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.”