There is a unmistakable whiff of despair coming from John McCain’s campaign these days.
It’s more than the stench of flop sweat hanging on the air, though there’s plenty of that too, despite anything you might hear in the media. McCain can’t run on the issues; his party ran the economy into the ground, and everybody knows it. Nor can he run on his personality. Next to the charismatic Barack Obama, he looks old, pasty, and vaguely adrift.
What’s a candidate to do when he runs out of positives to run on? Go negative, of course. And that’s exactly what McCain has been doing, most recently with an web-only advertisement entitled “The One,” released on Friday.
It took a moment for the ad’s message to sink in. Most observers reacted much as blogger-journalist Lindsay Beyerstein did:
I thought I must be the only person in the world who looked at a 21st century online campaign spot and suspected anti-Christ baiting. Turns out, I wasn’t alone.
She wasn’t. Others were asking: Did John McCain say what I think he just said?
He sure did. In portentous tones, a narrator describes Barack Obama’s charismatic appeal in pseudo-Biblical language, alternating with Obama’s own soaring rhetoric. The clip ends with a cameo by Charleton Heston-as-Moses splitting the Red Sea and the ominous question: “Barack Obama may be ‘The One’…but is he ready to lead?”
There’s plenty not to like about this ad. For one thing, as Democratic partisans quickly noted, the spot took out of context Obama’s own words trying to tamp down the expectations of his own supporters.
For another, it passed on fringe beliefs about the end of the world from the likes of Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth and frequent commentator at far-right-wing websites not known for their grounding in reality.
As it happens, wondering whether Obama is the anti-Christ is something of a cottage industry. On top of the “usual” chatter about Obama’s supposed messianic effect on his supporters, there’s at least one blog dedicated entirely to the anti-Christ question. Then there’s the requisite chain e-mail making the rounds. (Hilariously, it states, “According to The Book of Revelations, the anti-Christ will be a man, in his 40s, of MUSLIM descent.” St. John of Patmos says nothing of the sort, of course, not least because he wrote his apocalypse several hundred years before the founding of Islam.)
Reaction to “The One” was furious. Democratic consultant Mara Vanderslice declared it “blasphemous” and “beyond offensive” to suggest that liberal Christians couldn’t tell the difference between a presidential candidate and a messiah. “The McCain campaign is willing to make a mockery of our faith to feed people’s fears,” Vanderslice fumed.
As it happens, I share Vanderslice’s outrage. It’s one thing for a candidate to claim religious bone fides, and another to attack the faith of one’s opponent. But it is still another actually to pervert faith itself to beat up on a political foe.
And that’s exactly what’s happening here. John McCain has demonstrated that there is literally no depth to which he is not prepared to sink in search of a few votes. This isn’t even scraping the barrel; it’s crawling around in the muck beneath the barrel.
But setting all of that aside for the moment, “The One” raises some serious questions about the state of our political discourse.
Bible readers with some background in scriptural interpretation will remember that John’s Revelation was written as a kind of code to an audience hard-pressed by persecution and loss. Few believe that its message was intended to be taken literally—much less as a roadmap to events two millennia in the future—but rather to provide comfort and reassurance to a struggling community.
It is a bitter irony therefore to see it taken out of context and used to attack a politician offering a platform of hope. It’s within bounds, I think, to say that Obama can’t deliver on his promises. It’s even cricket to argue that he doesn’t live up to his own hype.
But have we really fallen so far in our nation that a candidate must be mocked relentlessly for daring to suggest that things could be better than they are today?
Are we so far gone that the very concept of hope is considered attack-worthy? That a candidate need not offer any kind of positive vision of the future, only a mildly amusing, sarcastic tear-down of his opponent?
If so, God help us all. A politics of despair seems like a strange way to honor a religion, but an even stranger way to run a nation.