No Comment — October 27, 2008, 10:07 am

Best of the ’08 Campaign IV: The Art of the Endorsement

Following the last debate many pundits reckoned on a McCain rebound–but his numbers actually slipped. And according to conventional wisdom, endorsements rarely have much influence on the course of a presidential campaign–most voters want to make their own call. But searching for an explanation, it’s hard to avoid the influence of a single endorsement: that of former Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. In future elections, I believe the Powell endorsement will be studied for its content, timing, and the critique it carried—it was one of the most effective endorsements of all time. Similarly, the efforts undertaken to blunt it were so extraordinarily clumsy that they actually helped make the endorser’s point when he criticized the McCain campaign. So why was the Powell endorsement so consequential?

First: the content. Powell made an effective case for Obama as a leader in times of trouble, providing reassurance in regards to the area where the candidate has, until recently, faced the most doubt: foreign policy. He also offered a side-by-side comparison with McCain with respect to the management of economic issues.

Second: the timing. Powell’s career has been marked by an ability to discern the moment when a step can be taken with the most effect. By delivering his endorsement at the commencement of the last phase of the campaign, after the last debate, but before presentation of the candidates’ closing arguments, Powell picked the critical moment.

And finally: Powell made clear that he was opposing a friend of 25 years at some personal cost but for principled reasons. He believed that McCain would make a fine President but he was concerned by McCain’s uneven response to crisis, by his selection of Sarah Palin, and by the tone and tenor of his campaign–framed on an appeal to the baser instincts of the population. Indeed, if one passage of the Powell endorsement is preserved by posterity, it will be the remarkable image he presented of the young mother of a Muslim soldier killed in service to country:

Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that [Obama] is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I have spent the last week in two Muslim nations which have recently been close allies of the United States and in the course of my travels I kept thinking back to these lines. Both nations I visited host American military installations and are proud of their ties to the United States. In both countries I found that the American presidential election was being followed with extraordinary attention. And in both I found a tremendous level of upset about the rhetoric coming out of the McCain campaign. “Okay, perhaps McCain is not an anti-Muslim bigot,” one college student told me, “but he seems to think that the best way to be elected president is to whip his fellow citizens into an anti-Muslim frenzy. Our nation is America’s ally, but I can’t avoid thinking, watching the McCain campaign—is this man going to make war on us too?” The young student was voicing in his own way a concern like Powell’s. Why can’t McCain the candidate articulate America’s dreams? Why does he have to concentrate fear, ignorance and hatred?

Here is the Powell endorsement, delivered on NBC’s Meet the Press:

Of course there are also endorsements that hurt. As President Bush went to the polls to cast an early ballot for his choice, John McCain, Saturday Night Live offered a comic endorsement in that vein, and Will Ferrell returned to SNL for the event.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love.”
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today