ABC Throws a Fit About McCain Celeb Ad: A 'Strange,' 'Nuclear Attack'

Diane Sawyer, The hosts and correspondents on Thursday's "Good Morning America" did not hold back in expressing their displeasure over a new John McCain ad that depicts Barack Obama as a celebrity and compares him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Co-host Diane Sawyer hyperbolically derided the spot as a "political nuclear attack" and asserted that the campaign is taking "a strange new turn."

GMA news anchor Chris Cuomo seemed equally flummoxed. He opened the show by asserting, "Some odd campaign news today. There's a round of new campaign commercials that really have us scratching our heads here." A bewildered Sawyer agreed: "What sort of committee meeting do you have where you say, 'Let's use Britney!' 'Let's use Paris!' Yes, that'll be a blow!" In a second segment, former Clinton aide-turned journalist George Stephanopoulos claimed the commercial could be seen as "angry, cranky, too negative" and McCain himself might be viewed as "a bit of a whiner given the fact that most polls that he is behind."

At one point, Sawyer queried, "Will it read as sour grapes and boomerang?" The entire tone of the morning show's coverage seemed desperately out of touch. It seems obvious that McCain was attempting to, in a not-so subtle way, depict the Obama campaign as superficial and not ready for prime time. And since the Arizona senator must deal with reporters who both fawn and defend the Democrat, how can such attack ads be surprising?

Of course, other than a few snippets, GMA didn't actually play the McCain ad, which features visuals of Spears and Hilton mixed in with video of Obama's European trip. The rest of the spot hit the Illinois senator for plans to raise taxes and opposition to offshore oil drilling, pretty standard critiques that one politician might make about another during a campaign. Sawyer, however, appeared appalled by the celebrity comparison: "And as we said, that new breed of negative TV ads out this morning that use Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as a kind of political nuclear attack."

Jake Tapper, during a segment on the commercial, at least tried for balance. Discussing how both sides would spin the spot, he stated that the McCain team believes they will be able to paint Obama as "an arrogant, arugula-eating, Fancy Berry, tea drinking celebrity." Tapper then asked, "But does the new McCain line of attack bring out a negative caricature of McCain, that he's an angry, bitter old man?"

A transcript of the first segment, which aired at 7:02am, followed by a partial transcript of Stephanopoulos, follows:

7am tease

DIANE SAWYER: This morning, John McCain trying to use Britney and Paris as weapons against Barack Obama. Will it work? Obama's response this morning as American politics takes a strange new turn.

CHRIS CUOMO: Some odd campaign news today. There's a round of new campaign commercials that really have us scratching our heads here.

SAWYER: They do. What sort of committee meeting do you have where you say, "Let's use Britney!" Let's use Paris!" Yes, that'll be a blow. Anyway, we're going to be asking this morning George Stephanopoulos, who will be here, is this savvy strategy by the McCain camp? Will it read as sour grapes and boomerang?

7:02am

SAWYER: But first, let's get right to it. It's the race for '08. And as we said, that new breed of negative TV ads out this morning that use Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as a kind of political nuclear attack. ABC's senior political correspondent Jake Tapper live in Washington with it. Jake?

JAKE TAPPER: Good morning, Diane. Well, the McCain campaign thinks they have an effective line of attack against Senator Barack Obama. That he is an arrogant, arugula-eating, Fancy Berry, tea-drinking celebrity. But does the new McCain line of attack bring out a negative caricature of McCain, that he's an angry, bitter old man? The new McCain ad depicts Barack Obama as a celebrity, akin to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, pretty, pampered, not up for being president.

ANNOUNCER FROM AD: Is he ready to lead?

TAPPER: Framing Obama as a celebrity allows McCain an opportunity to accuse Obama of other flaws, quote, "like most worldwide celebrities," reads this McCain memo, "this status has fueled a certain arrogance." This new Republican Party website, "Obama Audacity Watch," catalogs alleged arrogance such as Obama's faux presidential seal. Obama laughs it off.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: They got me in an ad with Paris Hilton. You know, never met the woman.

TAPPER: But could the charge stick?

MICHELLE COTTLE (Senior editor, New Republic): Americans don't like presidents who think they're better than the average guy.

TAPPER: Some former McCain aides wonder if the McCain brand will be hurt by his new strategy of attack, attack, attack.

ANNOUNCER FROM MCCAIN AD: Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?

DAN SCHNUR (Director, Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, USC): You want to draw contrasts between yourself and your opponent but you want voters to see it as valuable contrasting information rather than simply as name calling.

TAPPER: John Weaver, McCain's former top political aide, who left the campaign last summer, tells ABC News that the Britney ad is, quote, "childish." The new negative strategy, Weaver says, quote, "reduces McCain. John is capable of inspiring Americans. It's not the John McCain brand at all. It's like asking Wilt Chamberlain to play point guard." And now Obama is casting McCain, who already has a reputation for having a temper, as negative and angry.

OBAMA AD: Same old politics.

TAPPER: With 97 days to go, the caricature crayons are out.

JOEL STEIN (Columnist, Time magazine): One of them is kind of egotistical and confident, so optimistic. And the other one is kind of tough and gruff. Like, I find that very real and appealing and hope they don't, kind of, tone those things down.

TAPPER: A third party liberal group is now attacking McCain online saying that he is the out of touch celebrity pointing out he wore expensive Italian loafers to a meeting with the Dalai Lama. So there you have it. Paris, Britney, Ferragamo loafers, the great debates of 2008. Diane?

SAWYER: [laughs]: As someone said, while Rome burns.

7:04

DIANE SAWYER: Let's get the bottom line on all of this. Chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos here right now. George, is this going to work? Is the McCain camp smart?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, they're certainly confident about this, Diane, and they are now backing off at all. They're saying they're feeling good and I think one of the things they're happy about is we're sitting here right now talking about all this. They wanted to get attention. They are getting attention. I think the question is, will the focus on the tactics overwhelm the actual message that the McCain camp is trying to send? There is a tradition of this kind of ad going all the way back to 1988. Remember when Republicans said that Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis wanted to convince Iowans to grow Belgium endive? That goes with Barack Obama's arugula. Also, they put him in a tank in that ad. They tried to ridicule the idea that he could be commander in chief. Go to 2004. Just four years ago. When John Kerry was running, the Bush campaign wanted to paint him as an elite billionaire who was out of touch, kind of French. They had that famous wind surfing ad to drive home the point that he was a flip flopper and doing sports that, you know, normal Americans don't do. This ad is in that tradition. Right now, the McCain campaign camp is confident that it's going to work. On the other hand, the Obama team says it's just a bridge too far to compare Barack Obama in Berlin to Britney Spears and that people will see it as ridiculous.

SAWYER: And what about the former campaign aide saying it's childish? Is there a risk that its is a backlash [sic] and that it does make Senator McCain seem angry?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah. Angry, cranky, too negative, a bit of a whiner given the fact that most polls that he is behind. On the other hand, the Obama campaign has to watch out for the risk that he does appear a bit presumptuous, that he does appear over-confident. Just the other night, David Letterman had a top ten list, "The Top Ten Signs That Barack Obama is over-confident." This is something they have to watch. The Obama campaign is very aware of that. That's why they're trying to keep him in the small town, town setting meetings where he can appear to be in touch with regular people and not appear to be flying high as he was last week in Berlin.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org