Cracking the Candidates' Coded Attacks

The landscape of this year's election is filled with linguistic pitfalls, and as Sen. Barack Obama has said, "words matter" more than ever before.

Between the 24-hour news cycle and an election in which the two Democratic contenders are a woman and a black man, the language of the candidates, and their surrogates, is carefully parsed by the opposition, the media and the electorate.

War of Words

In the camps of both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, high-profile staffers have lost their jobs over comments their bosses found too incendiary.

With so much attention on what is being said -- and in a culture where politically sensitive language has become the mainstream -- candidates disguise their attacks in coded messages intended to pique voters' innate racist, misogynist and ageist prejudices, experts in political communication told

"What complicates the analyses of these comments is that they use factually true or perfectly innocent language, which nonetheless can be heard to contain a second meaning," said Kathleen Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It also all depends on the cultural context in which the listener is hearing the comment. Meaning is not invariant, it changes based on the assumptions of the listener."

In March, Clinton outwardly denied rumors that Obama was a practicing Muslim. In an interview with "60 Minutes," when asked whether she believed Obama was a Muslim she said: "No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know."

Obama supporters heard something other than a straightforward denial. They heard a coded message, which suggested someone else might know something about his faith that she didn't. When Obama supporters posted the video of Clinton's comments on YouTube, they titled it "Hillary Clinton Stokes False Rumors About Obama's Faith."

"Though she said he was not a Muslim, it was code for maybe he is Muslim," Jamieson said. "It implies, or suggests, that if he was Muslim that would be a problem. Many Muslims ought to be and are offended by that, because it further assumes that Islam equals al Qaeda or terrorism."

Role of Race in the Race

Former President Clinton came under similar criticism by the Obama camp for making what was a statement of fact, but which Obama's supporters heard as a coded attack.

"Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here," Clinton said in January after the Illinois senator's victory over his wife.

Obama supporters and pundits did not hear Clinton's comments as purely factual, but heard an additional suggestion: Like Jackson, Obama, a minority candidate, will never win the general election.

At the time, ABC's George Stephanopoulos told Obama during an interview, "The implication is pretty clear: You're the Jesse Jackson of 2008."

The use of coded language and symbols did not originate with this election, said Albert May, a communications professor at George Washington University, but because race and gender are so central to this campaign, the candidates and media are particularly sensitive to word choice.

"The right has used code words and labels more effectively than the left. 'Liberal,' a perfectly good word, became code for 'un-American' or 'a lefty.' They trashed a perfectly good word in American politics. No one wants to be labeled a liberal," he said.

If Obama has been the target of coded attacks, he has also implied things in his language when attacking other candidates -- or at least that is what they would tell you.

Making an Issue of Age

Last week, Obama said Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, was "losing his bearings" for repeatedly suggesting the Islamic terrorist group Hamas preferred Obama for president.

That brought an angry response from McCain's campaign, which accused Obama of trying to make an issue of McCain's age. If elected, McCain will be 72, the oldest president ever to be inaugurated for his first term in office.

"For him to toss out comments like that, I think, is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination," Obama said Thursday.

McCain's campaign issued an angry response that accused Obama of trying to divert attention from a legitimate question by raising McCain's age.

"He used the words 'losing his bearings' intentionally, a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue," McCain adviser Mark Salter said. "It is more than fair to raise this quote about Sen. Obama, because it speaks to the policy implications of his judgment."

If the Clintons code their messages in factual statements, Obama coded his in a popular idiom, Jamieson said.

"Losing one's bearings is a conventional expression in English speech. It's literally a navigational metaphor," she said. "It's possible that's all Obama meant, but there is another context in which it can suggest a progressive process into dementia. The implication being you can no longer accurately assess the world."

Gender in the Campaign

Hillary Clinton was the subject of a less subtle attack by an Obama supporter, when she was recently compared to a movie character -- a really crazy movie character.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., an Obama supporter, compared Clinton to the Glenn Close character in "Fatal Attraction" -- a spurned woman-turned-stalker who seemed to drown in a bathtub only to jump up one more time; she was then shot dead -- for her refusal to quit the race.

"Glenn Close should have stayed in that tub, and Sen. Clinton has had a remarkable career and needs to move to the next step, which is helping elect the Democratic nominee," Cohen said during a TV interview. He later apologized for his comments.

Racist language is taboo, Jamieson said, but a certain degree of sexist sentiment continues to permeate the culture when it comes to talking about Clinton.

"There are a set of sexist assumptions made and said about Clinton that go unchallenged," she said.