John McCain tried to label Barack Obama a “celebrity” this summer, with ads comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. McCain’s label didn’t seem to stick, but there certainly have been several new junior-grade American celebrities spawned by this long and strange trip of an election – the kind of people you wouldn’t be surprised to see popping up on The Surreal Life five or ten years down the line.
Here are ten of the most (sort of) notable. Will we remember the following faces and names by the time the next primary season rolls around? Only time will tell.
10. Ashley Todd
The newest celebrity on the list was minted just yesterday, when reports emerged that a McCain volunteer had been attacked and sexually assaulted in Pennsylvania. Ashley Todd, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, told police that a man had attacked her after seeing a McCain bumper sticker on her car; he then carved a “B” in her face with a knife. Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA reported that Todd described her purported attacker as “a dark-skinned African-American man.” The story was quickly picked up by the McCain campaign; John McCain and Sarah Palin even telephoned personally Todd to offer her support. The Obama campaign released a statement denouncing acts of violence like the one reported by Todd.
Soon, it became apparent that there were some serious problems with Todd’s story. The Huffington Post‘s article on Todd included police quotes that indicated that Todd was changing her story. Internet rumors doubting the tale’s veracity began to fly, including one speculating that the “B” depicted on Todd’s cheek may have been self-inflicted, scratched backward because she had done it herself in a mirror. Police indicated that Todd would be subjected to a polygraph test, and not long after, Todd admitted that she’d fabricated the entire story. She was quickly arrested; after all, it’s a felony to file a false police report. The McCain campaign may end up in equally hot water; TPM notes that a campaign spokesperson contacted soon after the story broke elaborated that the “B” stood for “Barack,” playing into the notion that an Obama supporter preyed on the volunteer.
9. Amy Strozzi
We all might have expected the top-salaried employee of the McCain campaign close to the election to be someone like Randy Scheunemann, the Senator’s chief foreign policy advisor. Not so, revealed The New York Times‘s Caucus Blog: it was Amy Strozzi, the Hollywood makeup artist employeed by the campaign to touch up the cheekbones of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Strozzi, who travels with Governor Palin, was paid a whopping $22,800 for the first two weeks of October alone. (In contrast, Scheunemann earned a paltry $12,500 for the same time period.) Because the campaign had been careful to craft a “regular mom” image for Palin, the revelations about the cost of her clothing, hairstyling, and makeup – to the tune of $150,000 – were a shock to many. Though she was nominated for an Emmy for her work on Fox’s reality hit So You Think You Can Dance, Strozzi was never a household name – potentially until now, that is.
8. Gwen Ifill
Calling a distinguished journalist like Washington Week‘s Gwen Ifill a “minor celebrity” seems more than a little unfair, but it’s entirely possible that a large percentage of Americans had never heard of the PBS mainstay before she moderated Campaign ’08’s only Vice Presidential Debate. Ifill’s name climbed into the headlines after it was revealed that she had recently penned a book on the current state of African-American politics in the US – with a title that included the phrase “the Age of Obama.” Though her book had been scheduled for release for months before the debate, McCain staffers flooded the cable news airwaves in the days before the Biden-Palin face off, complaining that Ifill was not impartial. Ifill moderated the debate anyway, even though she broke her ankle earlier that same week, and she was parodied by Queen Latifah in the Saturday Night Live sketch that quickly followed. Ifill was gracious and professional throughout the mini-controversy – though she did admit to Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press that she thought Governor Palin “more than ignored” some of her questions (the video is linked at The Huffington Post).
7. Carly Fiorina
Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, experienced earlier this election season exactly what happens to a campaign surrogate who strays from the approved talking points while appearing on cable news. Fiorina was being interviewed on St. Louis’s KTRS radio station when she confessed that she thought Sarah Palin was not qualified to run a major corporation. Even worse, Fiorina didn’t stop there – she added during an interview later that day with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that she thought John McCain, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden were also unqualified to run such a company. Fiorina should know – after all, she was canned from her job heading up HP. After her gaffe, a campaign advisor told CNN that Fiorina would “disappear” from TV – and she has.
6. Levi Johnston
Dealing with an unexpected teenage pregnancy is stressful enough, but what about dealing with such a situation when your girlfriend’s mother is suddenly the Republican vice-presidential nominee? Welcome to the world of Levi Johnston, the self-proclaimed “redneck” fiancé of Governor Palin’s eldest daughter, Bristol. When the McCain campaign revealed the Bristol was expecting, the media went into a frenzy trying to learn more about her baby daddy. The Huffington Post compiled a slideshow of pictures of Johnston. Bloggers struck gold when they discovered Johnston’s MySpace page (quoted here by The New York Post), in which he described his favorite activities as follows: “But I live to play hockey. I like to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing, shoot some s- – – and just f – – -in’ chillin’ I guess.” Even more tantalizing to some, he listed himself as “in a relationship” but noted that he didn’t want children. Too late, it seems.
Levi’s moment in the Republican sun came during the RNC, when he appeared freshly-shaved and newly-coiffed alongside the Palin family and held hands with Bristol while watching her mother’s much-publicized speech. Since then, Levi and Bristol have been laying low in Alaska, awaiting both the birth of their child and the outcome of the election.
