Anti-Obama Sign Fuels Debate
NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine - Robert Horr insists that his political sign is just intended to provoke debate about the presidential candidates' backgrounds and their qualifications to lead the military.
Paul Proudian, who stopped by to see it for himself this week, views the sign very differently: as a deceitful attempt to mischaracterize the Democratic candidate.
Proudian says the sign appeals to the worst in people's fears, with ethnic and religious overtones, and tries to show Republican John McCain as "more American" than Barack Obama.
Erected in Horr's driveway on Gloucester Hill Road and visible from busy Route 100, the 8-foot-by-12-foot sign features life-size representations of Obama, shown wearing a turban and the traditional dress of a Somali elder, and McCain, shown dressed in a military flight suit.
Alongside Obama's picture are the words "Never served in the military," and above it is his full name, Barack Hussein Obama.
McCain's image is accompanied by his Navy rank, a list of the medals and commendations he earned in the service, and his full name, John Sidney McCain III.
The sign has caused a stir in town, with motorists expressing support or opposition by honking horns, shouting comments and stopping for curbside conversations. It led the Maine State Police to ask Horr to keep onlookers from disrupting traffic and to make sure the lights he projects on the sign at night don't shine into drivers' eyes.
The sign also has become a topic of conversation on local talk radio.
"This is making some people very nervous and some people very happy," said Horr. "If it makes people nervous, fine. I don't think the debate's done."
The sign and the debate it has spawned come at a sensitive time in American politics. The country has its first black presidential nominee from a major party and is embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, launched in response to Islamic-inspired terrorism.
There is a strong undercurrent of anti-Islamic and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in some parts of the country, and some Obama opponents have sought to capitalize on that by stressing his middle name.
The picture of Obama in tribal dress, which was taken when he toured part of Kenya in 2006, first circulated during the bitter primary battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. At the time, the Obama campaign criticized the use of the photo as fear-mongering aimed at promoting rumors Obama was secretly Muslim and therefore un-American.
McCain's campaign said it has no connection to the sign.
"That kind of expression is totally inconsistent with John McCain's commitment to decency in politics," said campaign spokesman Jeff Grappone.
Obama's campaign spokeswoman had no comment.
Political experts say the image tries to convey a sense that Obama is not truly American. It also perpetuates the misperception by a large segment of the population that Obama is Muslim, said University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried.
She said the negativity is unlikely to sway many people.
"It's the kind of statement that appeals to people who already are pretty convinced," Fried said. "People have a range of experience, a more direct experience with their own eyes. Once there's been an image formed of a public figure, it becomes difficult to shift it."
Horr thinks that the images portrayed in television debates are incomplete and that the campaigns have danced around what he said are central issues of the candidates' heritage and history.
Horr describes himself as a constitutionalist. He believes the U.S. Constitution does not give the government permission to raise taxes for spending on social programs -- only for the courts and the military. He said that the president has no authority to make laws and that his only authority is running the armed forces.
That's why Horr said it's essential for people to compare Obama's lack of military service with McCain's record.
"I've got two sons in the military. Who's going to lead them into battle matters to me," said Horr, who is not a veteran.
Horr insists that the sign is neutral. Somebody could conclude that McCain comes from a family of warmongers and shouldn't be elected, or that Obama will better understand people in the Middle East who threaten the U.S., he said.
That's probably not what the sign says to many people, though, including Proudian, who stopped to get a picture Tuesday while he was out putting up signs for Democratic candidates.
"Barack Obama and John McCain have legitimate foreign policy views that are subject to debate, and you're trying to reduce them to stereotypes," he said to Horr.
Horr said the sign just shows Obama embracing his Arabic heritage.
Proudian corrected Horr, noting that Obama is not Arabic and that his father was from Kenya. Proudian also pointed out that the image was taken from a trip Obama took to a Somali refugee camp in Kenya, when he donned the Somali garb as a gesture for his hosts.
"You're clearly trying to suggest here that Barack Obama has ties to Islam, that he's somehow less of an American than John McCain, so John McCain is a better, safer choice, that Barack Obama is someone who is less concerned with the safety of America," Proudian said.
Horr insists that is not what he is saying. The pictures, which are paintings of photographs, are accurate, he said, and any conclusions about ethnicity or Americanism are the viewer's, not his.
Horr is a carpenter who works through a Massachusetts union hall on large concrete building projects. He declined to say who helped him paint and erect the sign. "It starts here and it ends here," he said, pointing at the paint-spattered sweatshirt he was wearing Tuesday.
Horr clearly relishes the discussion his sign has generated and is happy to debate its merits, though he sounds hoarse from the practice. He said he plans to offer coffee at the table and chairs he has set up alongside it, and offers to allow an Obama supporter to put literature on the table that people could take.
"I'm not afraid of the debate. I just ask that you be respectful," he said.
A van heading north pulled over and the two men inside gave him a thumbs-up.
"Love your sign," one said.
"You're welcome to come back and have coffee and donuts," Horr replied.
Brian Duff, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New England, said Horr's willingness to post the image on his front yard is more democratic than the surreptitious circulation of the photo by political operatives during the primary campaign.
"There's something cynical about choosing that image, there's absolutely no way around it, but he's using it to start a conversation about Obama's heritage in Africa and getting people to talk about it," Duff said. "I don't think that's the worst thing in Maine politics."
The proximity of New Gloucester to Lewiston, where a large community of Somali immigrants lives, also is relevant, Duff noted.
"I think it's an opportunity for it to turn into a conversation, rather than just a one-off, anti-Muslim, anti-Obama thing," he said. "I can imagine there will be a little yelling and some voices raised, but I can imagine other moments where people stop and listen to each other."
That said, the final weeks of a high-stakes election are a difficult time, with emotions running high.
Duff said Horr actually has hurt his main point by using such an inflammatory picture of Obama. He said the image distracts from the argument McCain's supporters have been making, that he is more experienced and better suited to running the military in a time of crisis.
Regardless, Horr has no plans to take down the sign, even though it violates a town ordinance that prohibits political signs from being bigger than 4 feet by 8 feet, the size of a sheet of plywood.
Horr likes to point out that the pamphlet-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution he often hands out to people does not give the government the right to abridge his freedom of speech. He also said that because the sign does not specifically advocate voting for one candidate, it is not political.
The town ordinance allows for penalties of between $100 and $2,500 per day, but New Gloucester code enforcement officer Debra Parks said that Horr is aware the ordinance allows an offender 30 days to correct the deficiency. By then, the election will be over.
The board of selectmen would have to authorize any legal action, and the board does not meet again until Nov. 3, the day before the election.
"He's crazy like a fox," Parks said of Horr, before noting that the sign's content is irrelevant -- it's just the size.