was. The Clinton camp has responded, and Salon posted both memos.
In this battle, Craig is right. Clinton’s people can make the claim that living in the White House for eight years, being in Washington since 1993, has given Hillary Clinton a front-row seat on the use (and occasional abuse) of power that makes her more experienced than Barack Obama. But she has gone further than that, running a campaign pretending that she was able to be the co-president she hoped she could be, rather than the frequently marginalized and frustrated First Lady she usually was.
However an unreasonable criticism of the ad comes from the Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson in yesterday’s New York Times. Patterson is a thoughtful, thought-provoking scholar whose work on race in America is usually on the mark, and frequently refreshingly out-of-the-box. In this op-ed he deploys his scholarly authority to accuse the Clinton camp of race-baiting unfairly, saying: “I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past.” Patterson then claims that it stirs traditional fears of the black man, meaning Obama, as a threat to white women and children.
This interpretation reads far too much into the advertisement. From the start, the central criticism of Barack Obama’s campaign has not been that he is black, but that he is too green. In an age of terrorism, when it is clear that the “enemy” being spoken about in this fear-mongering ad is from outside not from within, it was downright irresponsible for the New York Times to print Patterson’s complaint. It raises the charge of racism in an inaccurate, demagogic, and unhelpful way.
It is particularly ironic that Patterson’s essay appeared the same day that the Obama camp objected to Geraldine Ferraro’s offensive and foolish remarks. Ferraro suggested that Obama’s rise was due to his race –- raising fears that Gloria Steinem’s feminist foot-in-mouth-disease may be contagious. Offended, Senator Obama responded: “I don’t think that Geraldine Ferraro’s comments have any place in our politics or the Democratic Party. I think they were divisive.”
Obama is correct. But his analysis applies to Professor Patterson’s remarks too.