Rarely in an election year does one ad stand out as being so utterly contemptible and rotten that all the other mud and slime out there glistens in comparison. If all I knew about Elizabeth Dole was the ad that she ran in her North Carolina Senate race against Kay Hagan, I’d conclude that she was a mean spirited dishonest politician who would do anything for power. Luckily, I know enough about Elizabeth Dole to know she’s a good person. But her ad, which she continues to defend, is not.
In the ad a tough narrator notes that Kay Hagan held a fundraiser that was “hosted by the Godless Americans PAC,” showing clips of people from that group calling for God to be removed from the pledge of allegiance and from money, and in general dissing religion. “What did she promise them” in exchange for the fundraising, the ad asks. It ends with a close up of Kay Hagan and a voice saying “There is no God!”
Kay Hagan is a Presbyterian elder in her church and Sunday School teacher. The fundraiser was hosted by a number of different people, including Roman Catholic John Kerry, and did involve one member from the Godless Americans PAC. It did not include anyone shown in the clips. Moreover, it wasn’t a secret fundraiser, as the ad contends, and the voice saying “there is no God” is definitely not Kay Hagan’s, despite the way the film makes it appear. Dole lamely defended her ad, saying that Hagan critized her for having a Bush sponsored fundraiser, and ‘being in the pocket of big oil.’
Well, I think questioning someone’s faith, and dishonestly making them appear to be atheist in a very Christian part of the country, is worse than accusing them of being led by “big oil.” And is Dole saying it’s just as bad to be associated with President Bush, who is from her own party, as with the ‘Godless Americans PAC?’
After the campaign, I expect that Dole will regret the ad, and realize that she crossed a line when she decided it was fair game to try to bring her opponent’s faith into question. It was a very stupid thing to do. It not only makes it more likely that a backlash against Dole will lead to her defeat, but her entire reputation of being a strong and effective leader will be tainted by this dirty last minute ad. Top Republican strategists are roundly criticizing it, saying it reeks of desperation and that she should have known better.
I have a theory that 90% of human actions that do harm to oneself or others are because of evil intent or even anger. Rather, I think stupidity born of desperation leads people to make bad, even horrible decisions. For Dole, it probably appeared a necessary, rational step to take. She’s down in the polls, her political career is on the line, she has plans and priorities she thought until recently were pretty secure — she’s a very respected Senator, not one who one would think would be at risk of losing. She has staff who count on her, and a life style she no doubt enjoys. Suddenly, unexpectedly, that’s all in danger — under threat from a political candidate who she believes is distorting her record and engaging in unfair arguments (every candidate does that to some extent, so every candidate is convinced the other candidate is unfair). She has to fight back. Time is running out. All could be lost. She needs to do something…but what? “This might work.” It’s repulsive, yet somehow it doesn’t seem so bad in the context of the moment. She approves the ad, a stupid act which seemed at a time of desperation to be rational and necessary.
John McCain’s campaign is also one which is getting intense criticism for not only its negativity, but its personal ad hominems against Barack Obama. Whether the socialist label, or robocalls making it sounds like Obama hangs around terrorist networks, or mailers that try to scare people with subtle messages that subtly appeal to racism, McCain is running an intensely negative campaign. Many have expressed dismay that he is putting is solid reputation on the line, and might be remembered as a petty, meanspirited politician after this election. Rather than the positive war hero maverick, he has become the robocall politician whose tone is mocking and sarcastic.
Obama supporters are increasingly incensed at McCain, and even in the press there is a strong sense that “this is not the McCain we know.” I suspect, the same thing is happening to him. He sees himself outspent by a guy who he doesn’t considered experienced enough to qualify for a job he is absolutely convinced he deserves (I’m sure Hillary can empathize). Soon it makes sense that the “only way” to counter this “unfair advantage,” the fact that the media is “in the tank” for Obama, is to go negative. Anything that will work. The robocalls, ties to Ayres, socialism, falsely interpreting a 2001 interview…it’s necessary to stop someone with an unfair advantage from getting a job that McCain deserves and doesn’t think Obama is qualified for. In the heat of the campaign, such negativity, even ad hominems, seems rational and necessary.
Yet, afterwards, if it works, his job to mend the country will be enormous, and he might ask if that campaign style did more harm than good, even if it gets him to 270. If, as appears very likely, he loses, then his reputation will be defined less as being the Vietnam hero maverick of the Senate than having run a bitter, negative campaign. He may regret not living up to the kind of standards he stood for in 2000. In retrospect, this negative campaign may end up being seen as well as a stupid choice done out of desperation.
This isn’t limited to politics of course. We read constantly of embezzlers and bankers who rob or cook the books in ways certain to be discovered someday because they are desperate, they don’t want to deal with whatever mess they find themselves in. Students with a paper due the next day suddenly find plagiarism not such a bad thing. Instead of a bad grade they may fail a course, and have a black mark on their record. A driver with an invalid license out of desperation speeds away from a cop pulling him over for a burnt out taillight. The result is a high speed chase, ending either in death or injury, or a massively increased amount of jail time. In my First Year Seminar we watched the Italian movie The Bicycle Thief in which the father out of desperation about losing his job and the ability to feed his family tries to steal a bicycle to replace the one stolen from him, only to get caught and find out his son observed him becoming a thief himself.
Desperation breeds stupidity. The best we can do is learn from that, and try to keep our heads on straight when we feel that desperation. It’s also a cultural problem. In a society where there are supports, one can admit being in trouble, having made a mistake, or needing help. In our success-oriented individualist society, the support network isn’t as clear and strong, and people feel more of a need to take care of their problems completely on their own. Someone with money problems who, say, is part of a close knit church where people look out for each other might be able to reach out for support. But those kinds of groups are fewer and farther between; more than ever, we’re on our own.
Politicians are human. What looks to us like a Machiavellian or cold hearted quest for power, often is just the sign of desperation and the kind of confused rationalizations it inspires. Elizabeth Dole is a good woman, her career proves it. John McCain is not nasty, mean or petty, even if the campaign sometimes sounds that way. So perhaps the biggest lesson of this is one of forgiveness. Desperate people do stupid things, and since we are all human, we need to understand and forgive when that happens. Dole’s ad is one of the most despicable I’ve ever seen; but Elisabeth Dole is not.