There are occasions in the news coverage of campaigns where fevered imagination kicks in and calm, comparative reason takes a holiday. Here we go again, and this time it's Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic contender for the Senate in Tennessee who is getting the red carpet media treatment. Ford is an attractive black "rising Democratic star," whose only obstacle is Tennessee's inability to get beyond its sordid racist past.
The East Coast media recently parachuted into Tennessee to explore if the state was still so backward as to elect yet another Republican. On its front page, The Washington Post began a story with John Layne, aging white Republican, who came to a Ford rally because he has emphysema and worries about health care. "Oh, sure, there's some prejudice," Layne said. "I wouldn't want my daughter marrying one." But apparently, he'll vote for one if the government benefit checks are good.
From that assumption -- scratch a Southerner, and there's still a bigot underneath, unless he votes for Democrats -- the media have built fortresses of hot air on another assumption: Going back to the Nixon era, Republicans have gained office in the South not because of their record on national defense or abortion or taxes, but because every conservative victory is proof of Southern racism successfully exploited.
Ford filmed a TV ad inside a church and, further pushing the piety theme, regularly has proclaimed his love for Jesus Christ on the campaign trail. But Republicans saw hypocrisy -- and an opportunity to exploit it. They ran a humorous ad mocking Ford for attending a Playboy magazine party in Florida at the Super Bowl last year. The ad ends with a woman posing as someone Ford met at the Super Bowl, saying, "Harold, call me."
The liberal media hyperventilated, treating this ad as if it was the vilest racist piece of film since "Birth of a Nation" in 1915.
In The New York Times, media writer Alessandra Stanley scolded that the ad was a comedic regurgitation of how "Republican strategists in 1988 tried to stoke subliminal racist fears with the infamous Willie Horton ad." For the young, that's an ad that underlined that Gov. Michael Dukakis was soft on criminals because he let murderers out on weekend furloughs. Willie Horton was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing a gas station attendant 19 times and shoving him into a garbage can to die. On one weekend furlough, the convict raped a woman in Maryland.
But Horton was black, and therefore Dukakis' position on crime, like Ford's position on moral issues, was irrelevant. Those Republicans are racists, and that's all that matters.