Dollar Bills and Paris Hilton

Sunday, August 3, 2008

IS BARACK Obama a celebrity lightweight, a self-involved Paris Hilton yearning to live "The Simple Life" in the Oval Office? Is John McCain trying to scare voters about the fact that Mr. Obama, soon to be the first African American nominee, "doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills?" And one more question: How silly were we, just two months ago, in venturing "some hope that the general election can be waged on the elevated plane that both nominees say they want?"

When the story of Campaign 2008 is written, neither candidate is likely to look back with pride on the final week of July. Mr. McCain is entitled to question his opponent's readiness for the presidency and even to employ a bit of cheeky humor in making his point. He's not entitled to be dishonest, as he was, for example, in the ad suggesting that Mr. Obama preferred to play basketball rather than visit wounded troops on his trip to Germany.

Mr. Obama is entitled to inoculate himself against the discomfort and even hostility that are, unfortunately but inevitably, evoked among a minority of Americans by the fact of his race. Indeed, he would be foolish to pretend that race plays no role in this historic campaign. But Mr. Obama is not entitled to pin responsibility for this reaction on the McCain campaign, as he did on Thursday in saying that President Bush and Mr. McCain would try to scare voters: "You know, 'He's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name.' You know, 'He doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.' "

There was, no doubt, a calculated element of tactical foul-crying in the McCain campaign's loud and immediate protestations that Mr. Obama had not only "played the race card" but dealt it "from the bottom of the deck." This assessment was overstated. But just as the Obama campaign is free to do what it can to counteract the complications of running as the first African American nominee, the McCain campaign needs to carve out space to wage a vigorous campaign without fear of being labeled racist at the slightest criticism.

Both candidates would do well to keep in mind that voters, worried about gas prices and the economy, health care and Iraq, are likely to run quickly out of patience with some of the juvenile back-and-forth. Voters face a serious choice between two candidates who bring impressive qualities to the race. Those qualities weren't shining through last week.

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