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(more On) Race And The Red Phone

(Update: Shortly after posting this item, I saw that, while I was writing it, Jason had already weighed in on the subject. Apologies for the inevitable overlap.)

I'm far from convinced by the case Orlando Patterson makes in today's Times that Hillary Clinton's infamous "It's 3 a.m." ad has a racially coded subtext:

The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.

That said, I think Patterson could have made his case much more persuasively. Specifically, while he notes that there's something logically amiss between the ads explicit message (you want an experienced president to answer the phone if there's a crisis) and its imagery (a woman checking in on her children in the middle of the night), I don't think he quite puts his finger on what it is. 

The Clinton ad combines two very familiar, but fundamentally unrelated, memes. The first is the typical "red phone" message that (as Patterson notes) was used by Walter Mondale in much the same way. The second, as Jon Chait pointed out a while back, is the "are you keeping your children safe from predators" message that has become familiar through suspense films and (especially) burglar alarm ads.

The two messages play almost entirely independent of one another. We hear a phone ringing as the mother checks on her children. But it's not ringing in her suburban home, it's ringing in the White House. If there's a national-security crisis taking place, the mother almost certainly is unaware of it. Indeed, we're offered no reason why she would be checking on her children at 3 a.m., beyond some generalized anxiety that something, or someone, might threaten them in their own home at night. And again, conditioned by alarm ads, I think the subliminal fear this ad is likely to conjure is not of Al Qaeda, but of burglary, kidnapping, or home invasion. If there is a hidden racial component, then, it's not that it would be terrible if a black man were to answer the red phone at the White House; it's that it would be terrible if a black man were lurking outside that suburban home with criminal intentions.

Now, I'm not saying that the ad does have a coded racial subtext--indeed, I'm still pretty skeptical. But I do think that, in terms of its imagery, it plays on parental fears of crime more than of terrorism. For me, that's insufficient evidence of racial intent. But if Orlando Patterson wants to make the case that there's a racial appeal being made here, that's the case he should probably be making.

--Christopher Orr