Lowering themselves into wrestling ring

The Baltimore Sun

Just when you thought there was no one left to pander to, the three candidates for Leader of the Free World found an untapped demographic: the professional-wrestling audience.

Talkin' tough never looked sillier - nor a presidential race more embarrassing. Give people enough time and exposure and they'll eventually become caricatures of themselves. This week, Sen. Hillary "Annie Oakley" Clinton, Sen. Barack "Howard Dean" Obama and Sen. John "I Was a POW" McCain proved the rule, surpassingly, with ads prepared for a special episode of World Wrestling Entertainment's Raw that aired on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary.

For her performance, Mrs. Clinton wore a colorful scarf and introduced herself: "Hi. I'm Hillary Clinton, but tonight, in honor of the WWE, you can call me Hill-Rod. This election is starting to feel a lot like King of the Ring. The only difference? The last man standing may just be a woman."

Hill-Rod? Would that be Hill-Rod the Obliterator? Perhaps in keeping with her new smackdown persona, Mrs. Clinton was also talking tough to Iran this week. On yesterday's Good Morning America, she was asked what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.

"I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Mrs. Clinton said. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

Mrs. Clinton hauled out her own nuke in another ad leading up to the Pennsylvania primary, featuring that consummate boogeyman, Osama bin Laden. As in, whom can Americans trust when things really get scary?

The ad includes the famous Harry Truman quote, which seemed to foreshadow Mr. Obama's wrestler message. Said President Truman: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Said Mr. Obama: "To the special interests who've been setting the agenda in Washington for too long (blahblahblah) ... I've got one question: Do you smell what Barack is cookin'?"

At least Mr. Obama conveyed with a self-aware smile that he was in on his own joke. It can't have been easy for this serious man to play along with this absurd ruse.

For the record, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were asked by WWE's vice president of communications, Gary Davis, to tape the videos. Mr. Davis said he hoped they would have fun with their message, but "we also want our fans to learn about you and your direction for our country."

As for Mr. McCain, looking more like Popeye freshly fortified with spinach than a commander in chief, he traded his true hero for a pretend wise guy, punching the air with a pit-bull snarl.

"Looks like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to settle their differences in the ring. Well, that's fine with me. But lemme tell ya: If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man. Come November, it'll be game over."

OK, it's all for fun, and nobody got hurt. But on the same day that these aspiring commanders in chief were smooching up wrestling fans, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was ripping the U.S. Air Force and America's generals for not doing enough to support troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few days earlier, a former senior Pentagon official called the war in Iraq "a major debacle."

Mr. McCain should have opted out of the silliness instead of squandering his gravitas. He might not have known that Mr. Gates was going to part the curtains on America's military dysfunction, but those who intend to lead a nation at war can't hope for dependable timing.

Mrs. Clinton's ad posed the correct question: Whom are voters going to trust to be commander in chief? In this too-long campaign, the answer is increasingly less clear.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@kparker.com.

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