In 2006, Paris Hilton was hot. By 2008, the former infotainment diversion had grown so tepid that clunky designer knockoff Perez Hilton was probably wishing he’d chosen a namesake with more staying power, like Taylor Hicks or Lonelygirl15. Then, in an attempt to undermine Barack Obama’s status as the “biggest celebrity in the world,” John McCain spiked his latest attack ad with random images of Hilton and fellow blond cupcake Britney Spears. As scandals go, it was no unauthorized Internet sex tape. But it was an odd enough move on McCain’s part to generate some buzz, and suddenly, for the first time in months, Hilton was in the news again.
Always ready to fully exploit a moment of inadvertent exposure, the deceptively savvy hotel heiress returned McCain’s fire with an attack ad of her own. Along with a few rote insults about McCain’s age, she unveiled her plan to solve the gas crisis. Borrowing elements from both McCain’s and Obama’s policies, it wasn’t particularly compelling—but the fact that Hilton appeared to recognize that “offshore drilling” refers to oil production rather than getting nailed on a yacht impressed people, and for a few days, even in the political press, it was all Hilton all the time.
Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman called her policy “cheerful and sensible.” Politicians on both sides of the ideological divide praised her vision. And somewhere Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, Tom Tancredo and numerous other erstwhile candidates were weeping. They’d spent months campaigning for president and never managed to capture the public’s imagination like Hilton had in a matter of seconds.
- From the archives
- Ego, lies and videotape: McCain blames Obama for pain at the pump, (8/5/08)
- Ego, lies and videotape: Obama answers (8/11/08)
All of which goes to show why the McCain ad that started the furor is such an unusually risky piece of work—and not just for its savvy combination of Hitleresque foreboding and plausibly deniable miscegeny. Sure, it’s clever to show a clip of Obama’s recent trip to Europe, where a huge crowd of fervent, fist-pumping Germans chanted his name as if he were the second coming of the Third Reich. And inserting the gratuitous shots of sexy pseudo-groupies Hilton and Spears—who, along with diehard McCain cheerleader Wilford Brimley are pretty much the only Hollywood celebrities who haven’t officially endorsed Obama—adds a taboo sexual charge that genuine Obama supporters like Ben Affleck and Robert De Niro simply couldn’t have provided.
In the end, though, that stuff is just better-than-average smear tactics. What makes the spot truly audacious is that it’s not so much an attack on Obama as an attack on the American people and the criteria they traditionally use to pick their leaders. In characterizing Obama as the “world’s biggest celebrity,” the ad essentially casts him as the more attractive candidate, with a magnetic presence the stiff and churlish McCain can’t match. But it’s not enough to be the popular choice, the ad suggests. It’s not enough to be a celebrity. Just because a man is ready for prime time doesn’t mean he’s ready for the White House.
While this may be true, it goes against history. Did Jimmy Carter stand a chance against Ronald Reagan’s easy, camera-friendly demeanor? Could Bush Senior compete with Clinton’s sax? In each of the last eight presidential elections, we’ve picked the candidate with the most star power, the one who would seem least out of place playing the president on an upscale network dramedy. Now, however, McCain is saying we should be wary of the celebrity charisma we typically require a president to possess.
Of course, before McCain arrived at this position, he worked like hell to cultivate an aura of celebrity himself. While Al Gore may have more Oscars to his credit, McCain holds the record for Daily Show guest appearances. He’s also a fixture on Leno and Letterman, and bit parts in 24 and Wedding Crashers round out his showbiz resume. So while he’s not a celebrity of Paris Hilton caliber, he’s certainly right up there with Nicole Richie!
Against Obama, alas, being Nicole Richie is not enough. Thus, McCain’s quixotic campaign to convince us celebrity doesn’t matter. So far, however, all he’s shown us is that it does—and that we’re so starved for it, in fact, that we’ll even take Paris Hilton semi-seriously for a nanosecond just to get a taste of it. For McCain, however, at least there’s an upside to this grim reality: Come December, he should have plenty of free time to trade quips about what went wrong with Jon, Jay and David.