CAMPAIGN CONFIDENTIAL

By E.J. Kessler

Published July 02, 2004, issue of July 02, 2004.
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President Bush’s re-election campaign is refusing to withdraw an ad containing Nazi imagery from its Web site, despite severe criticism from Jewish organizations and from the Republican chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

The ad uses pictures and audio of a shouting Adolf Hitler, juxtaposing them with images of heated rhetoric from former Vice President Gore, Rep. Richard Gephardt, Howard Dean, Senator John Kerry and others to suggest that the Democratic Party and its supporters constitute a “coalition of the wild-eyed,” in the words of the Bush campaign. The ad contrasts the shouting images with a photo of a smiling Bush.

The ad’s Nazi stills are drawn from a video equating Bush with Hitler that was submitted in January to the Web site of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org as one of 1,500 submissions to a contest. MoveOn denounced the submission and removed it from its Web site following complaints about the content.

The Bush campaign, disregarding MoveOn’s denunciation, says it created its Web advertisement using the Nazi clips from the rejected submission in order to educate its supporters about the “hatred and vitriol” emanating from the Democratic camp.

While Bush campaign officials deny any intention to use the ad to try to paint Kerry and his allies as extremists on par with Hitler, Jewish organizational officials said they were hearing complaints from members convinced that the ad was designed to do just that.

Several groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Zionist Organization of America, publicly criticized the Bush campaign and called on it to withdraw the ad.

“People of good faith seem to be regarding this ad as a comparison and are clearly disturbed by any use of Hitler’s memory and images to further political goals,” said AJCongress President Paul Miller in a statement. “This concerns us a great deal. It degrades public discourse to have any U.S. public figure compared to Hitler or even to use the name to advance an agenda; it is not helpful on any level.” Miller added: “Having reviewed the Bush ad, we do not believe that it is a clear comparison of Senator Kerry to Hitler in the way we saw the MoveOn.org ad…. Yet, we think there are better ways of attacking insensitivity than merely redisplaying the ugliness. The ad should be withdrawn.”

In a statement, the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, called the Bush ad “offensive and demeaning to the memory of the six million,” while the president of the ZOA, Morton Klein, said that any use of Hitler’s image in candidate communications “diminishes the horror of the Holocaust” and that images of Kerry, Gephardt, Gore and Dean should “never appear in the same ad” with those of Hitler.

Even the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Fred Zeidman, a prominent Republican donor and friend of Bush, said: “I can’t ever condone the use of images of the Holocaust” in an ad, adding that it “demeans” Holocaust memory.

The Bush campaign insisted that its use of the Hitler video clips was valid, and it denied that it was equating the Democrats with Hitler.

“We are reporting to our supporters the ugliness that has come to dominate the political discourse from the Kerry coalition,” a campaign spokesman, Steve Schmidt, told the Forward. Schmidt cited George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire supporter of liberal causes who has compared the Bush administration to the Third Reich, as the most prominent example of such rhetoric, which he called “shocking and appalling.”

“No attacks have ever been launched by anyone associated with the Bush campaign that have the slightest similarity to those attacks,” Schmidt said, adding: “It would be a mischaracterization to label a campaign video sent to supporters as an ‘attack ad.’”

“We wish we didn’t have to put that video out,” he said. “We wish the discourse… had been civil.”

Some Jewish supporters of the president defended the ad.

“This campaign has nothing to apologize for,” said the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matthew Brooks. “The only ones who have anything to apologize for are the Democrats, for this vile rhetoric of political hatred.”

Jeff Ballabon, a New York Republican activist, called the ad “Zen” because “it’s using the enemy’s force against them.”

The ad also has come under attack from media critics of Bush. “On the pretext of protesting a comparison of George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler, the president’s re-election campaign has made an ad that implicitly compares John Kerry to Hitler,” wrote political analyst Jacob Weisberg in the online magazine Slate. “But the vileness of [the ad] must not be allowed to obscure its essential hilarity…. This ad is the campaign equivalent of ‘The Producers’ — an idea so egregiously tasteless and stupid that it might just succeed as camp…. I know I should be disgusted by the attempted association of Democrats and Nazis, but it’s too funny to get upset about. Cue the goose-stepping mädchen of the Brookings Institution!”

A Democratic political operative argued that far from being an effective communication that makes the Democrats look extreme, the ad actually could hurt Bush.

“The construction of the ad is just bad,” said veteran Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It’s very confusing. The idea is to make [the Democrats] inappropriate people who will say anything and do anything… but it doesn’t hit its target because there’s no clear connection” between them and the Hitler imagery. Using such “frightening” imagery could “rebound to the president’s deficit,” Sheinkopf said.

Kerry’s campaign declared the Bush video “disgusting.” However, other Democrats argued that the ad would help them among Jewish voters.

“John Kerry benefits from this in the short term,” said Mitch Ceasar, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Broward County in Florida, where the presidential campaigns are fighting a pitched battle for Jewish votes. “It galvanizes Jewish voters as a bastion for the nominee.”

The ad comes as partisans on both sides increasingly have resorted to Holocaust comparisons. Conservative Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly recently compared both filmmaker Michael Moore and satirist Al Franken to the Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels, according to transcripts featured at the liberal watchdog Web site mediamatters.org. Right-wing radio host Michael Savage also compared Moore to Goebbels and jokingly equated the title of Hitler’s autobiography, “Mein Kampf,” with President Clinton’s new autobiography, “My Life,” in a June 22 broadcast, Media Matters reported. On the Democratic side, Gore referred to a Republican “network of ‘rapid response’ digital Brown Shirts” in a recent speech, while a liberal federal appeals court judge, Guido Calabresi, had to apologize last week for a speech, quoted in the New York Sun, that compared Bush’s accession to power after the 2000 election to the “illegitimate acts” that accompanied the rise of Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Only one other major political campaign has used Holocaust-related footage in a recent candidate advertisement. In 1998, the re-election campaign of Senator Alphonse D’Amato, a New York Republican, used footage of concentration camps in a television advertisement in order to dramatize the work the senator had done in prodding Swiss banks to agree to a restitution settlement for survivors. The ad was panned widely in Jewish quarters. D’Amato lost his seat to a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, Charles Schumer.






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