Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
July 29, 2008

McCain’s Uppity Gym Rat



In my "ObamaPhobia" talk at NetrootsNation, I detailed a pattern of negative media coverage built around racist stereotypes as well as false rumors of Obama as a closet Muslim.   My focus, of course, was on how this framing plays out at the visual level.

In McCain’s latest attack ad, I see his campaign starting to draw on some of these same themes.

The "Troops" ad tries to impugn Obama by alleging he skipped a visit with injured troops in Kuwait because the Pentagon wouldn’t let him film it.  Here’s the link to view the whole thing.

The ad, as I read it, draws on a cross-section of racist and religious typecasting.  The video plays on the theme of Obama as unpatriotic or anti-American, the upshot of fear mongering around Obama as Muslim.  The ads also plays on racist stereotypes of black men as athletes, as lazy, as animalistic, and as arrogant or "uppity."

Both the anti-patriotic  and the lazy stereotype shows up in an early frame accusing Obama of never having held a hearing on Afghanistan in his Senate Armed Services subcommittee.  Notice how the frame from the McCain ad mirrors the frame from the Hillary Clinton red phone/3 a.m. ad.  (If you recall, that frame raised an uproar in the ’sphere because Obama’s skin was also darkened.)

What I’d like to focus on, however, is the middle segment of the ad in the clip above, leading off the post.  Quoting the segment:

"And now, he made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops….  Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras."

Many sites (1, 2) have called out the ad’s blatant lie, dealing with Pentagon rules precluding campaign access to its facilities.  What is visually more insidious, however, is the intimation that Obama "made time to go to the gym" at the expense of the troops.  If you notice, the video of Obama on the basketball court is exceptionally fuzzy.  That helps to obscure Obama’s rather boisterous and enthusiastic interaction with American troops in the gym at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.  (Besides the evidential photo above, here’s an extended clip documenting Obama’s engagement with these troops, including the three-point basket he nailed.)

If you’ve been following The BAG, you probably caught the post from 12 days ago ("Obama’s Not Human") dealing with Newsweek’s characterization of Obama as a compulsive exerciser, mostly involving basketball.   I found my way to the Newsweek post, by the way, via Drudge, who also linked to another article specifically referring to Obama as "a gym rat."  (Curiously, that term has shown up fairly liberally, such as here at TIME, for example.)  The other b-ball related point Newsweek alleges, by the way, is that Obama, for all his exertion on the court, doesn’t seem to sweat.  The reference to physical compulsivity, the supposed strange absence of perspiration and the popular rodent analogy all create a subtle intimation of the hoop-shooting Obama as somehow less human and more animal.

(Looking up the term "animalism" at The Free Dictionary, you get the following definition: 1. Enjoyment of vigorous health and physical drives; 2. Indifference to all but the physical appetites;  3. The doctrine that humans are merely animals with no spiritual nature.)

If you go back to the clip and consider how completely out-of-context the phrase "making time to go to the gym" happens to be, it mostly makes sense to the extent it echoes the "gym rat" stories that started surfacing less than two weeks back.  Of course, the video clip also drives home the athlete stereotype, too.  And then, the intimation that Obama couldn’t be bothered visiting the wounded also plays on the stereotype of the black man, especially the successful one, as "uppity."

(image:   Sgt. Jarod Perkioniemi – U.S. Army via AP.  July 18, 2008. Camp Arifjan, Kuwait)

  • Gasho

    The BS that McCain is now pulling out of his tookus is widely discussed on the blogs.. but will it make the talk shows and the news? In San Francisco last night, on the local news they did a piece on “McCain goes negative” and they showed part of the ad you’re discussing. They didn’t slam him too hard for it, but they did have some commentators saying that it might come back to bite him.
    Anyone seeing this kind of analysis in their local news?

  • ratfood

    Difficult to understand why McCain and his minions are spending money to lock down the racist vote… talk about preaching to the the choir. Net loss to Obama, zero.

  • LanceThruster

    Though Barack Obama most likely would have been successful in any field he chose, I am quite glad he chose to go into politics. I share the enthusiasm of all the faces in the pic (his included).

