Shades of Mark Penn?

A McCain spokeswoman said she wasn't going to talk about Barack Obama's association with Bill Ayers -- and then did just that.

Published October 9, 2008 7:05PM (EDT)

Halloween is quickly approaching. But if you don't have a costume, have no fear. There's a quick and simple way to look like Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's former chief strategist: Just say you're not going to talk about a subject and then proceed to discuss it anyway.

Thursday morning on the "Today" show, McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace gave her best Penn impersonation. After Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama's communications director, called John McCain "angry and erratic," "Today" coanchor Meredith Vieira asked Wallace why McCain and Sarah Palin have been mentioning Obama's flimsy association with Bill Ayers when voters have much more pressing problems on their minds. Here's the exchange that ensued (it starts at about 2:40 in the video below):

Wallace: Nobody in America sitting around the kitchen table this morning, trying to figure out if their jobs are going to be there, if they're going to be able to afford their mortgages, healthcare, college, cares about Barack Obama working with a former washed-up terrorist. And that's what  Mr. Ayers is. He's a former domestic terrorist who targeted, in a group called the Weathermen, the Pentagon and the Capitol.

Vieira: But if they don't care, Nicolle, why is your campaign bringing it up?

Wallace: I was getting to that before you interrupted, Meredith. The point is Barack Obama lied when he was first asked about his association with Mr. Ayers. He called him a guy in the neighborhood. He's a lot more than a guy in the neighborhood. And why we can't have a calm, honest discussion about who Mr. Ayers was and then move on to the things people really care about. But here's why it matters Meredith, if you don't tell the truth about your associations, if you don't answer the question honestly the first time you're asked, not the second, third or fourth -- nobody knows when he found out that he was a domestic terrorist. No one can explain to me why he lied and said he was just a guy in the neighborhood ... If Barack Obama had answered honestly about his association with Ayers, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation.

If you're suddenly suffering from a bout of déjà vu, don't worry, you're not alone. It's probably because Wallace's argumentative tactics this morning closely resembled those Penn used during an appearance on "Hardball" back in December 2007. Penn was on the show with Joe Trippi, a strategist for John Edwards' campaign, and said that no one in the Clinton campaign was bringing up Obama's past cocaine use -- and then he did just that. Here's the transcript, with video below:

Chris Matthews: These comments that are coming out of your campaign from different directions -- and I'm not sure how they're coming, nobody does -- but going after his perhaps youthful drug use, which he admitted in his book, and going after comments he made as a kindergarten student, at the age of -- do you think those are appropriate shots at the opponent or are they below the belt?

Penn: Well, I think we've made clear that the issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising -- I think that's been made clear. I think this kindergarten thing was a joke after Senator --

Joe Trippi: He just did it again! He just did it again!

Penn: This kindergarten thing after what the senator did --

Trippi: Unbelievable -- He just literally --

Penn: Excuse me.

Trippi: No, no, no, Mark, excuse me. This guy's been filibustering this thing. He just said "cocaine" again. It's like --

Penn: I think you're saying "cocaine," I don't know. I think you're saying it.

Trippi: You just did, and I think there's something wrong --

There was one other interesting moment from Wallace's appearance on "Today." At the end of the interview, Vieira asked Wallace whether Palin would grant an interview to NBC before the election. Wallace first said, "I'm sure you'll get a chance," and then, after equivocating, finally promised that Palin would appear on the network before Nov. 4. Gibbs had a quick retort: "Hey, Meredith, we'd love to drop by and talk to you and anybody at NBC News, whether it's Barack Obama or Joe Biden."

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

MORE FROM Vincent Rossmeier

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Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Mccain R-ariz.