I have seen Hillary Clinton's now-notorious "It's 3 a.m." ad several times, and my gut response each time has been: "Why isn't anyone answering the damn phone?"
The phone -- supposedly a red one -- rings six or seven times before Hillary, in her sensible school-marm glasses, finally picks up. She is dressed in a pants suit. I know that's her uniform, but why is she wearing a pants suit at 3 in the morning?
Has she been up all night? Does she sleep in a pants suit? Did she change from a nightie to a pants suit before answering the phone? Maybe that explains why it rang so many times.
I know the message is supposed to be that Hillary will be ready "on day one" to handle a security crisis, but the ad is more puzzling than harrowing. Don't they have secretaries who answer the phones at the White House? If it's a crisis, wouldn't someone wake the president rather than forwarding a phone call from ... well, I'm not sure who would be calling. Maybe it's the secretary of state or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Bill Clinton looking for a ride home from McDonald's.
Despite the dubious authenticity of the ad, however, it reportedly did the job it was supposed to do: Raise doubts about whether Barack Obama is "tested and ready for a dangerous world." Pollsters found that a high percentage of voters who decided to back Hillary in the final days of the Ohio and Texas primary campaigns were influenced by the ad.
I, for one, am not convinced by Hillary's constant references to 35 years of experience in public life, which, she claims, makes her more qualified for the presidency than Obama. Being first lady is not necessarily adequate training for answering the red phone. In the end, good judgment is likely to trump experience.
What distresses me, though, is that a campaign which, up until a week or so ago, had been amazingly civil, now seems to have become nasty, negative and, worst of all, petty.
The Clinton campaign appears to have concluded that going negative works. The Obama campaign may have reached the same conclusion. It has responded to Clinton's attacks with demands that she reveal her tax returns and explain how she loaned her campaign $5 million. Do we really want to sift through the various ways Bill Clinton raked in millions after leaving the presidency?
If Obama resorts to negative ads and dispatches surrogates to launch a sleazy smear campaign against Clinton, he would be seen as abandoning his promise to bring a new approach to politics, to find ways to bring people together rather than cultivating divisiveness. In short, he would risk destroying the whole foundation of his candidacy.
He can fight back without jumping into the nearest swift boat. Pointing to Clinton's record, emphasizing their policy differences and slugging it out over real issues is entirely legitimate and something voters should welcome.
We need to hear more specifics about how both candidates intend to address the mortgage crisis, end the war in Iraq, protect national security, reform health care, reduce income disparity, improve education and tackle global warming. If Obama and Clinton stick to substantive issues, whichever candidate emerges as the nominee will be battle hardened and better prepared to face John McCain in the fall.
Ironically, how Obama responds to these attacks may tell us a lot about his ability to withstand a crisis. If he doesn't panic, if he keeps to the high road and appears strong and steady, maybe he'll be the one voters want answering the red phone at 3 a.m.