Gergen Plays the Coded Race Card

The debate over who played the race card last week, if anyone did, is starting to peter out, and it seems that everyone is willing to walk away from the issue with minor dents on Obama, and nary a scratch on John McCain.

Obama’s remarks about not looking like the faces on U.S. currency were either about race or not, but presumably, they were about the same thing that McCain’s use of Obama on the $100 bill was about.

Less clear to me, at least, is whether the McCain campaign was using subtle racial messaging in its "Celeb" ad. My colleague, Caleb Howe, joins the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in mocking the notion that the inclusion of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in the ad was a nod to miscegenation, similar to the ads run against Harold ford, Jr.

As I reported last week, I missed it at first, too. Stewart and I, not being from the South, are far less attuned to the "white women with black men" aspect of racism. Up here, the racism is mostly about crime and employment.

The thing about subtle racial coding is this: It’s subtle and coded. Luckily, David Gergen is familiar with Republican messaging, and acts as a Rosetta Stone for us in this clip:

Here’s the operative quote:

"Everybody knows he’s black but there has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream; other. He’s not one of us. It’s below the radar screen. I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it. But it’s the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows it. There are certain kind of signals. As a native of the South, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One," that’s code for ‘he’s uppity.’ ‘He ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who’s from a southern background. When McCain comes out and starts talking about affirmative action, I’m against quotas, we get what that’s about. That gets across."

The McCain campaign still has not come up with a sensible answer for the selection of these 2 particular luminaries, saying at first that they were the two biggest celebrities in the world. That’s not even close to true, and Paris Hilton has never drawn a crod of "fans" that I’m aware of.

They could have easily chosen Oprah Winfrey, who has already been villified as unqualified to endorse a candidate.

They could have used any number of the actual celebrities who have endorsed Obama. That, plus McCain’s own dismal record on keeping up with the times, racially speaking, makes for a compelling argument. Plus, when you belong to the party of the Southern Strategy, it is up to you to make sure you don’t get within yards of that line.