  • LMD

    The application of mythical physical attribute of “never sweating” ascribed to Sen. Obama reminds me of stories where African slaves were, in a sinister fashion, labeled by eugenicists, medical doctors and slave owners as:
    * less affected by heat/strain (and often worked well past exhaustion into heat stroke)
    * possessors of higher pain thresholds (that didn’t need receive anesthesia during surgical procedures)
    * of a continuously sub-par work ethic and that physical feats were easy for blacks (and in need of physical abuse to spur proper
    Meanwhile, it might behoove folks to listen to Michelle Obama wife who said he was “’snory’ and stinky” in the morning, just like other humans last fall.
    This can be juxtaposed with George W. Bush’s athletic habits which included avid mid to long distance running and later on biking:
    “I make time to run or exercise every day. There’s never a question in my mind that I’ll exercise. Even when I travel, there’s always a treadmill in my room. I have a treadmill on Air Force One. On long trips-for example, when I went to Europe recently-I ran for 90 minutes on the flight over there. When I came back from China, I ran on the flight.”
    -George W. Bush (Runners World 10/01/2002)
    The same mythology was not built around GWB’s 90 minute runs at age 57?. Included in that story is his tale of going for a run in 100 degree weather, and his belief that: If the POTUS can make time to exercise, anyone can.

  • Ti molo

    The people who aren’t going to vote for Obama because he is black made up their minds along time ago. Subtle images or words in newspapers they don’t read are not going to effect them. They will sit in their homes late in the evening on Nov 4th thinking “Oh my God. Its really happening.” and they will have be on the wrong side of history.

  • donna

    Gloves coming off. McCain will regret this ad….

  • Cactus

    Well, I couldn’t run the video, so going on the bits I’ve seen on TV, it really angers me as an Obama supporter, but as some in the media have said, it belies McC’s stated objective of not ‘going dirty.’ Obama didn’t hold hearings for the simple reason he wasn’t the chair or the ranking member…therefore, he couldn’t. But, of course, unstated is the fact that McC didn’t either. And by now we all know the lie of the “refusal to visit the wounded.”
    I don’t know the protocols of photo/video usage within and out of the military, but McC had to have access to military footage in order to produce this ad, and PDQ at that!
    Not one to hang out in gyms, I’ve heard the term gym-rat, but didn’t think it was particularly derogatory. Is it? And Dennis Leary to the contrary, it seems that b-ball is a rather popular ‘guy-thing’ activity for TV dramas to use for their male stars to ‘let off steam.’ Seems that on the one hand (their dramas) incessant b-ball is acceptable, bonding activity, but when Obama does it somehow it seems to be suspicious. How does that happen?
    In the end, doesn’t this ad say more about McC than it does Obama? What McC thinks seems to be that the only reason to go to Iraq and Afghanistan is for publicity; the only reason to exercise is extreme fitness to the point of ignoring obligations. IOW, a nice publicity visit to the wounded vets is de rigeur, but voting for their actual pay and benefits is not worthy of mention.
    LMD mentions the racial attributes once laid upon slaves. I think that leads into a labyrinth of stereotypes, racial and otherwise. “Never let them see you sweat” is meant to be a bit of sage advice to a young turk. Yet, it has always been the perogative of the master, whether white over black or boss over ‘lower class worker’ et al., that ‘they don’t really mind.’ The boss, the man, always thinks him/herself better than the worker, lower class, who couldn’t possibly understand the problems of wealth, management, etc. I just wonder if, in our society, this has become so ingrained as to be really believable.
    Also, it is no secret, indeed it is almost an axiom, that part of the job of the president is some form of exercise, frequently just short of obsession. I believe a few years ago a book was written about the connection between presidents and golf. But, of course, Bush gave up golf for the wounded vets, so maybe Obama should give up b-ball for them also.
    Finally, remember all, that this is all for the votes of 20% of the citizenry. Hard as it is to believe that this 20% still don’t know for whom to vote.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes