A Whole Lot About the Red Phone

You remember those “red phone” ads Clinton and Obama ran a couple weeks ago while battling for primary votes in Texas and Ohio. (If you didn’t see them, or want a refresher, you can view them at Think Progress.)

1. Is the ad racist?

I was surprised to find that the ad was a deciding factor in Texas. According to exit polls, it accounted for a ten percent swing: the difference between the predicted vote –55 percent for Obama and — the actual count — 55 percent for Clinton.

How come? Why did voters respond to Clinton’s ad? I thought Obama’s follow-up was equally effective. An op-ed in today’s New York Times, by Orlando Patterson, persuades me I was wrong.


I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come — that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.

Watching the ads again, I had to acknowledge: there could be a racial subtext. It might depend on the attitudes

and background of the audience, however. As Clarence Darrow liked to point out, we are, all of us, nothing much more than a bundle of prejudices. And no one knows more than the advertising gurus about tapping into those prejudices.

So. Was it deliberately racist? You can watch it and decide for yourself. It may be relevant to point out that the ad ran in deep South Texas, nesting ground of the Busherie, but did not run in mid-Western working class Ohio.

As the carnies used to say, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

2. Racist or not, is the message valid?

Robert Stein at Moderate Voice argues that the whole “red-phone-emergency-action” scenario is bogus. Sure, we want someone in the White House who does not keep reading My Pet Goat to the school kids while the phone is ringing. But.


… that moment will call for coordinating a response based on intelligence, military and diplomatic information and advice rather than pulling an answer from a backlog of experience in his or her head.

In the White House, the new President will need a staff with brains and expertise rather than cunning on how to win the next election.

Any candidate who claims to be a savior when the phone rings in the middle of the night is selling snake oil.

Interesting concept, that. Brains and expertise rather than vote-cadging skills. Offhand, looking the people each has gathered so far, which of the two Democratic contenders seems to have taken that idea to heart?

3. Is the Red Phone really a Red Phony?

But hold on. I’m not through with this “red phone” business. One more item, which has been nagging at the back of my brain for, let’s see, going on six and a half years.

Just WTF was going on that morning? Four major airliners were off course, out of radio contact. Military aircraft had been scrambled to tail them; we still don’t know whether they had orders to shoot them down or, if they did have orders, whether they carried them out. Then one of those planes flew directly into the Trade Center.

It would seem to me in retrospect — hell, it seemed to me at the time — that this would have been a good time for someone to call that red phone. Get the Decider-in-Chief on the horn, warn him, ask for advice or orders, pass the goddam buck if nothing else.

But did that happen? Let me leap to a conclusion here. Follow me if you dare. One of two things happened that morning.

  • Someone in the intelligence community or the air traffic control community or back at the White House called the red phone, and conveyed the message to whomever answered. Eventually, the news was passed on to Bush. You may recall his response: “Ha That was some lousy pilot. Now back to My Pet Goat.”
  • No one called the red phone; instead, they called someone else — presumably Cheney — and followed his orders.

In either case — I can think of no third possibility — at what was the most critical moment in American history for sixty years, the President did not answer the goddam red phone.

Excuse me while I take a nap, after which I plan to read from the collected writings of Abraham Lincoln. Have to convince myself that, at least once in the country’s history, there was a grown-up who took charge when the shit hit the fan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s