5. Gayle Quinnell
Three simple words – “He’s an Arab” – uttered at a McCain rally rocketed 75-year-old Minnesota native Gayle Quinnell into the media spotlight. McCain earned props from many for quickly refuting Quinnell’s statement about Barack Obama – “He’s a decent family man” – but Quinnell continued to espouse the “Obama is an Arab” line to reporters armed with a cell phone camera after the rally was over. Quinnell explained that she found her information at the “liberry” and had been distributing it to others through the mail using addresses she found in the phone book. She also expressed fears that America would become a Muslim country should Obama be elected. The false “Obama is a Muslim” line, pushed by some Republicans, has been embraced by some Americans, but few have made such a lasting impression as Quinnell. Indeed, the clip of Quinnell’s exchange with McCain received so much news coverage that she garnered an impression of her own – from Saturday Night Live player Kristen Wiig, who portrayed her during a sketch on “Weekend Update.”
4. Jeremiah Wright
It’s the nightmare for any political candidate – someone associated with you is found on videotape railing against America. For Barack Obama, that person was former pastor Jeremiah Wright, who had recently retired from Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama was baptized, married wife Michelle, and attended regularly with his family. The remarks for which Wright (and Obama) were criticized were excerpted from sermons given at Trinity; Wright expressed distrust of the American government and proclaimed “God damn America.” The airwaves were saturated with clips from the sermons, and Obama attempted to put his former pastor’s words in context during a celebrated speech on race delivered in Philadelphia.
Even after Obama’s speech, it became apparent that Wright wasn’t going to go away quietly. He accepted an invitation to appear at the National Press Club and on TV with Bill Moyers, and he heightened his racially divisive rhetoric on both occasions. Pundits suggested that the appearances were both narcissistic and calculated attempts to hurt Obama, who subsequently cut all ties with Wright and left Trinity. John McCain condemned the use of Wright’s words to attack Obama, and he has been absent as a topic from the negative ads and speeches that have characterized the more recent weeks of the campaign.
3. Michele Bachmann
Here’s how not to win a re-election race: go on Hardball and accuse not only the Democratic presidential candidate but also half of the United States Congress of potentially harboring anti-American views. That’s precisely what Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann did when host Chris Matthews asked if she was concerned that Barack Obama was hiding an anti-American agenda – her response was to agree, and then to call for the media to investigate, McCarthy-style, the views of her fellow representatives and senators to see which of them also were against America.
Bachmann’s opponent, the humorously-named Elwyn Tinklenberg, has raised more than a million dollars since Bachmann’s Hardball appearance. It looks as if her moment with Matthews may lead to the loss of her congressional seat, though she has released an apology ad to try to win back any remaining supporters.
2. William Ayers
Bill Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and Barack Obama both served on the board of the Annenberg Challenge Project in Chicago, a reform project funded by the Annenberg Foundation and on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a project geared toward ending poverty. Sounds innocuous and even noble enough, but that’s before you hear that Ayers was, in the 1960s, a member of the Weather Underground. The Weathermen, founded by and composed of radical activist students, were engaged in a campaign of bombing attacks against various government buildings (including The Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol building) from 1969 until the mid-1970s. Ayers evaded the authorities when charges were brought against him; they were dropped in 1973. His wife, also a member of the Underground, turned herself in in 1980 and was given probation and fines. Ayers has never publicly apologized for his actions.
Ayers is the figure referred to in Sarah Palin’s famous remarks accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Though Obama was only eight when the Weathermen were carrying out their attacks, and though Ayers and his wife have since become lauded figures in Chicago for their commitment to education reform, some still suggest that Obama’s association with Ayers through their work on those two education board may mean that the Senator has something to hide. Senator McCain brought up Ayers’s name in the final presidential debate of the election season, and Obama explained his side of the story, but the accusations persist, with the campaign suggesting that Obama’s still not being forthcoming about the connection.
1. Joe Wurzelbacher
Ayers wasn’t the only person namechecked by McCain in that last debate; the person who was referenced most by both candidates was a man named Joe Wurzelbacher, more familiarly known as “Joe the Plumber.” On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Toledo, Ohio, Barack Obama was canvassing with volunteers when he was approached by a local man named Joe who wanted to discuss Obama’s tax plans regarding small businesses. The man explained that he was a plumber considering buying the business he worked for, a business that would be worth more than $250,000. Obama explained how Joe would fare under his tax plans. At the end of the exchange, which didn’t convince Joe that Obama was right, the two men shook hands, and Obama moved on.
But that was far from the end of the story. Wurzelbacher was subsequently interviewed by FOX News, which played Joe’s question on air but not Obama’s response. Then, during the Wednesday night debate, McCain brought up “Joe the Plumber” – and after that first reference, his name was mentioned around two dozen times over the course of the debate. In response, Joe held a press conference on his lawn the next morning – and that’s when things started to get really interesting.
Reporters quickly uncovered some interesting facts about Joe. He owes back taxes. He doesn’t have a plumbers’ license. His real first name is Sam. In an interview with Katie Couric, Joe compared Obama to Sammy Davis, Jr., saying that Obama had tap danced his way through their initial encounter. The McCain campaign has seized on Joe’s story, releasing an ad in which several people of various genders and ages state “I am Joe the Plumber.” They’ve been referring to people at their rallies with the same “Blank the Blank” construction – including my personal favorite, “Tito the Builder” (not the same as “Tito the Jackson,” apparently).
As for Joe? He at first complained about the media glare, comparing himself to Britney Spears. But late this week, he told Laura Ingraham that he’s considering running for Congress. Joe the Plumber ’10?