Root for the villains in TV attack ads

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

If David Allan Coe ever ran for political office, his opponent would run an attack ad on TV. A man with a deep, frightening drawl — say, Sam Elliott — would snarl something like: “Tardy alcoholic Coe arrived too late to rescue his ex-con mother from a violent death! Do we really want him to be our next senator? Not in this state!”

That indictment of Coe would be false. But because Coe crooned a vaguely similar confession once (no, repeatedly, almost nightly in honky tonks), it becomes nectar for his political opponent’s campaign manager. Coe is the outlaw country singer who, when trying to write the perfect country-music verse, penned this masterpiece:

“Well, I was drunk the day my Mom got out of prison

And I went to pick her up in the rain

But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck

She got runned over by a damned ol’ train”

Yes, sir, anything you say — anything, ever, anywhere — can be used against you in political campaigns, especially warfare as ferocious as what we see chronicled almost nonstop on our TV screens these days.

You’ve got to wonder how much these attack ads actually accomplish. Are people really so dumb as to be influenced by this relentless cascade of negativity? Apparently so, or the marketing experts who research this stuff wouldn’t be spewing such melodrama.

Personally, I make it a point every time I see an attack ad on TV to mutter, “That’s one more strike against whoever authorized this ad.”

Just once I’d like to see a candidate appear on my TV screen and proclaim proudly, cordially and confidently: “Let me spend these 30 seconds talking not about my opponent, but describing how I will try to improve our community and our country if I am fortunate to gain your vote.”

Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. In 2010, the only path to political victory winds through a minefield of insults, invectives and condemnations, many of them exaggerated, taken out of context or just downright false.

Villainy on parade

Some of the politicians try to remain above the nastiness. They allow others to do their dirty work on TV. It’s the anonymous announcers, the professional scare mongers, who creep onto our screens and rip away the cape that’s covering the boogeyman.

Through all of this, the candidates’ hypocrisy borders on comical. At public events, they are smiling, eloquent, effervescent hand-shakers and baby-kissers. But when their hit men step before a recording-studio microphone, it’s hammer time!

All of this televised hyperventilating kind of reminds me of professional wrestling, except when Triple H flies off the top turnbuckle with a folding chair held over his head, we pretty much know it’s just for fun. Part of the show. But in the political attack ads, the protagonists are spitting and snorting about our taxes, our homes, our families and the quality of life in our communities. Pretty scary stuff.

Part of these attack ads’ collateral damage is to chase away many of the promising, capable, potential politicians who understandably vow to never run for office. Take me, for example. I know how relieved many of you are to learn that I will never run for office. But, really, how could I? I’ve got enough baggage in my background to make David Allan Coe look like a choirboy. Like, my wife might tell some reporter, “You know, John might push the rules a teeny bit on the golf course, but he’s still the best husband and the best father in the world.” Then that night on TV: “Laird’s cheating extends even onto the golf course, says his first wife (the only wife I’ve had for 40-plus years).” Instantly, I’m toast, any dreams of holding public office dashed on the rocks of twisted rhetoric.

Next time you see a political attack ad (which will be soon after you turn on your TV), try the therapeutic tactic of adopting the opposite view of what is presented. Root for the supposed villain, about whom you’re seeing and hearing so much smack.

Then tilt back a little farther in your recliner and mutter these two short but eminently appropriate words:

Snake.

Oil.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.