If a political attack ad crosses boundaries of good taste, is emotionally manipulative, excessively ominous, twists facts, exploiting hot-button issues of race, sex and terror, and winds up being condemned by civil rights groups, the chances are that ad has been produced by Republican huckster Scott Howell.
His most recent creation strikes at the character of Tennessee Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr., an African-American, by suggesting he solicits sex with white Playboy playmates. Along with 3,000 other people, Ford once attended a Super Bowl party held by Playboy magazine. At the end of the ad, a blond actress winks at the camera, makes her right hand into the shape of a phone and says in a sultry come-on, “Harold, Call me.” The TV commercial has been condemned by the NAACP and described by former Secretary of Defense and Republican Senator William Cohen as a “very serious appeal to a racist sentiment.” Even Ford’s Republican opponent called the ad “distasteful” and said “it ought to come down.” But he apparently lacks sufficient clout with its sponsor, the Republican National Committee, to get it off the air.
Howell’s distinctive messaging style has defined the tone of some of the most important campaigns of the past five years, yet the consultant who has described himself as “Little Lee Atwater,” after the fabled Republican hatchet-man who was Howell’s and Karl Rove’s mentor, remains an enigma. Preferring the darkened editing booth to the media’s glare, he has spoken to few reporters since his thirty-second spots have seeped onto the national political scene. However, last year, during the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, he granted me an interview.
Throughout the course of our conversation, Howell repeatedly refused to stand by the truthfulness of his advertisements. “I’d love to belabor that with you,” he told me when I asked him about the accuracy of his ads. “I just don’t have the–I can’t stand to talk to somebody in the media and be wrong.” Unwilling to defend his ads as “truthful,” Howell insisted they were “tasteful.”
Howell developed his signature style by adapting the increasingly exploitative aesthetics of popular media culture to politics. “Emotion, whether it’s humor, angst, whether it makes you laugh or cry, it helps people to respond,” Howell told me. “We’re in a sound-bite world, and you have to work to get people’s attention.”
At the time of my interview, two of Howell’s most emotionally charged creations were being broadcast across Virginia. One of them, timed to debut on the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, attempted to paint the Democratic candidate, former defense lawyer and then Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, as soft on crime. In the ad, an elderly Jewish man, Stanley Rosenbluth, described the murder of his son by a drug dealer, though the ad did not reveal that the son was a crack addict killed by his own dealer, or that Rosenbluth was a longtime Republican activist. After falsely claiming Kaine “voluntarily represented the man who killed my son,” Rosenbluth exclaimed, “Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty!” The ad was promptly condemned by a parade of local rabbis for “trivializ[ing] the Holocaust.”
Howell’s other spot was designed to paint Kaine as a crook-coddling liberal. It featured a middle-aged white woman describing the murder of her husband, a police officer, by a black Jamaican immigrant, Edward Bell–“a drug dealer illegally in this country,” she said. While dark piano chords underscored the woman’s testimony, she declared in a voice trembling with emotion, “Tim Kaine called for a moratorium on the death penalty. How could you not think the death penalty was appropriate? That’s not justice.”
Like so many of Howell’s ads, this one was premised on a baseless accusation. The lawyer who secured a death penalty verdict against Bell, Paul Thomson, blasted the ad in the Virginia press as “inherently distasteful” and corrected the record: Bell, Thomson pointed out, was not in the country illegally at the time of the murder.
Confronted with the falsehood at the heart of his commercial, Howell pleaded ignorance. “The guy was in trouble and he was about to be deported, I think,” Howell told me about Bell. “And he just happened to be–technically didn’t want to be thrown out of the country, I think. And I’m telling you, I’d love to belabor that with you, I just don’t have the… I can’t stand to talk to somebody in the media and be wrong.”
When I asked Howell if his ad’s false claim of Bell’s illegal status was in fact an insidious appeal to prejudice, he again portrayed himself as an innocent bystander. “That’s something you’ve got to–don’t write anything about that, because I don’t… I know in the moment, it was almost like an extra nugget. It was almost an extra line when talking to her about it,” Howell acknowledged. “It was sort of germane to the discussion. It wasn’t intentional. It sort of found its way there.”
Howell learned long ago that truth is often a burden to success. Fresh out of college in 1984, Howell lost a disputed election for a seat in the South Carolina state legislature. Soon after, Lee Atwater, the Palmetto State’s hell-raising political consultant, who had engineered the re-election of Senator Strom Thurmond and overseen Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Southern Strategy, hired him. Howell observed closely as Atwater dismantled the sterling career and reputation of 1988 Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis through a series of gruesome ads blaming Dukakis for the crimes of Willie Horton, a black murderer who escaped from a furlough program to commit a rape. With Dukakis notched on Howell’s belt, Atwater recommended him to another protégé, Texas boy wonder Karl Rove, who hired him as his political consulting firm’s political director. Howell opened his own consulting company in Dallas the following year, and the Democratic body count began rising.
