There’s an episode of the TV cartoon Family Guy in which the monumentally clueless character Peter Griffin picks up a copy of the New Yorker at a newsstand.
He opens the magazine, reads a cartoon, and then stands there for three days trying to figure out the joke.
This week, in an effort to shake off allegations that he fails to connect with Ordinary Americans, Democratic candidate Barrack Obama spent three days pretending that he too is incapable of grasping the subtleties of a New Yorker cartoon.
The candidate was reacting to the release of the latest issue of the magazine, the cover of which shows Obama and his wife Michelle in the Oval Office.
He is dressed as a Muslim cleric, she as a gun-toting Black Power revolutionary. The two bump victory fists as a portrait of Osama bin Laden looks on. In the hearth, an American flag burns.
To the average New Yorker reader the message was as plain as the cream cheese on a New York bagel. Since the senator from Michigan threw his African-American hat into the electoral ring Republicans without scruples have been convincing voters without brains that Obama is really Osama in disguise, pretending to be Christian and American while secretly practising the black arts of Islam and plotting the overthrow of Mom, Apple Pie, and Liberty.
More lately, as Obama’s intelligent, attractive, accomplished wife has become more active in the campaign, the right-wing attack machine has shifted focus.
Every word the aspiring First Lady utters in public becomes fodder for Fox News’s “why does Michelle Obama hate America?” campaign. With last week’s cover, the New Yorker does a brilliant job of ridiculing these smears.
The cartoon is the creation of Barry Blitt, whose past New Yorker covers have depicted, among other things, the Bush cabinet trying to hold a meeting in a room that’s flooded up to their necks, and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cruising an airport washroom for gay sex.
According to an NBC poll from last March, 13 per cent of Americans believe that Barrack Obama is Muslim.
The real surprise is that a remarkable 87 per cent are better informed, but in the krazy kwilt of American politics, 13 per cent properly distributed is more than enough to sway a close race.
In America, just as in any democracy, it never pays to ignore the idiot vote.
But a more dangerous accusation touches the Obama campaign.
In an April Newsweek poll, 25 per cent of respondents agreed that Barrack Obama is ‘elitist,’ a far more poisonous allegation than Muslim-hood in the minds of all the Peter Griffins who will line up at the ballot boxes this November.
The notion of elitism has a peculiar resonance in American politics.
So peculiar that George W. Bush, oil man, Yale graduate, inheritor of generations of wealth and power, was able to level it with considerable success against two consecutive opponents.
In one of Blitt’s finest moments, the October 11, 2004 New Yorker cover showed Bush as a jovial army grunt in rumpled fatigues, a golf club over his shoulder, pointing a “get-this-guy” thumb at Democratic rival John Kerry in white dress regalia, looking down his aquiline Yankee nose.
Republicans have done such a sterling job of framing the term ‘elitist’ that it no longer implies a Fortune 500 background, an ivy-league education, or policies that favour the wealthy elite.
In America today, an elitist is quite simply someone who understands the New Yorker.
Small wonder then that Obama rushed to distance himself from the latest cover.
In a comment worthy of Peter Griffin himself, the candidate told CNN’s Larry King, “You know, there are wonderful Muslim Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things and for this to be used as sort of an insult, or to raise suspicions about me, I think is unfortunate. And it’s not what America’s all about.”
Much confusion has been expressed by the punditry over Obama’s reaction to the Blitt cover.
Is the erudite, the witty Obama, the thinking voter’s candidate, really so clueless he can’t see that the cartoon attacks not him but his detractors, that its victims are not Muslim Americans, but their racist enemies?
Fear not, America. The presidential frontrunner is not an ignorant chucklehead, any more than he is a Muslim or any kind of radical.
He is an ambitious politician, and must cater to the ignorant vote if his ambitions are ever to be realized. Obama doesn’t really believe the cartoon was “tasteless and offensive.” He just doesn’t want everyone to know he got the joke.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.