Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, it was impossible to get through a day without some mention of Paris Hilton -- the ingenue famous mostly for being famous.

Oh, how we complained. Can't we please have just one day when we don't talk about Paris?! And then one day, America's prayers were answered. Not only did Hilton disappear, she vanished into a jail cell where she spent 22 days for violating parole.

When finally she did emerge, a repentant and humble Hilton claimed she had found God.

"I'm not the same person I was," she averred. "God has given me this new chance."

Who knew God's messenger would be John McCain.

With his recent ad trying to convey that Barack Obama is just another celebrity whose status is based on a thin resume, McCain effectively resurrected Hilton's career.

Familiar to most by now, the ad shows Obama before a cheering crowd, then the camera pans to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. "He's the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?" asks the narrator.

Something about higher taxes and foreign oil got lost in the reaction to the ad's allegedly racist imagery. Apparently, a black male cannot be viewed in the same frame with white females without a suggestion of racist undertones.

At least that was my first response to the controversy.

As a white female, I saw the ad as simply dumb and beneath McCain. Too easy. Too cliched. We all get the celebrity bit. But upon further reflection, the ad was subliminally loaded.

It is a fact that few other faces -- black, white, male or female -- are as well known as Hilton's and Spears'. It's also a fact that few celebrities, if any, are as comparably well-known for gaining their status without much resume.

But it is a more important fact that the two ladies are perceived as being of questionable character. Their celebrity is based in part on their sexual displays. Hilton's career was launched with a homemade porn movie. Spears is known to forget to wear undergarments in public.

Their value as examples of celebrity is overshadowed by their sexual symbolism, in other words.

The first association upon viewing the ad might well be celebrity, but the second connection is surely sex. Despite racial progress in this country, the black man/white woman sexual taboo still burbles just beneath the surface of America's unconscious mind -- and easily roils to the top in some pockets where racism is still easily tapped.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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