Watching the Today Show this morning to watch my boss announce TIME’s Person of the Year–turns out there’s still a Russia! Who knew?–I caught Mike Huckabee defending his Christmas campaign ad to Meredith Vieira. Vieira pressed him on the issue of whether the bookshelf was subliminally framed as a cross in the ad, which follows:
Let me add my own question to the debate: Who cares? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the three ornaments on the shelf are meant to represent the Holy Trinity–I have no idea. But any background imagery seems rather besides the point, when the foreground of the message is:
At this time of year, sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ, and being with our family and our friends…
“The birth of Christ”–not exactly a hidden message, right? What the ad is clearly, unambiguously saying, without aid of any psycho-juju, is: “I am a deeply Christian man.” And, only slightly more subtextually: “Jesus wants Mitt Romney to stop running attack ads about me.”
There seems to be a point in every election cycle when political observers find some “hidden” message freeze-framed in a campaign ad–recall the 2000 Republican “RATS” ad. However well-founded or not, these controversies are usually mainly a sign that some people spend far too much time poring closely over campaign ads. And they are rarely ever as interesting as what the candidates are saying, in plain daylight, for anyone to hear and see.
Huckabee’s messages, and why he chose the language he did to send them, are worth discussing. But by focusing on The Cross, Huckabee’s inquisitors allow him to cast his critics as paranoid loonies–he joked to Vieira that he supposed next people would accuse him of blinking out a message with his eyelids. It was only a matter of time before we started seeing parodies like this, apparently from a Ron Paul sympathizer:
And maybe more important for Huckabee’s campaign, it allowed him to hitch his ad to that most remunerative of annual conservative myths, The War on Christmas. (Note that Huckabee mentioned not “the birth of Jesus” but “the birth of Christ”–because there’s a “Christ” in Christmas, and don’t you forget it, bub!) It’s getting to the point, he told Vieira eagerly, where people get offended if you wish them a Merry Christmas!
Leaving aside whether that’s true–OK, it’s a deliberate, gross exaggeration of a handful of hypersensitive reactions, concocted to sell books for Fox News anchors–”Merry Christmas” is not exactly what Huckabee was saying in the ad. As a Jewish New Yorker from a mixed Jewish-Catholic family, I know plenty of non-Christians; I have yet to meet one who gets ticked off over “Merry Christmas.” Plenty of non-religious people celebrate Christmas without a contemplating the divinity of Jesus Christ, as a secular holiday or just as a happy excuse to have a day off and go to parties. I doubt any of them would turn on Barack Obama because his daughter says “Merry Christmas” in his new ad (via USA Today):
On the other hand, if you come up to us and say, “I hope you enjoy the celebration of the birth of Christ”–yeah, we might think you’re being a little passive-aggressive.
Which may be what Huckabee is doing here. But cross or no cross, I doubt the “controversy” is doing him any harm among the people whose votes he wants to find in his stocking this season.