Like the other network morning shows, NBC’s Today on Friday took exception to John McCain’s ad mocking Barack Obama’s celebrity, featuring very brief pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Matt Lauer suggested it was "bizarre" and said it was "a new and some would say very negative ad from John McCain." Meredith Vieira agreed, suggesting it was "over the top" and saying "the ad suggests that Obama is just like these two celebutantes, more style than substance." In an interview with McCain aide Nicolle Wallace and Obama aide Robert Gibbs, Matt Lauer told Wallace the ad was "much more personal and demeaning" than Hillary Clinton’s "It's 3 AM" ad, and after Wallace replied, he repeated it was "demeaning."
But Lauer asked Gibbs about whether it could become a negative that Obama draws adoring crowds: "So this issue of celebrity, what we're saying is there's all this raw excitement. There's this screaming and cheering. Hundreds of thousands of people turning out at these events and maybe they're trying to touch on this. Is there a possibility and a fear on your part that celebrity starts to overwhelm the message, or become the message itself?"
Meredith Vieira began Today by suggesting McCain was overdoing it: "Good morning, Blonde-Sided. A controversial new John McCain ad compares Barack Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Is it over the top? Top advisors for both campaigns square off this morning."
In the opening chatter, Lauer was puzzled and amazed:
MATT LAUER: Now I'm trying to think, even in the rough and tumble and somewhat bizarre world of politics, did anyone ever imagine that they would be seeing Britney Spears and Paris Hilton featured in a presidential campaign ad? Guess what, they are in a new and some would say very negative ad from John McCain.
VIEIRA: Yeah, the ad suggests that Obama is just like these two celebutantes, more style than substance. And now the Obama campaign is fighting back. Top advisors for both campaigns will weigh in in just a few minutes.
First, NBC ran a story summarizing the controversy by reporter Savannah Guthrie. The story was pretty balanced, running clips that underlined what could be Obama’s arrogance, with the candidate boasting "We are the ones we’ve been waiting for" and "the odds of winning are very good." GOP analyst Vin Weber was paired with Democrat analyst Tad Devine and Sen. Claire McCaskill. Guthrie concluded: "McCain's advisors were asked if they were portraying him as frivolous and irresponsible, the way many see Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. Their response, yes. Analysts say it's a concerted effort by the McCain campaign to define Obama for voters."
Skeptical viewers might wonder exactly how that Q&A went and how strongly McCain’s advisers suggested he was a Britney/Paris carbon copy.
Then came the interview with Wallace and Gibbs. Lauer began by assailing the Republicans as too negative:
LAUER: Nicole, let me start with you. I mean, experience is going to be a key in this election and clearly it was questioned by Hillary Clinton for Barack Obama with the famous "It's 3AM" ads. But this ad does go to a different direction. It's much more personal and it is demeaning, isn't it?
WALLACE: Well, look. This ad is in some ways a celebration of his celebrity. I mean, I don't think there's much to debate this morning about whether he or is not a celebrity. The ad though, if you watch the whole thing and I hope you will show it in its entirety because it makes a very serious and sober point. There are two big roadblocks on our way to economic recovery. And they include our dependence on Mideast oil and a move by the Obama campaign to raise taxes on just about every American.
LAUER: Well, then Nicole, if that's the importance of the ad, why bury the lead? Why is it that the first thing we see are these images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears? And as Savannah mentioned in her report, these are not -- I have nothing against either one them, but they're not known for their gravitas. And in some ways they have become the punch line of jokes. That's demeaning.
WALLACE: Well, we've never made jokes about Paris Hilton in this campaign and, look, I don't think we're making a joke of Senator Obama and neither were the 200,000 Germans who there to celebrate his celebrity...
NBC would not run the ad in its entirety. Lauer then turned to Gibbs for the talk of Obama's adoration by massive crowds:
LAUER: Robert, let me bring you in here. So this issue of celebrity, what we're saying is there's all this raw excitement. There's this screaming and cheering. Hundreds of thousands of people turning out at these events and maybe they're trying to touch on this. Is there a possibility and a fear on your part that celebrity starts to overwhelm the message or become the message itself?
GIBBS: I think what you see is people that are excited about the possibility of change in this country. You know, John McCain is an honorable man, Matt, who's running an increasingly dishonorable campaign, as the independent observers say are false and baseless. The McCain campaign has very clearly decided that the only way to win thie election is to become very personal and very negative.
It's about here in the interview where you can see how closely the NBC view and the Obama view of McCain's ad line up together. Lauer then turned back to Wallace to suggest that about the only tactic Republicans can use is try to turn Obama's adoring fans into a negative:
LAUER: Nicole, I was reading something where they said, basically, here's the stance on the McCain campaign. They cannot match the excitement, the crowds, the yelling, the cheering of the Obama campaign. So what they've decided to do is make those things, crowds, cheering, excitement, a negative.
Wallace responded that you would see cheering crowds anywhere you went with McCain. "They may not be 200,000 strong and they're certainly not European, but they are cheering and enthusiastic for John McCain's leadership." Lauer then asked Gibbs about whether the Republicans might sink his hero with "dangerous buzzwords" in the fall:
LAUER: Robert, let me ask you about this memo that was released by the McCain campaign where it says that apparently he has taken on some sort of an air of arrogance. And I'm wondering if you think that, that is a buzzword and a dangerous buzzword at all?
GIBBS: Look, Barack Obama is one of the most down to earth people that I have ever met. He's not arrogant...
Gibbs repeated that McCain was "very personal and very negative." Lauer concluded by asking Gibbs: "However, real quickly Robert, and I'm running out of time. You did respond with a negative ad. So at what point is it a slippery slope? And do you risk having any claim to a higher ground?"
But when it comes to Obama assertions that their campaign runs on a higher ground, they certainly can depend on networks like NBC to suggest that Republican ad makers are uniquely "demeaning."