"Barack and socialism? No, our country deserves better," implored Mark Williams.
It was only a few minutes into the October 22 rally staged by Our Country Deserves Better, a political action committee (PAC) formed to oppose the Democratic presidential candidate. But Williams, a conservative talk radio host from California, was just getting warmed up.
"Barack Obama represents people who are ashamed of this great country, who believe that this great country is the evil in the world and that, in their revisionist history, they cast us as the villain," Williams claimed. "And if we dare question them ... like Joe the Plumber: 'Mr. Obama, what are you going to do to my taxes?' That was enough for the dogs who support the ideological left to go after Joe the Plumber and shred him. ... There's no such thing as sacred, among the unholy left. They vilify this nation, and they vilify those of us who support it. ... [It's] the same kind of thuggery of the left that's used by totalitarian regimes around the world to silence opposition."
Towards the end of the rally, Williams invoked a long-discredited smear against Obama that seems designed to play on fears of his "otherness": that he's not really a U.S. citizen. "We all know that Barack Obama is not qualified to be president of the United States, beyond being above the age of 35 and probably an American citizen," said Williams, emphasizing the word "probably." He laughed and then repeated: "Probably. Even money."
Unlike his hypothetical conservatives cowed by leftist thugs, Williams will not be silenced.
Until recently, he hosted an afternoon talk show in Albany, New York. He left the station as part of changes to make its local programming "less harsh" and more focused on "community involvement," according to its program director. For six years before that, Williams had a talk show on Sacramento's KFBK. He currently offers his "daily rant" on his website and occasionally guest hosts talk radio shows and appears as a commentator on cable television.
Williams' tendency to make sensational -- and sometimes offensive and misleading -- comments is well documented. On his blog, Williams refers to Obama as "Barack bin al Hussein Osama O'Bomber," a "domestic insurgent" and the "Jihadian Candidate." Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Williams claimed that New Orleans residents didn't "have the requisite brains and common sense to get out of the way of a Category 5 hurricane." On MSNBC, Williams said that most "illegal immigrants ... are just here to rip off a piece and take it back to wherever they came from. We're talking about drug runners, human traffickers. We're talking about people who engage in slavery and prostitution." He then rejected bilingualism, declaring, "As long as we have the ICBM [missile]s, they can learn English."
The second Our Country Deserves Better rally speaker, Marine mom Deborah Johns, was more restrained. She stressed John McCain's foreign policy and military experience, and then related an exchange she had with 12 and 13 year old boys in Nevada. The boys told her they would vote for Obama if they could, and asked why she supports McCain. Johns replied with a story about a hard working, straight-A student and a lazy, irresponsible D student. "And then, along comes Principal Obama," she told them. "And he takes your A's from you, from all your hard work, and he takes your friend's D's, and he puts them all together, and you both end up with a C." Obama the presidential candidate, she explained to rally-goers, wants "to take our hard-working money from us, the middle-class Americans, and redistribute what we have worked hard to earn and give it to people who just kind of sit on their laurels."
The rally was part of Our Country Deserves Better's "Stop Obama" bus tour, which ran through the key campaign states of Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The October 22 event -- promoted as being in Madison, Wisconsin, but held in Fitchburg, a small town south of the city -- was attended by about 50 McCain supporters. Local Republican activists said they had been contacted by the PAC, but weren't familiar with it. "I got an email [about the rally] yesterday," Bill Richardson, media coordinator for the Republican Party of Dane County, told me. "It came up very quickly. ... I don't know much about it, but they're going all over the United States." Other attendees said they heard about the rally on local talk radio.
If the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, its personalities or its tactics seem familiar, there's good reason. The PAC's chief strategist is Sal Russo of the Sacramento-based Republican PR firm Russo Marsh & Rogers. The PAC's chair is Howard Kaloogian, a former California state legislator who worked with Russo to found the non-profit group Move America Forward (MAF) in 2004. The PAC's coordinator is Joe Wierzbicki, a principal in the Russo Marsh firm who also serves as MAF's grassroots coordinator. In addition to being the PAC's spokesperson, Deborah Johns is MAF's director of military relations. Mark Williams promoted the recall of Democratic governor Gray Davis on his Sacramento radio show in 2003 -- a campaign that also involved MAF chair Melanie Morgan and laid the groundwork for MAF. Williams has also taken part in numerous MAF campaigns and rallies, and traveled to Iraq in 2005 with MAF's "Voices of Soldiers" tour.
Russo Marsh has also been a major recipient of the PAC's expenditures. As of October 15, Our Country Deserves Better paid the firm nearly $147,000, according to disclosure forms. In addition, the PAC's bus tour parallels MAF events like its September 2007 "Fight for Victory" cross-country bus tour in support of the war in Iraq and its August 2005 "You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy" caravan challenging "peace mom" Cindy Sheehan. "This is bus tour number six for me, across the country," Deborah Johns said, at the PAC rally. That's not to mention the similarity between the negative television ads put out by MAF, which have bashed Congressional Democrats and the United Nations, and those put out by the PAC, which claim Obama isn't patriotic and link him not only to Bill Ayers but to Hamas.
Yet, Johns assured me at the PAC rally that Our Country Deserves Better is "completely separate" from Move America Forward.
Craig Holman, the watchdog group Public Citizen's campaign finance lobbyist, agreed that "there's a lot of commingling that goes on" between PACs and non-profit organizations -- also referred to 501(c)(3) groups -- though "there is supposed to be a very significant firewall between them." Under current rules, "the objective is to make sure that whoever's making the decisions and directing the PAC isn't also making the decisions and directing the 501(c)(3). If they're the same people, they've got the same knowledge, they've got the same objectives. To me, that crosses the line. ... But most of these groups realize that no one's going to go after them."
Also disconcerting is the impact of such never-ending negative campaigning on political discourse. While most of the rally attendees told me they opposed Obama because they didn't feel he was qualified to be president, one woman said Obama was "dangerous" because he "will change our society." How? Obama and ACORN, the community organization that Republicans have accused of voter fraud, will "organize all over the country, like little Hitler youth," she confided.
Our Country Deserves Better has implicitly acknowledged the tenor of its own events. In an email inviting supporters to the Washington DC press conference marking the end of the "Stop Obama" bus tour, the PAC's Calvin Collins stressed, "This is a news conference so the tone will be a bit different from our typical rallies. ... While we all have our frustrations with the news media's coverage of this presidential campaign, we must be respectful towards them."
Our country deserves better.
Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.