Is the amazing Barack Obama campaign a blitzkrieg that will sweep relentlessly to the nomination, or a bubble that will ultimately burst like a child's balloon with a pinprick?
Never before have I seen anything quite like it. The "Get Clean for Gene" campaign in 1968 by young people for Eugene McCarthy exploded onto the political scene in 1968. It then faded, due in part to the personality of the quirky, enigmatic McCarthy. The JFK campaign had it jumpers and squealers, but people didn't faint dead away at his rallies. As many have noted, Obama rallies resemble rock concerts more than political speeches. Can something that soared so high, so fast, keep up the momentum?
It's a question that needs to be asked, given the manner in which so many campaigns in the past have ended so quickly, so unpredictably.
Most recently there was Howard Dean, whose energetic cowboy yell at a political rally seemed, played over and over again on the small screen, like the howl of dementia.
And remember Ed Muskie, who got furious in 1972 when the influential, conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, ran a story that implied that Muskie's wife took an unladylike pleasure in drinking and telling off- color jokes. An angry Muskie organized a press conference in front of the Union Leader offices and spoke during a snowstorm, calling Loeb a "gutless coward." Reporters wrote that he wept as he spoke; the Muskie campaign claimed that the water on his face was only from the falling snow, but the incident was the beginning of the end for Muskie's presidential hopes.
George Romney, father of Mitt, was considered a prime contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. But in September of 67, the Michigan governor told a Detroit television newsman that he had been "brainwashed" by American generals into approving the Vietnam war effort while touring Southeast Asia in 1965. The firestorm of criticism derailed his candidacy. (Never mind that Romney turned out to be right.)
It was a single photograph of Gary Hart that demolished his presidential bid in 1988. The photo that surfaced in the press was of a beautiful blonde named Donna Rice sitting on the lap of the (very much married) senator on a yacht aptly named the Monkey Business.
Hart withdrew from the race but a few months later jumped back in, appearing on the steps of the New Hampshire State House with his wife Lee. Lee Hart looked glum and humiliated whenever she stood beside her husband, and that image certainly stayed with many women voters. Hart lost badly in the state and his campaign sputtered out.
George Allen was touted by many as a hot prospect to succeed George W. Bush for the Republicans. In the summer of 2006, running for reelection to the senate against Democrat James Webb, he was speaking to supporters in Southwest Virginia when he spotted a young man of Indian descent in the crowd.
"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great."
Great it wasn't for Allen, who was seen as hurling a racial epithet. Not only did his presidential hopes vanish, but so did his senate seat. Jim Webb squeaked out a win over the formerly invulnerable Allen.
But it hasn't only been missteps that caused presidential candidates to falter. Michael Dukakis probably should have not have climbed into a tank in 1988 with a weird-looking communications antenna on his head, because the resulting photograph made him look like a Martian. More serious was the negative campaign created by the late Lee Atwater, using images of black felon Willie Horton to charge that Dukakis was soft on crime. The Massachusetts governor was actually fairly conservative on law and order issues, but the menacing mien of Horton was more omnipresent on TV than the Pillsbury dough boy. Horton glared ominously into our living rooms, and was a key factor in the Dukakis defeat.
John Kerry, of course, was swift-boated out of his shot at the White House. It still amazes me that a true war hero, who turned his gunboat into enemy fire and risked his own life to save one of his crew, could have had his patriotism called into question, but it happened. The press was slow off the mark to discredit the accusations.
Today, we are already starting to see the outlines of the dirty tricks if Obama gets the nomination.
More photos of the senator in various sorts of African garb will emerge -- although Massachusetts political operative Mike Goldman had something when he suggested that the picture that surfaced recently made Obama look more like Gunga Din than like an Arab terrorist. (Rent the 1939 Cary Grant flick if you want to see what I mean.)
Republicans are already starting to call the senator Barack HUSSEIN Obama, claiming that he virtually grew up in a madrassa and is a secret Muslim. Before too long, we'll see a Photoshopped picture of him sitting beside Mohammed Atta at a flight school simulator.
We know what will happen if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. The old words have already been dredged up -- "rhymes with rich," "shrill," "calculating" "manipulative," and it's even suggested that she's a bad mommy who pimps out her daughter for political ambition
Barack is going to be hit full force with allegations that he is an alien being, (probably an Arab, probably a terrorist,) and that he regularly shreds the American flag in secret rites with Michelle in the backyard. I sincerely hope that he has never in his life set foot in a Playboy club, or the GOP will recruit that blonde who appeared in the ad aimed at congressman Harold Ford (who is African American) in his 2006 Tennessee senate bid. Ford, a bachelor, appeared at a Florida Super Bowl party packed with celebrities after the New England Patriots' win. In the sleazy Republican political ad, the comely young woman winks at the camera and coos suggestively -- "Harold -- call me!"
The ad didn't actually run the Mel Brooks tagline "Where the white women at?" but might as well have.
So far, Obama has run a brilliant campaign, and he displays a real knack for deflecting attacks with a quick wit. He appears to have gotten much more "match tough" than he was in the early debates.
But will the press, so enamored of him to date, make a sudden U-turn? "The guy walks on water," said Howard Kurtz , the Washington Post's media critic, of journalists' love affair with Barack. But the media is nothing if not fickle, and will turn on you faster than an aggrieved Rotweiller, especially if they get an attack of buyers's remorse. Like spurned lovers, the press can switch from valentines to stink bombs faster than you can say, "Sweetheart, get me rewrite."
Obama will have to have a hide like a rhinocerous and a rapid response team quicker than the Delta Force if he is indeed the nominee.
The flak has only begun to fly.
Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."