In the 2002 mid-term elections, when the Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate by one member, Howell was instrumental in shifting it to the Republicans. His decisive moment came in the Georgia senatorial race when he crafted a commercial for the draft-dodging Republican candidate Saxby Chambliss against Senator Max Cleland, a decorated war hero who lost three limbs in Vietnam. Howell simply and crudely morphed Cleland’s image with those of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Cleland was defeated and Republican control over both houses of the Congress was complete.
Two years later Howell’s spots contributed to the defeat of Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and Oklahoma Democratic senatorial candidate Brad Carson. Howell’s ads on behalf of Daschle’s opponent, John Thune, highlighted Thune’s opposition to gay marriage. “Tom Daschle refuses to protect traditional marriage,” said the voiceover. “He would let liberal activist judges redefine it. Most South Dakotans believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, and every child should have the chance to have a father and a mother. We’re not interested in depriving anyone of any rights, but let’s not allow liberal judges from Massachusetts to redefine marriage for us.”
To undermine Carson, a youthful moderate Congressman, Rhodes scholar and former White House Fellow, with enormous political potential, Howell created an image of welfare checks being passed to anonymous brown hands. (The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee paid for the ad.) “Is this going to be another century of discrimination?” protested the leader of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Oklahoma City. Carson lost to far-right Republican Tom Coburn.
At the same time, Rove recruited Howell to help set the stage for President George W. Bush’s re-election victory with the ad called “Safer, Stronger,” which appropriated the iconic image of firefighters emerging from the wreckage of Ground Zero with a flag-draped body, a production that used actors and was condemned as phony by the president of the International Association of Firefighters.
Although Howell’s ads fell flat in 2005 in Virginia, failing to prevent Kaine’s comeback victory over Republican former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, Howell’s reputation was burnished within Republican circles. He is more in demand than ever during the 2006 mid-term Congressional campaign.
In Tennessee, as heavily favored Republican senatorial candidate Bob Corker trailed the charismatic Ford late in his campaign, a desperate Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman dialed up his party’s crack character assassin. Howell responded with perhaps his most controversial spot yet, a sarcastically-toned series of montages depicting mock Ford supporters as alternately stupid and sleazy while they explain why they’re voting for the candidate to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
The ad begins with a black woman declaring, “Harold Ford looks nice. Isn’t that enough?” (Blacks base their votes on the color of a candidate’s skin, and not the content of his character, this scene seemed to suggest.)
A procession of comical characters follows, from a seedy-looking man dismissing claims that Ford “took money from porn producers” to a camouflaged hunter stating, “Ford’s right. I do have too many guns.” The ad concludes with its most caustic scene, as a bare-shouldered blonde slattern announces that she met Ford at a “Playboy party.” After a script reading, “Harold Ford, he’s just not right,” flashes onscreen, whispers her notorious line: “Harold, call me.”
Initially, the fallout from Howell’s ad seemed to put Corker on the defensive. While Mehlman defended the spot as “fair,” a Corker campaign spokesman called it “over the top, tacky and not reflective of the kind of campaign we are running.” Corker has nonetheless pointed out in a debate–without clarifying–that he and Ford “have different backgrounds.” And after calling for stations to yank Howell’s ad, Corker’s campaign began running a radio spot that featured “jungle drums” underscoring each time Ford’s name is mentioned. Coincidence?
Though the effect of Howell’s ad is still difficult to gauge in a region where politicians have long exploited fears of black sexual predation of white women, it undoubtedly produced deep resonance. “He’s [Corker’s] having a hard time with his base, and this is the kind of ad the Republicans believe appeals to their base,” veteran Democratic consultant Jim Jordan told the New York Times.
Thanks to Howell, a campaign that could determine control of the Senate for the next two years will now pivot on white sexual fears of an African-American male. Howell is comfortable conceding that his ads are emotionally manipulative and short on facts. As for stoking racial bigotry to advance his clients’ political ambitions, he could care less. As he explained to me during the 2005 Virginia governor’s race, all’s fair in war.
“I’m not nearly as callous as they try to make me,” Howell said. “You know how it is: They hate me because we beat ’em. I guess you could say it’s a badge of honor in my business.”