By now you’ve surely heard the news: Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, is not a witch. O’Donnell uses the simple declarative sentence, “I’m not a witch” to begin her first advertisement for the general election, which debuted last week. The ad, of course, is a response to the brouhaha that erupted roughly three weeks ago when Bill Maher aired a 1999 clip of O’Donnell speaking on his show Politically Incorrect about having dabbled in witchcraft when she was in high school.
The response to the ad among media and cultural critics as well as parody-makers on the web and TV has been significant, but not much discussion of her statement about witchcraft beyond scoffing and sputtering. Some, like Giant Magazine’s Jay Smooth, have suggested that witchcraft is beside the point and that the real problem of the ad is her claim that she is not just like you, but that she is you. Certainly, O’Donnell’s I-am-the-Walrus-esque “I’m you” merits attention, but dismissing O’Donnell’s response to discussions of her dabblings and her decision to do so in her debut spot means passing up an opportunity to understand how she constructs herself as a righteous outsider–a key source of appeal for her as a Tea Party candidate.
Christine O’Donnell – “I’m You” – YouTube
O’Donnell’s actual involvement in any kind of organized witchcraft was likely only cursory (and had little to nothing to do with Wicca, Paganism, or other related spiritual practices), but her opening line in this ad is no mere toss off. When Christine O’Donnell declares, “I’m not a witch,” she is not only attempting to allay concerns about the extent of her experimenting, but also invoking the figure of the witch and its various connotations. These connotations include the image of an unruly woman, the long history of using accusations of witchcraft to marginalize people–quite often women–who do not conform to social norms and the more metaphorical concept of the political witch hunt.
In the ad, O’Donnell is careful to make sure that current or potential supporters are convinced of her current state of faith as a devout Catholic. The tone of the ad is decidedly restrained and mature, with its slow piano track and soft focus close up of O’Donnell, who appears dressed in a modest black suit and pearls, with her hair straightened, looking directly into the camera. This stands in contrast to her earlier strategy of responding to questions about her experience with witchcraft by heartily laughing it off as a lark. In a sense, then, O’Donnell is chastened as a result of her associations with witchcraft.
But what O’Donnell is responding to is not an organized witch hunt, nor is it an accusation being leveled against her by Democrats or her opponent. Moreover, she is not being persecuted in a particularly menacing way by those who seem fascinated by her claims (mocked and dismissed in some troubling ways, yes, but not menaced pitchfork-and-torch style). O’Donnell seems fundamentally aware of the absurdity of her situation too, delivering her first line with a smile. Further, she makes the negative attention work to her advantage by positioning herself first of all as someone who sounds more like they are responding to accusations of witchcraft than one who brought it up themselves and on TV, no less. She moves from “I’m not a witch” to ” I’m nothing you’ve heard” and this move allows her to not only deny the allegations but also to assume the moral high ground with respect to those who dismiss her because of her supposed spiritual experimentation. The second sentence of the ad is key here as it allows and even encourages the audience to reject critiques of other positions she has taken such as her earlier anti-masturbation activism in an MTV documentary or her stance on theories of evolution. Perhaps most importantly, though, by suggesting that all this talk about witchcraft is something “you’ve heard” rather than something she said frames discussions of the Maher and MTV clips as hearsay or gossip despite the fact that they feature her own words.
We cannot say with any certainty if audiences are thinking about O’Donnell’s word craft or if any of this will change voters’ minds in Delaware. O’Donnell, who was already down by about 15 points in polls before the Maher clip resurfaced, now appears to be almost 20 points behind Democrat Chris Coons according to a more recent University of Delaware poll.
Even if she doesn’t go to Washington, though, Christine O’Donnell’s primary victory suggests some very real shifts taking place in the American political landscape and despite the improbability (but not impossibility) of O’Donnell winning the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden, she continues to hold the attention of news sources like CNN (which will be airing the public debate between O’Donnell and Coons tonight) and she will likely remain a very public and possibly very influential figure after next month’s election.
While I’m very much in favor of focusing attention on candidates’ current ideas and policy positions, I am troubled by the way that public fascination with O’Donnell’s ten-year old admission to an even earlier and wholly superficial-sounding encounter with the Occult now affords her a potentially potent form of credibility as one who was mocked and dismissed through an association with witchcraft.