It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when John McCain was widely viewed as a pretty earnest guy. His best-selling books are written in a tone of solemnity and idealism, with treacly titles such as Character Is Destiny. And he has long called for high-minded debate: "If we're going to lead," he said in early June, "we have to begin by reforming the tenor of political discussion in our campaigns."
More recently, however, McCain's tone has changed starkly. First came his campaign's "Obama Love" Web video, featuring clips of pundits fawning over the Democratic nominee to the mocking strains of Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." Next was the infamous TV spot "Celebrity," which contemptuously juxtaposed Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Another Web ad pretended to hail Obama as the Messiah, complete with footage of Moses parting the Red Sea. "Can you see the light?" sneered the narrator. Still another pitched an imaginary "Fan Club" for Obama zealots.
The Republican National Committee has joined the fun. When Obama vacationed in Hawaii, the RNC issued mock travel guides highlighting his allegedly effete taste in hotels and shaved ice. After Obama said that well-inflated tires could match energy gains from new oil drilling, the RNC delivered tire pressure gauges to the hotel rooms of journalists--with juvenile notes saying the gauges, distributed on what happened to be Obama's birthday, were "[i]n celebration of Barack Obama's special day."
Finally there is McCain's recently hired in-house blogger, former Weekly Standard staffer Michael Goldfarb, whose writings largely consist of obnoxious chortling at Obamamania. Goldfarb recently posted a photo of Obama jogging on the beach in Hawaii, congratulating him for "keeping focused on his workout" while McCain was concentrating on the Russia-Georgia crisis. After some liberal bloggers questioned whether McCain was accurately recalling an inspiring anecdote from his Vietnam captivity, Goldfarb responded by calling it "typical of the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd to disparage a fellow countryman's memory of war from the comfort of mom's basement."
What's interesting here is not that McCain has gone negative against Obama; it's the way he has gone negative, using that special blend of phony sincerity and cutting mockery that constitutes sarcasm. Indeed, John McCain is now running perhaps the most sarcastic presidential campaign in history. It's an approach in stark conflict with his image as a straight-shooting man of noble values and ideals. The question is whether he can really be both things at once.
Often derided as the lowest form of wit, sarcasm is nonetheless a kind of universal language. John Haiman, a professor of linguistics at Macalester College who has extensively studied the form, says he's not aware of a human culture that lacks it. And American politics has a long history of sarcasm-- from FDR's 1944 response to a false Republican charge that he had dispatched a Navy destroyer to retrieve his Scottish terrier from a remote island ("[H]is Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since") to Ronald Reagan's memorable 1984 quip about Walter Mondale ("I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience").
In recent years, sarcasm seems to have become a preferred tone of discourse for conservative pundits. First talk radio, and now blogging, has given rise to a new breed of aggrieved conservatives--and sarcasm is typically an expression of grievance--who see American life awash with absurd political correctness and media bias. Sarcasm allows these pundits to parody what they consider to be the excesses of liberalism; it also allows them to communicate sentiments that aren't quite considered acceptable in contemporary political discourse. They can, for instance, denounce Obama as "the Messiah, Lord Barack Obama, the most merciful, the man-child" (Rush Limbaugh), call him "the least dangerous Hussein I know" (Ann Coulter), or label him "Princess Obama" (the conservative blog Little Green Footballs)--which is more polite than calling him (respectively) uppity, Muslim, or gay.
This tone has crept into Republican campaign tactics in recent years. In 2000, one of the GOP's most widely aired advertisements mocked Al Gore as a political chameleon and exaggerator. "There's Al Gore reinventing himself on television again. Like I'm not gonna notice," cracked a narrator. After a soundbite of Gore's alleged claim to have invented the Internet, she chimed in with a mocking, "Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too." The tone was more pronounced against John Kerry in the 2004 campaign. One Bush ad attacked Kerry for supporting a gas tax increase while showing black-and-white footage of people riding ridiculous, old-fashioned bicycles.
Of course, sarcasm is hardly a tool of the right alone; Al Franken and Stephen Colbert aren't exactly models of sincerity. Even Hillary Clinton once sardonically mocked the parting clouds and "celestial choirs" that would supposedly greet an Obama presidency. But sarcasm simply hasn't caught on as a device for Democratic politicians--including Obama--who tend to prefer earnest idealism or righteous indignation. "This is how Republicans run races. They attempt to drive a character negative using humor," says former Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, adding, "Generally, [Republicans] have done a better job with humor than we have."
But why has this tactic seemingly reached its pinnacle in the McCain campaign? One explanation may lie with the candidate himself. Most voters wouldn't know it from McCain's public image, but, up close and personal, he's the most sarcastic guy Washington has seen since Bob Dole. Being a wise-ass got McCain into trouble as far back as the Naval Academy, according to his memoir. Even during his captivity in North Vietnam, a Cuban psychiatrist who evaluated him noted his sarcastic streak. Today, McCain calls reporters on his press plane "you little jerks." During the nadir of his primary campaign last summer, he often quipped that "it's always darkest before it gets totally black." And he has been known to respond to journalists' obvious questions with a smart-alecky "Um, duhh!"
Over the years McCain's sarcasm has had a gentle, amiable quality--more Johnny Carson than Glenn Beck. But his clear resentment towards Barack Obama--whom he sees as jejune and entitled--has sharpened this natural impulse. After a 2007 dispute with Obama over ethics reform, McCain sent his rival a letter snarling, in part: "I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won't make the same mistake again."
Sarcasm has turned out to be a neat vessel for McCain's central message: the purported absurdity of a freshman senator leading the country in a time of war. In May, McCain said of Obama: "I admire and respect Senator Obama. For a young man with very little experience, he's done very well." And, after Obama said last summer that living abroad qualified him to make foreign policy decisions, McCain snorted: "I also think I'm the most qualified to run the decathlon because I watch sports on television all the time."
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.