JOSEPH MCCARTHY is long gone from the American scene. No longer do political combatants try to score points by falsely accusing others of communist sympathies. But if classic McCarthyism is dead, racial McCarthyism is alive and well. No election season nowadays seems complete until someone has played the race card and maliciously charged someone else with bigotry.
Sometimes the racial slander takes the form of an ad. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the NAACP aired a vile television spot that showed a pickup truck dragging a chain; in a voiceover, the daughter of James Byrd -- who had been dragged to his death in a Texas lynching two years earlier -- said that when then-Governor George W. Bush opposed a 1999 revision in the Texas hate crime law, "it was like my father was killed all over again."
The 2006 edition of racial McCarthyism features TV ads, too. But this time it is the ads themselves -- and by extension the Republicans they are meant to benefit -- that are being falsely smeared as racist.
In Tennessee, the GOP aired a commercial poking fun at Harold Ford, the black Memphis congressman who is battling with former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker to succeed Bill Frist in the US Senate.
The ad parodies several of Ford's political positions through mock interviews with people defending or agreeing with him. "Terrorists need their privacy," a woman indignantly insists. "Ford's right," says a hunter , "I do have too many guns." A Wilford Brimley look-alike declares, "Canada can take care of North Korea -- they're not busy." And a bare-shouldered bimbo squeals, "I met Harold at the Playboy party" -- a reference to Playboy's 2005 Super Bowl bash in Florida, which Ford attended. The ditzy blonde returns at the end to whisper, with a wink, "Harold: call me!"
It was a witty, entertaining ad -- and it promptly had liberals and Democrats and even the odd Republican screeching about how "racist" it was. The NAACP issued a press release calling it "racially charged political propaganda" akin to "The Birth of a Nation," D. W. Griffith's paean to the Ku Klux Klan. Salon described it as an "attempt to inflame white bigotry about interracial relationships and white fears of black male sexuality." Vanderbilt University professor John Geer breathlessly told AP: "I've not met any observer who didn't immediately say, 'Oh, my gosh!' It was a race card."
Senator McCarthy, call your office.
Now, it is conceivable that some of the people claiming to see this inoffensive ad as racist are sincere, and not just going along with a toxic lie for political reasons. After all, some people once saw communists under every bed. And even when a cigar is just a cigar, some people can't help snickering about sex.
But the plain fact is, there is nothing remotely racial about the Tennessee ad. And I can prove it: The ad would be just as effective if Ford were white. The Playboy blonde isn't a coded reference to interracial dating (which, according to the Pew Research Center, most Southern whites don't oppose anyway). Her presence isn't a subliminal reminder of Ford's color. It is a cue that Ford, who campaigns as something of a goody-goody -- one of his campaign spots was filmed in a church -- may be a little less straitlaced than he lets on.
The same litmus test exonerates Kerry Healey's much-maligned TV commercials against Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts governor's fight. In one ad, a woman of indeterminate race is shown walking to her car in a parking garage, while a voiceover reminds viewers that Patrick has "praised a convicted rapist." Another ad shows a picture of Carl Songer, a white cop-killer Patrick represented and saved from death row. Both ads imply that Patrick is too soft on crime; both are harsh and heavy-handed. But neither one makes even a veiled reference to race, and it is disgusting to see them slandered as racist. Patrick may be black, but either ad would be precisely as effective if he were white.
From the moment Patrick won the Democratic primary, partisans angled to lob the race mudball at his Republican opponent. Just two days into the general election campaign, the state's Democratic Party chairman accused Healey of coming "close to race-baiting" by discussing illegal immigration. It was a disgraceful accusation -- and a hint of the racial McCarthyism to come.
Enough. McCarthy is gone. The race card should be too. In Massachusetts, Tennessee, and every other state, voters of every race deserve better.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.