JULY 8, 2002
A few of us at The New Republic have gotten into the habit of expressing our mundane daily conversations in the lingo of 30 second political attack ads. (Just the sort of behavior that made us so cool in high school.) Suppose a colleague wants to head to a familiar spot for lunch, and I prefer a new place. I might accuse him of having "nothing to offer but the failed policies of the past," and he might reply with an earnest call for "progress, not divisive attacks." The exercise is a contest to see who can attain the highest levels of viciousness, sanctimony, and hypocrisy when the stakes are utterly trivial.
Alas, our parodic efforts were outdone by the recent election for property- value assessor in Floyd County, Kentucky. If you're one of the civic delinquents who hasn't followed this race, here's what happened: The incumbent, Connie Hancock, aired an attack ad maintaining that her opponent has been "arrested or charged fifty-six times for violating the law," including DUI, criminal trespassing, felony assault, and terroristic threatening. "In a drunken brawl," the ad further charges, he "bit a man's ear completely off." As if this charge needs more dramatization, it is followed by a high-pitched scream--the sound, we presume, of a man whose ear has just been bitten completely off. How do you respond to a volley like this? Hancock's adversary, David May, begins his rejoinder by downplaying the charges. "Sure, when I was young"--May is now 27--"I did a few things I'd like to think I'd handle different. My opponent said I was arrested for DUI. That's completely untrue," he tells the camera.
When you've been accused of committing 56 criminal acts, including cannibalism, it might seem like a fairly damning admission to deny only one (relatively innocuous) charge. But a cardinal rule of politics holds that you should never stay on the defensive. So May immediately segues into a brutal counter-offensive. "Why would Connie Hancock falsely attack me?" he asks. "She suspected this tape"--and here May holds up a videotape--"would surface. It's X-rated and shows just how little she values her reputation and wedding vows." At this point the ad cuts to a bedroom scene featuring a smiling, half-naked woman, strongly resembling Hancock, sitting on a bed as a man who may or may not be her husband approaches. Abruptly the video ends, and we are left with an image of May smiling and waving.
Hancock ended up winning, with 7,687 votes to May's 4,631. Perhaps that's because May violated another key political rule, which was dramatized by Rick Lazio's backfiring attack on Hillary Clinton in 2000: You can't directly assail a female candidate without looking unchivalrous. This lesson is also being played out in the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign. The leading candidate is Jennifer Granholm, the telegenic, Harvard educated attorney general. Her fellow contenders need to attack her but in an indirect, almost subliminal, way. One opponent, former Governor Jim Blanchard, has released a commercial showing a basketball coach in a locker room exhorting, "This is no time for rookies. Blanchard ... suit up." While the ostensible message is that Blanchard has more experience than the younger Granholm, the ad's real point is to make voters think of the governor's job as akin to a position on a basketball team--in other words, one in which a woman can't compete.
Granholm's other foe, ex-House Whip David Bonior, takes an even subtler tack. His commercial features an obnoxious Canadian talking about how his country dumps garbage in Michigan. "David Bonior believes it's time to stop the Canadian dumping," the ad announces. The notion of whipping Americans into an anti-Canadian fervor has long served as fodder for comedians. The 1995 movie Canadian Bacon, for instance, centered on an unpopular American president who rallies the public for war against our Northern neighbor with a propaganda campaign that includes a map portraying Canada as an insidious mass of maple syrup dripping over the border and engulfing the United States. But in real life, even for a native Michigander like me--who grew up in the shadow of the Canadian menace, knowing that at any moment marauding Mounties could gallop down and pillage our pleasant suburban tracts--Canadians could never serve as effective bogeymen. They're just too good-natured. So why is Bonior fomenting anti-Canadian jingoism? Granholm was born in Canada.
Rather than stoking nationalistic resentment against our Canadian neighbors, we should be joining with them to defend our common North American football culture against the rot of international soccer. The World Cup has given rise to yet another surge of pro-soccer propaganda. Like the Communists and the Third World despots of the 1970s, soccer partisans claim to represent the wave of the future and see the United States as the decadent, wheezing past. If this line sounds familiar, it's because we've been hearing it for more than 25 years. Growing up in the '70s, all of us kids played soccer. My brother and I wolfed down bowls of Kix, a sphere-shaped cereal that marketed itself as the breakfast of soccer players. But when we got old enough, everybody started playing football, and by high school soccer was largely relegated to shaggy athletic misfits. Kix, meanwhile, has abandoned its soccer theme. All this demonstrates the great flaw in the sport-of-the-future claim. In most of the United States, soccer is a sport for younger children--who develop foot-eye coordination before hand-eye coordination--who then progress on to other sports. Assuming the sport of the next generation is soccer is akin to assuming the drink of the next generation is apple juice.
Also like the Communists, soccer's fellow travelers routinely smear heir opponents as rabid right-wingers. In his pro-soccer screed in this space last week, Franklin Foer called soccer critics "Buchananite." What the soccer elites don't grasp is that Americans, not unreasonably, associate soccer with weakness. In football, the kicker is the smallest, wimpiest player on the field--so presumptively unable to defend himself that there is a special penalty-- "roughing the kicker"--to prohibit the other players from harming him. The kicker is like the nearsighted, asthmatic cousin your parents forced you to include in the game: Necessity compels his participation, but he is treated more gingerly than everybody else and is mildly scorned for it. When Americans see soccer, they see a game consisting entirely of kickers. Yes, soccer hatred has a certain socially retrograde element. (My high school football coach would not even deign to utter the word "soccer"--he called it "communist homosexual activity.") But the simple truth is that no football-playing nation has ever lost a war to a soccer-playing nation. Perhaps this is why Foer and his soccer- loving comrades persist in trying to import their system to American shores. He gleefully predicts that soccer will bring about "not the Americanization of the rest of the world, but the reverse." While his football- and freedom-loving countrymen see "Americanization" as the great hope for the world, Foer uses the word as an epithet. Call Franklin Foer, and tell him to stop his negative attacks on the United States of America.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.