Friday, February 29, 2008

It's 3 A.M. for Hillary

We might have seen this coming. In the eighty-odd hours between now and Tuesday, March 4, the day of four Democratic primaries, the level of animosity between the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has ratcheted up almost overnight, a sound and fury signifying ugly.

The most recent Clinton strategy is a no-holds-barred approach, a so-called “kitchen sink” offensive meant to hurl everything possible at the Obama juggernaut. Today’s escalation of that attack apparently included the kitchen sink, the plumbing and the load-bearing walls of the Clinton campaign.



The latest Clinton salvo was the launch of a new ad already being called the “3 a.m. ad,” a spot that shows young children safely tucked in for the night, asleep in some hypothetical future. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” a narrator says over a grim musical soundtrack, heavy with portent.

The viewer is asked to imagine the phone ringing at the White House. "Something’s happening in the world." Who will answer? “Your vote will decide who answers that call,” the narrator says. “Whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military — someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.”

Cut to: a shot of Hillary Clinton, answering the phone (apparently dressed to the nines at three in the morning).

The Clinton ad — an attempted shot across Obama's bow on the touchy issue of national security — didn’t get the response they might have expected. The Obama camp reacted — in a video response mounted with breathtaking speed — coolly using the same nimble political aikido the Obama campaign has mastered from almost the beginning.



On a campaign stop in Houston, one of the cities in the delegate-rich battleground state of Texas, Obama responded saying the ad raised “a perfectly legitimate question.”

Dismissing the Clinton spot, Obama said “we’ve seen these ads before. They’re the kind that play on people’s fears to try to scare up votes.”

“In fact, we have had a red-phone moment,” he said. “It was the decision to invade Iraq. And Senator Clinton gave the wrong answer, George Bush gave the wrong answer, John McCain gave the wrong answer.”

“I don’t think these ads will work this time, because the question is not about picking up the phone,” Obama said. “The question is what kind of judgment will you exercise when you pick up that phone?”

Setting aside the anachronism of the red phone, a Strangelovian relic from the Kennedy cold-war days, Obama wasn't caught off guard by the Clinton ad, which for some recalled Lyndon Johnson’s famous 1964 “Daisy” campaign ad contrasting the sound of a nuclear-weapons countdown with the voice and image of a child picking petals off a flower — LBJ’s broad suggestion being that a vote for Barry Goldwater could mean the end of the world.



For some in the blogosphere, the Clinton effort is seen as transparently futile. Prakosh, posting at The Huffington Post: “Clinton is really beginning to look desperate and stupid. If anyone has to perform on March 4th it is her insipid campaign. Any other opponent would have seen the polls and thrown in the towel already. If she loses both Texas and Ohio, which it appears she is going to do, and she doesn't drop out, she is nothing but a bad loser.”

Too Tired, blogging on msnbc.com from Texas: “It's 3 AM and the phone is ringing. I pick it up and to my surprise the Clintons have not yet released their tax information and the record of her schedule from the 90s. I [hang] up the phone and turn on the TV and here is Hillary Clinton still telling me that i need a reality check …”

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Meantime, will.i.am has released a new pro-Obama video featuring appearances by Ryan Phillippe, Jon Leguizamo, Dane Cook, Jessica Alba, George Lopez and Malcolm Jamal-Warner, among others. It’s not as moving as will.i.am’s previous effort on behalf of the Obama campaign, but the new one better represents a cross-section of the nation, with more Latino supporters making an appearance.

It’s the latest broadside by proxy from the Obama forces, a countervolley against the barrage from Clinton’s armada … and back and forth, back and forth we go, in the runup to Tuesday’s maybe-pivotal contests, the heaviest political weekend of the campaign. So far.

It has to be said, though, that with its new “3 a.m.” ad, the Clinton campaign may have unwittingly made itself subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Careful readers will, of course, recall what F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote about life at three o’clock in the morning in “The Crack-Up,” his celebrated but tragic literary confessional. There may be more of a message in that choice of time than Hillary’s ad creators had intended:

“At that hour,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1936, “the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream -- but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza …”
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Image credit: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1921): Gordon Bryant (public domain)

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