Tennessee senate ad conjures racial fears
October 31, 2006
In the final days of the election season, the GOP is getting desperate.
In Tennessee, where Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., is running for the U.S. Senate, opponents ran a controversial ad that tried to play on voters' racial fears. The TV ad alluded to how Ford, who is African-American, had attended a party sponsored by Playboy magazine during Super Bowl 2005. The ad ended with a blond woman looking seductively into the camera and asking Ford to give her a call.
In the South, in Tennessee, this is Race-baiting 101.
Ford and his opponent, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, both denounced the ad. The national Republican Party eventually called for pulling the ad.
Scott Howell, a longtime associate of Karl Rove, a key adviser for President Bush, co-produced the ad for a group indirectly affiliated with the Republican National Committee.
Howell has a record of inflammatory, tasteless but effective political ads, including the 2002 infamous attack on the patriotism of triple amputee Vietnam veteran, former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.
These types of smear campaigns are never carelessly put together.
Though some may say that the ad addressed a legitimate issue -- the supposed contradiction between Ford's professed piety and his personal behavior -- the racial implications of the piece were clear. The ad appealed to a well-documented, especially Southern aversion to so-called jungle fever -- black male and white female sexual association.
This is shameless, and it reveals a win-at-any-cost mentality that the Republicanleadership winks and nods its approval at -- even as it publicly shows disapproval.
The subtext of the ad is to generate a moral panic toward Ford in a national atmosphere where black males are demonized daily. Yet Ford presents a difficulty for the Republicans because he is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
He voted for the war in Iraq though, like many who did, he has abandoned that ship.
He also supported other Bush initiatives, such as the Patriot Act, the torture-friendly Military Commissions Act and the federal ban on gay marriage.
He voted for the viciously anti-immigrant immigration bill that passed in the House.
And, as he reportedly told a Chicago Rotary Club meeting, "I like President Bush."
This is not your father's Ford.
Since it is difficult to hit Ford on political or ideological grounds, Republicans turned to personal attacks.
Although the ad is no longer running, the damage appears to be done. A month ago, Ford was leading Corker 50 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. As of late October, Corker held a slight and perhaps growing lead.
Ford's effort to be the first black U.S. Senator from the South since the late 1800s is in doubt. With this type of dirty race-baiting, it's little surprise.
Clarence Lusane is assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several works, including "Hitler's Black Victims" (Routledge Press, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.