The 'Evil' Eye

Pop quiz, hotshot: Whose peepers are peeking out at us over the words "America Must Look Evil in the Eye" on this new mailer from the Republican Party of Virginia?

Not sure? Either am I. And that's probably the point. 

The mailer hits "Democrats who want to control Washington"--translation: Barack Obama--for wanting to appease terrorists and rogue leaders, so it's natural that some readers would conclude that it's Barack Obama in the picture. Then again, the pamphlet also boasts glamor shots of Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hugo Chavez, so others might assume it's Osama bin Laden. Either way, when TPM's Greg Sargent asked Virginia GOP spokesperson Gerry Scimeca whether the photo was bin Laden or Obama, "he couldn't immediately say." Based on side-by-side images of the two figures, both guesses seem reasonable. 

That ambiguity is sneaky--to put it mildly. Virginia Republicans could've chosen to use a full facial photograph on this page of the mailer--just as they did with Chavez, Kim and Ahmadinejad. That would've cleared up any possible confusion. Referring to either Obama or bin Laden in the text, like the party did with "the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea," would've accomplished the same task. Given that they didn't--deliberately, I'm assuming--I only see three possible readings of the photo:

1) It's an image of Obama cropped to evoke bin Laden (no mouth, no hair, no identifying characteristics)--in which case the Virginia GOP is explicitly equating Obama with "evil." Strikes me as highly unlikely.

2) It's an image of a random, unidentifiable dark-skinned individual--in which case the Virginia GOP is implying that anyone with darker skin (a group that would include both Obama and bin Laden) is an "evil" threat. Still not sold.

3) It's an image of bin Laden cropped (and darkened, much like Time magazine's famous O.J. Simpson cover) to plausibly pass as Obama--in which case the Virginia GOP is explicitly (and appropriately) equating bin Laden with "evil" while implicitly (and inappropriately) equating Obama with bin Laden. By far the most likely explanation. 

Again, the Virginia GOP could've easily preempted any confusion by either a) showing a full headshot on this page (just like they did with Chavez, Kim and Ahmadinejad) or b) identifying either Obama or bin Laden in the text (just like they did with the other people pictured). That they didn't--and, when asked, refused to confirm or deny that it was an image of Obama--suggests that the ambiguity was intentional. There's already a small group of right-wing extremists who seem attached to the idea that the Illinois senator is, in fact, an evil Islamist. McCain supporters have shouted "terrorist!" at rallies; the Sacramento County GOP ran a "The Only Difference between Obama and Osama is BS" web ad. With that in mind, it's hard not to conclude that Virginia Republicans are deliberately appealing to the worst elements of their party here.

For the most part, John McCain was right last night when he said that he's "repudiated every time someone's been out of line, whether they've been part of my campaign or not." In this case, I don't think he has to play referee. But that doesn't mean that voters shouldn't cry foul.