Extreme Campaign Makeover

Saturday, August 23, 2008

IT USED TO BE that scandals were named for buildings. (Remember Watergate?) Now, it seems, they're about buildings. John McCain doesn't know how many houses he and his wife own. Barack Obama bought his with an assist from a man later convicted of felonies. So much for the substantive, high-road campaign.

We can bemoan this elevation of the trivial without being deluded into thinking that it's something new -- although the velocity of the 24-7 news cycle, the omnipresence of cable television and instantaneous transmission over the Internet have intensified this phenomenon. Small moments that capture -- or appear to capture -- a deeper truth about a candidate are easy for voters to grasp and for rival campaigns to exploit. George H.W. Bush was painted as being out of touch because he supposedly marveled at a supermarket scanner. Al Gore was portrayed as a résumé-puffing blowhard because he supposedly claimed credit for launching the Internet or uncovering problems at Love Canal. Smart candidates have always known that they need to keep abreast of the price of a quart of milk. (Keeping up with the price of arugula at Whole Foods doesn't count.) Now they'll need to refresh their recollection of their real estate holdings.

The Obama campaign, having already collected research on the McCain real estate holdings, quickly produced an ad to taunt him. And it's not as though the McCain campaign has been higher-minded: Comparing Mr. Obama to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Charlton Heston as Moses isn't exactly a reprise of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Really, do the McCains' real estate holdings and his failure to keep count of his wife's Coronado condos make Mr. McCain oblivious to the concerns of ordinary Americans -- any more than their family estates made Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy incapable of feeling the pain of the common man? Do Mr. Obama's four fireplaces, music room, wine cellar and four-car garage count against him? Likewise, Mr. Obama has long said that he had a lapse in judgment in getting entangled with Tony Rezko, a friend and fundraiser who in June was convicted of 16 counts of felony corruption in an influence-peddling scheme, in buying his house.

But anyone who votes on the basis of this sound-and-fury politics deserves the president he gets.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company