The Season of Sleaze


Here’s another double-edged benefit of the internet: this year, thanks to YouTube and other sites that let users post and share videos, the whole world can see the sort of sleaze that passes for political advertising as Election Day draws near.

In fact, the one-two-three punch of Google, YouTube and a broadband connection means that anyone can do in a few seconds what I did yesterday – learn about offensive ads in a newspaper story, then take a look at them yourself.

The sleaziest I’ve seen to date is the anti-Harold Ford ad produced for the Republican National Committee. That sent me to YouTube, where I found there are so many political ads this year you need to search the site not just for “Harold Ford” but for “Harold Ford RNC” to quickly find the ad.

To save you the bother, the New York Times has since added video of the ad both to yesterday’s original story and today’s follow-up. (Of course, I’m talking about the online edition of the Times – not the paper version that now seems so quaint and incomplete.)

Sleaze works, which is why political consultants rely on it year after year – especially in those crucial 10 days before the election. But what exactly do they mean by “works”?

In the eyes of a political consultant, sleaze “works” when it drives up the negatives on their opponent. But that’s hardly the only work those ads do. Especially when both sides start piling it on, the cacophony of charges, half-truths and breathlessly whispered innuendo pervades the whole atmosphere like a toxic chemical fog.

Not only the politicians are tainted by it, we all are. Just at the time when notions of civic duty and American democracy should be swelling our chests and making us look forward to casting our ballots, we’re made to feel – at best – like pest exterminators, and at worst like unwitting dupes in some great scam.

That’s one reason I have a hard time lecturing people who’ve turned their back on the whole thing, refusing to participate in elections at all. Given the environment, that’s a disturbingly rational reaction.

Frankly, given the atmosphere in Washington the past couple of years, some selected shorts from C-SPAN would give the voters a reminder of all the sleaze they need to see. But no, the consultants have their playbooks and we’re in for it once again.

Fortunately, we at least have comic relief – and YouTube has those too. A few favorites are The Truth About Rod Worthmeyer, Political Attack Ads and, for a change of pace, Al Qaeda Responds to Political Attack Ads.

But enjoy these over-the-top spoofs while you can. In another two years, they’ll probably be considered mainstream.