Obama: “He tried. You tried.”

By Bill Maher

On last Friday’s Real Time, we showed an anti-Obama campaign ad that ended with the sadder-but-wiser words, “He tried. You tried. It’s OK to make a change.”

I pointed out that I think this ad is subtly racist and I got called “race obsessed.” Maybe it’s true. I mean, who other than an obsessive madman could possibly even suggest that sometimes Republican ad makers play on white voters’ racial prejudices? It’s not like there’s a long, well-established history of it, outside of the Willie Horton ad, the Jessie Helms’ “Hands” ad, the “Harold Ford is not right for Tennessee” ad, last year’s ad from Turn Right PAC, “Give Us Your Cash, Bitch!,” this year’s Super Bowl ad from Michigan GOP congressman and senate candidate Pete Hoekstra, and about a hundred others I could continue naming just off the top of my head.

The RNC makers of “It’s OK” may have a lighter touch than the people who brought you “Give Us Your Cash, Bitch!,” but they’re in the same business. When they deem Obama a failure and say, “He tried. You tried. It’s okay to make a change,” what do they mean by, “You tried.”? Surely they didn’t pick those words by accident. What did we try with Obama that we had never tried with an American president before? What’s different about him? Hmmm…Is it that he’s tall? No, we’ve had tall presidents before. Is it that he’s an Ivy Leaguer? No, had those, too. I don’t know. I’m stumped. Can I use my lifeline?

This ad is targeted at people who voted for Obama in 2008, but were never entirely comfortable with it. It reassures them that once you go black, you can go back. It comes from the same winking bigotry that had people demanding, about two minutes after Obama’s inauguration, “We need to take our country back!” Back from who? The foreign country that invaded us, Blackmanistan?

I’d never heard any language like “you tried” – addressed directly to the voter – in a campaign commercial before. I think that it’s uniquely about race, and about white people telling other white people that it was brave – really, really noble and brave – the way you gave that black kid a chance to clean out the garage.

And he stole your coin collection. Okay, he didn’t steal it; it fell behind the lawn mower. And you called the cops before it turned up. But that doesn’t make you a racist. You tried. It’s OK to make a change.

If you don’t believe me, that this is a racial dog whistle, try imagining it in an ad between two white candidates. Imagine an ad that gives the listener credit for taking a good-hearted risk on a white candidate. Let’s say, Rick Perry. “You tried.” Tried what? Voting for a crash test dummy?

Can you imagine saying, “He tried, you tried” about a WASP president? If it were an ad run against Bill Clinton, people would have been totally perplexed, like, “We tried what, exactly? A horny president???”

Remember Al Campanis? He was the Dodgers executive who went on Nightline in 1987 and told Ted Koppel that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.” Al’s gone now, but his sort of thinking is still alive, and I see this ad as a way of tapping into it. It’s saying, “We gave the kid a shot at managing the big club, but he’s just not cut out for it. Let’s move him back to concessions and make sure we never try that again.”

I’m not race obsessed – just a little skeptical when I hear odd phrasings in Republican ads. I’m also admittedly a little sensitive when I hear Mitt Romney describe Obama’s ideas as “foreign” and claim that he’s a nice guy, but just not up to the job. In a country where whites with criminal records are more likely to be hired than blacks with clean records, shouldn’t we all be?

The “You Tried” ad reduces the election of Barack Obama – a law professor and a United States Senator – to a misguided act of charity. It reduces the President of the United States to his race, while it praises the listener for not being a racist. It’s brilliantly awful. People are going to be studying it for years.