This morning on NBC’s Meet the Press, the McCain campaign deployed independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator and former vice-presidential and presidential candidate, to combat the negative press flung at their candidate for airing an ad that likens Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He’s a celebrity, they’re celebrities; you wouldn’t want them running the country...so...and so the “argument” goes. Joe may have had an easier time of it after Obama’s own controversial comments this week. The Illinois senator told a Missouri audience he anticipated being attacked with charges of “‘He’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.’” The McCain camp pounced: “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (Photo: Huffington Post)
Sen. Joe Lieberman (Photo: Huffington Post)
Most will readily concede that the Republican strategy against Obama has of late played increasingly upon the deep-seated fears of ordinary Americans that “he’s not like us.” That, of course, was what Obama was responding to, but he slipped and gave his opponent a tactical opening when he contrasted a) his face, and b) a dollar bill. He slipped because in pointing up the difference between his skin color and George Washington’s, by so casually disassociating himself from a national symbol, he appeared to assert multiple identities: black, American, outsider, insider. While I think the outsider appeal can get him some emotional traction, the idea that he somehow secretly harbors a distinct, separate, even primary identity that most Americans don’t share is very dangerous. For what it's worth, the simultaneous presence of these various identities in a single soul is, to my mind, entirely unobjectionable, and actually renders Obama all the more American.
Contrast Obama’s tightrope act on the issue of his race with Lieberman’s freewheeling comments about his Jewishness on Meet the Press. Lieberman displayed, not for the first time, his utter lack of compunction about calling attention to his minority identity. First, Tom Brokaw asked, “Do you think running a campaign ad in which you feature Britney Spears and Paris Hilton with Barack Obama is respectful?”
Lieberman: “I do. First off, you know, we all ought to relax a little bit. It's, it's a bit of humor. It's a way to draw people into the ad. Incidentally, the McCain campaign has another ad up in which they seem to be comparing Obama to Moses. So, in my book, that's about a good comparison as you can ask for. I should say, in ‘The Book,’ it's about a good a comparison as you should ask for.”
It’s remarkable how Lieberman comes off as both pious, correcting “my book” to “the Book,” and ireverant, comparing, by means of the old transitive property, Moses to Britney! I suppose we’ve come to a point in American culture where the claim “I’m Jewish” is also a claim along the lines of “I can joke around in ways that border on the inappropriate.” The genius of Lieberman is he’s also signaling in very sober terms to America’s church-going population that he’s “just like them,” only fiercely loyal to his book.
Later, Lieberman returned to his Jewishness in a defense of McCain’s tolerance. After all, Joe pointed out, McCain and his wife adopted a girl from Bangladesh – and they love her! What’s more, Lieberman seemed to imply, so quickly did he move from the issue of the adoption to the issue of their personal friendship, the presumptive Republican nominee for president has been pals for twenty years with (gasp) – a Jew.
Lieberman: “Let me just add a final word, Tom. In 2000, Al Gore gave me the extraordinary honor of being the first Jewish-American to run for national office, and Al Gore said he had confidence in the American people that they would judge me based on my record, not on my religion. And I urge Barack Obama to have the same faith in the American people that they will judge him on his record, or lack of record, certainly not on his name or his race.”Lieberman’s use of his Jewish identity is devastatingly cynical. He wants to be the macho minority, kicking some tail as a trailblazing Jew, only to revert to the American Everyman when he’s done bragging. Unlike Barack Obama, who will rarely ever choose the battle fields on which his black identity will be subject to the various pressures of public life, Lieberman is quite well positioned to inject his Jewishness into the mix when it’s politically expedient. In fact, I dare say Lieberman seemed to be taking advantage of the fact of his Jewishness to lend legitimacy to his attack on Obama for the gaffe. For McCain, Lieberman was the perfect operative for the week’s controversy. He played the Jewish card in order to denounce Obama for “playing the race card!”