The Anti-Obama Campaign That Didn’t Happen

Michael Scherer, Time, November 24, 2008

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In an extended interview with TIME, Davis [Fred Davis III, the advertiser whom John McCain has used for almost all of his campaign media] detailed what might have been in the campaign ad war—and what self-censorship the McCain staff imposed on themselves regarding the issue of race. {snip}

“My favorite ad of the campaign was as simple as it could be,” Davis said. “And it started out something like, ‘Long before the world knew of John McCain or Barack Obama, one of them spent five years in a hellhole because he refused early release to honor his fellow prisoners, while the other one wouldn’t walk out of a church after 20 years of the guy spewing hatred towards America.’ And the last line was, ‘Character matters, especially when no one is listening.’” The ad never ran, however, because McCain ruled the topic of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the preacher of Obama’s Chicago church, out of bounds shortly after he locked up the Republican nomination.

Good advertising men are almost always mischiefmakers at heart, the sort who don’t mind a little confrontation and who revel in a bit of controversy. And so Davis is wistful at the missed opportunities of the McCain campaign. “I made a list once, which no one will ever see, of all the reasons that my hands were tied on this campaign,” he says. “And I’ve never had a list this long.” One of his biggest struggles, Davis says, was to come up with negative spots against a historic, groundbreaking candidate without stepping on taboos. “One of the big hands that I felt was tied behind my back was [that] so many things—like [Obama’s record on] crime—you would logically do were perceived as ‘Oh, we can’t do that. That was playing the race card,’” he says, adding that the campaign created a whole series of crime attacks against Obama that were never aired. “Reverend Wright? ‘Oh, can’t do that; they’ll say we are playing the race card.’ [William] Ayers? For the longest time, ‘Oh, can’t do that. We’re playing the race card.’”

Davis says that concern about race played a major role in the entire aesthetic of McCain’s ads. The photographs of Obama that the ads used, for instance, which often showed Obama elongated and smiling, were carefully selected, he recalls. “We chose them with only one thing in mind, and that is to not make them bad pictures because bad pictures would be seen as racist,” Davis says. “How many shots in their ads did they use a John McCain [photo] looking decent and smiling?” He says the campaign also agonized over the music in the ads, paying special care not to play drum-heavy tracks that could be seen as an African tribal reference. “We were held to a totally different standard,” he says.

Nevertheless, the McCain campaign was unable to escape the charge that it was playing the race card. An Associated Press analysis called the campaign’s invocations of the once violent 1960s radical Ayers “racially tinged” because they evoked the word terrorist. McCain was also accused of playing on race for running an ad that highlighted Obama’s relationship with Franklin Raines, a former executive at Fannie Mae who is black. Says Davis: “I never saw anybody play the race card but the Obama campaign.”

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