In a way, you have to admire the Rovean evilness of Floyd Brown’s schtick, now playing in North Carolina.

The new ad recounts the deaths of three Chicago residents in 2001 at the hands of criminal gangs. "That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders," an ominous female narrator intones. "So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

What’s clever about the schtick is that it lets John McCain look noble and "moderate" by officially denouncing it — to, of course, no effect, because that’s how these things work — while the ad gets national play and permeates not just North Carolina voters’ consciousnesses but that of Americans generally. It’s how the right runs these kinds of appeals up the flagpole to see how it flies — and the way it’s flying so far, I’d guess it’s just a preview of what we’ll see this fall.

And so it’s been playing on my cable TV all day, over and over — CNN, MSNBC, Fox, they’re all playing it. Atrios has it exactly right, as usual:

Some Republican or conservative group runs a dumb ad.

John McCain nobly distances himself from it.

Cable news spends all day talking about it and showing it for free.

Rinse. Repeat.

That’s the Brown formula: Create an incendiary ad, typically reverberant with far-right (often racist) themes repackaged for more mainstream consumption; spend a little bit of money in a few precincts, let the Republicans involved look good with the soccer-mom contingent turned off by racially incendiary campaigns, by officially denouncing; but still reaching the closet-racist bloc with the ad itself — which of course gets national play in the mainstream media as it discusses the outrage that ensues. This, of course, expands the audience exponentially, and for no added expense. Diabolical, really, but clever as hell.

It’s important to understand that the media are being deliberately gamed here, but they have no excuse whatsoever, ethically speaking, for allowing this to happen. After all, this is Floyd Brown we’re talking about here. He’s played this game before — many, many times — and has boasted afterward about how easy the media were to manipulate. But they never learn. Or perhaps they don’t want to learn, because it makes for an easy narrative, and there’s nothing they love like easy narratives.

It’s also been striking how often the narrative veers into a discussion of Rev. Wright and Obama’s judgment, which is ostensibly the ad’s chief storyline. But anyone watching it can see that there’s a larger, underlying theme: the ad is all about associating Obama with black criminality and supposedly lax liberal policies to "blame" for it. It’s all about scaring white suburbanites while giving them the cover of hand-wringing about his "judgment."

Well, that’s Floyd Brown for you. It is simply the Willie Horton campaign updated with the special edge of targeting a black candidate. And stirring the racial pot and widening the cultural divide is what Brown is all about.

Everyone, in fact, mentions the Horton ad as a classic example of Brown’s tactics. But it’s also important to remember that he’s been a major player in nearly every right-wing smear of leading Democratic figures in the ensuing years, including the Clinton impeachment fiasco and the Swift Boating of John Kerry.

Joe Conason wrote about Brown and his cohort, David Bossie, back in 2004, when he was involved in swift-boating John Kerry:

At Citizens United, the boisterous Brown and his sidekick Bossie are raising money to air their latest video creation, which blasts Kerry for his expensive haircuts and his wife’s wealth, tagging him as a "rich elitist liberal from Massachusetts who says he’s a man of the people."

… If the names of Brown and Bossie sound more familiar, they attained notoriety together during the Clinton era as indefatigable promoters of the bogus "Whitewater" scandal. They served as publicity agents for David Hale, the crooked and discredited former Little Rock municipal judge whose allegations against the Clintons forced the appointment of an independent counsel. Among mainstream journalists panting for a career-making Watergate-style scandal, Brown and Bossie found many a gullible mark. For nearly a decade they churned out junk night and day. For a while, Bossie went on the payroll of the Senate Whitewater Committee; later he worked for Rep. Dan Burton’s House Committee on Government Operations investigating Clinton and Al Gore — until he was caught distributing doctored tapes to the media.

Their scorched-earth campaign tactics were epitomized by Brown and Bossie’s 1992 paperback broadside "Slick Willie: Why America Can’t Trust Bill Clinton." Among the ugliest features of this little pamphlet was a chapter of unsupported and anonymous insinuations about Clinton’s role in a female student’s suicide. Their "investigation" was later called "an unusually brazen dirty tricks operation" in a report on "CBS Evening News." (In light of recent discussion of the president’s National Guard service, the authors may nowregret at least one of "Slick Willie’s" chapter titles — "Brave Men Died in Vietnam: Where Was Bill Clinton?")

The Horton ad appeared not as part of the Bush-Quayle campaign, whose strategists shied away from such obvious racism, but under the auspices of a shadowy organization called "Americans for Bush." According to testimony filed with the Federal Election Commission, which investigated the financing and planning of the Horton ad in 1990, the ad’s actual creators included Brown and Shirley. Others involved included Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, and a young producer named Jesse Raiford who was simultaneously working on TV commercials for Roger Ailes, then his boss at the official Bush-Quayle campaign. (FEC commissioners and investigators strongly suspected unlawful collusion between Bush-Quayle and Americans for Bush, but Republican members of the commission quickly killed the probe.)

