Last week, the McCain campaign released a TV ad calling Barack Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I have to say I didn’t really expect John McCain et al. to play clean but this is pretty low, even by their standards. For starters, the ad reaches for the heights of hypocrisy. After all, as Carrie Budoff Brown points out, McCain has been hogging the media spotlight for much of his own career. He’s a regular on the late night talk shows and he even had a cameo in Wedding Crashers. In other words, he has embraced the celebrity moniker. Barack Obama’s response—saying the ad was cynical but not racist—is far too charitable a reaction. Paris Hilton’s mom, Kathy, was actually closer to the mark in her response!
Certainly, we would be naive to think this attack ad is a fluke, or a one-off. No doubt this is just the beginning because, mixed in with the stink of hypocrisy, is the unmistakable stench of Rovian political machinations. Using a candidate’s strengths against him was, after all, a technique perfected by Karl Rove in the 2004 “swiftboating” of John Kerry, and the Obama “celebrity” ad smacks of a similar touch. In 2004, the swiftboat ads used Kerry’s military record against him, and now, Obama’s popularity is similarly being used to diminish his appeal.
So why would celebrity necessarily be bad for Obama? Well, being a celebrity is generally a positive thing in the entertainment industry but it’s not such a great asset in politics. Celebrities are valued for one set of qualities, politicians for another. Britney’s fans may appreciate her looks or her ability to sing and dance. It’s harder to identify which of Paris’ qualities makes her famous, but we can all agree that even the most adoring fan would think twice about voting either of her or Britney women into the White House. What, then, does any of this have to do with Barack Obama? Why compare the presumptive Democratic nominee to a pair of celebutantes? It’s really quite simple. First off, we can be sure that education or educatedness—or whatever other qualities might prepare someone to lead a country—do not rank very high on the list of qualities people love in Paris or Britney. This is not to imply that Britney and Paris are unintelligent or uneducated. The point is only that these women are beloved not for their being qualified to lead the country. The Obama comparison thus implies that Obama, like Britney and Paris, is popular—because of his looks or some other quality—but not for his ability to lead. Ergo: Barack Obama is very popular but he’s not ready to lead.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. Entertainment—music, film, sports—has been the one area of public life in which Black people have gained the greatest visibility in American society. Black athletes, actors, and musicians have attained tremendous fame and secured professions for themselves by entertaining the American public. In my view, these accomplishments should be seen as a testament to the resilience of Black people in this country. Alas! No good deed goes unpunished so the Black community is repaid with binary stereotypes that place intelligence and athleticism/artistry/musical talent at opposite ends of a spectrum. “Sure,” the argument goes, “Black people are good entertainers but they’re not so smart. This is why there are so few Black directors, quarterbacks, or music executives.” In other words, talent and intelligence become mutually exclusive categories.
There is, however a deeper level to the athletic/musical/artistic talent-versus-intelligence binary. There is often an implicit assumption that Black people are good at what they do because of some inherent, magical talent that enables them to effortlessly excel at something. This view maintains, for example, that a top Black athlete isn’t at the top of her game because she trains hard and is disciplined. Rather, it’s talent that propels her to the top. Likewise, Barack Obama’s rise to the top of the Democratic presidential race is not due to his intelligence, hard work, grassroots organizing experience, and campaign strategizing. No. Like the magical negro, Barack’s success is due entirely to circumstances beyond his own control. In fact, his success is nothing less than magical because it is so contrary to his own abilities. In other words, Barack Obama is succeeding despite himself (Lets not forget that Rush Limbaugh used to play a song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show).
John McCain’s ad is therefore nothing less than an attempt to remind the American people that there is actually less to Obama than meets the eye. Yes he’s popular, just like Britney and Paris. And, just like Britney and Paris, he’s good-looking. But, just like Britney and Paris, he’s nothing more than an attractive package, pretty on the surface but lacking the depth, the experience, the intelligence that would make him capable of leadership. After all, the ad seems to ask us, who would want Paris and Britney—or Barack Obama, for that matter—to lead this country? By overlooking Barack Obama’s other qualities and presenting him as a superficial, one-dimensional caricature (I say caricature because there is certainly more to Paris and Britney than what’s shown in the media), the ads also aim to devalue him by negating his personal accomplishments. After all, Barack Obama is an impressive person and a formidable candidate in his own right. From his organizing days in Chicago, he has experience bringing people together and transforming ideas into action. He’s also a constitutional lawyer and a professor and, lest we forget, a United States Senator. But by ignoring all of Obama’s other traits and focusing only on the external and superficial, the McCain ads seek to convince us that there’s nothing more to Obama than his fame.
They might as well have just come out and reminded us that he’s nothing more than a talented Black entertainer.