The rather primitive commercial featured the scary mug shot of Horton — a sullen, scruffy-looking, African-American murderer who got weekend passes from prison while Dukakis was governor. Its provocative appeal to white fear was so blatant that even the Bush campaign was embarrassed, but Brown gleefully described it as the "silver bullet" that ruined the Democratic nominee.

Brown hasn’t entirely lost his taste for stoking racial animosities. He currently works for the Young America’s Foundation, where he oversees the indoctrination of youthful conservatives at the former Reagan Ranch. The YAF recently honored Rhode Island student Jason Mattera as the "top conservative student activist in the country," apparently because he sponsored a "whites only" scholarship at his school in protest of affirmative action.

I also wrote about Brown that year, discussing his long connections to far-right extremists in the "Patriot"/militia movement, citing a Chip Berlet piece on Brown’s career:

Brown remains proud of the 1988 Willie Horton ad, widely denounced as racist pandering. In 1992, he attempted to place ads for a $4.99 paid phone call that would play tapes of Gennifer Flowers in a telephone conversation with then-governor Clinton. The hook was a promise that the conversation probed sexual matters. The incident was so tasteless that the Bush/Quayle campaign was again forced to condemn Brown and his tactics. Brown also arranged a screening for a reporter of Militia leader Linda Thompson’s video, "Waco: The Big Lie," a potage of conspiracy theories linking Clinton to premeditated murder.

Two of Brown’s senior staff are veterans of the ultra-conservative subculture with its conspiracist worldview of communism as a vast left wing conspiracy-a worldview that originated in the Old Right. Cliff Kincaid is director of Citizens United Foundation’s American Sovereignty Action Project. He the author of two conspiracist books on the United Nations, Global Bondage: The U.N. Plan to Rule the World and Global Taxes for World Government, both published by Huntington House. Kincaid’s claims about the U.N. are promoted within the patriot movement. Kincaid also works for Accuracy in Media, and writes columns for Human Events and the American Legion Magazine, with a circulation of 3 million. In a 1991 article for Human Events, Kincaid red-baited groups protesting the Gulf War and quoted right-wing undercover operative Sheila Louise Rees, claiming antiwar demonstrations were concocted "by the traditional hard-line peace activist organizations that have always worked with the Communist Party U.S.A." Human Events is now published by Eagle/Phillips Publishing. Regnery Publishing is primarily owned by Phillips Publishing and the Regnery family.

It’s important to understand the role that people like Brown play. Not only does he enable the right to feed red meat to their more extremist elements while giving them a certain "plausible deniablity" (thus the official distancing, which Brown explicitly welcomes), he plays an even greater part in transmitting ideas from the extremist right into the mainstream, thanks largely to a complaisant media willing to lend him the mantle of credibility he doesn’t deserve. For instance, I’ve discussed how the Wall Street Journal lapped up Brown’s bill of goods on Clinton in the 1990s:

Likewise, the WSJ indulged all kinds of extremist propaganda in its pursuit of Clinton. One of its chief sources was Floyd Brown, a longtime enemy of Bill from Arkansas days. Brown was responsible for the circulation of much of the early Whitewater dirt on Bill Clinton, mostly through Citizens United’s top investigator, David Bossie (who later gained notoriety as the erstwhile chief investigator for Rep. Dan Burton’s campaign-finance probe). Brown’s credibility was already of questionable value; by 1998, this had become unmistakable. For instance, at Brown’s Citizens United Web site — in addition, naturally, to a bevy of Monica-related impeachment screeds — you could find screaming exposes of the Clintons’ alleged involvement in the United Nations one-world-government plot. A streaming banner on the site shouted: "Secret United Nations Agenda Exposed In Explosive New Video!" (The video in question prominently featured an appearance by then-Sen. John Ashcroft.) A little further down, the site explains: "This timely new video reveals how the liberal regime of Bill Clinton is actively conspiring to aid and abet the United Nations in its drive for global supremacy." For those who follow the militia movement, these tales have more than a familiar ring.

Yet in 1994, members of the WSJ’s editorial board sat down with Brown and examined his anti-Clinton information — which in nature was not appreciably different from what he was flogging four years later — and shortly thereafter, nearly half of the Journal’s editorial page was devoted one day to reprinting materials obtained from Brown. Moreover, the WSJ continued to recycle the allegations from that material for much of the following six years.

More recently, Brown played similar games in the 2004 election in Martin Frost’s congressional race against Pete Sessions: Came in with an "independent" group that ran racially incendiary attack ads against Frost. Sessions, of course, won.

Every time out, the media have played along with Brown. And it’s clear that won’t change anytime soon.