Thursday, September 4, 2008

Grading John McCain's Speech

THERE IS A SUBTLE but important distinction between winning and victory.

Generalizations are tricky, but, by and large, Democrats like winning; Republicans like victory. To be victorious is to triumph, and without question, there is a palpable air of triumphalism at the Republican convention. As a friend noted last night when he called to talk about Sarah Palin's speech, Republicans are uncommonly attached to the "U-S-A" chant, which has become a kind of mantra for American supremacy. Nationalism or Patriotism--it's often hard to tell the difference.

These, and Sentator McCains jowls, are the distractions one endures when one watches McCain speak rather than read the transcript. For better or worse, the overfed, over-eager audience and their boos and cheers affect not just the rhythms of McCain's text but its impact. To be fair, the convention speech is a tough gig. Punctuated by cranky protesters, applause, jeers, and howls of support, it's hard to build and sustain momentum, since the very design of such speeches arrange themselves to pause for dramatic sound bytes and thunderous applause--the aural semiotics of victory.

As a speech, McCain's text was less bitchy than Palin's and less humorous. But, it was more specific. He actually proposed things--it wasn't policy he put forth but reassurance.

Most notable, though, was his thinly veiled critique of the Bush administration's low points, the transgressions of Republicans like Jack Abramoff, and the hardness of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney (though none were mentioned by name). To his credit, he acknowledged that in many ways, Republicans have failed.

As New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick has noted, no politician has gotten more mileage out of the apology than McCain, and tonight, McCain used that oft-ignored rhetorical device as a kind of trampoline to catapult him over the dismal record of George W. Bush. Short on Obama insults and long on pro-military jargoning, McCain argued that the disease of the Iraq war has infected all aspects of American life. Curing that ill--which, he implied, he is best able to do because of his military background--will cure America's ills.

Toward the end, McCain's crescendos of "fight, fight, fight" got the already puffy crowd even more frothy. Was that the same John McCain of 2000?

Hinging your entire platform on Iraq is packing a lot of bullets into one holster. What if Americans are tired of fighting? What if they want to start talking?

As it turns out, it wasn't the McCain of 2000. That McCain would not have been a shill for the mainstream Republican platform. That McCain would not have foregrounded drilling in Alaska, school vouchers, and blindly cutting taxes. That McCain would not have chosen a anti-choice, creationist running mate. In this sense, his speech was not nearly as maverick-ish as it could or should have been. It did not appeal to moderates or independents, and it said absolutely nothing about race, gender, or class.

For that reason, I give his speech a C. He gets a B for his denture-rattling close but a D for lame policy, easy cliches, and that drowsy portion halfway through when I wanted to switch over to college football.

Did he galvanize hardcore Republicans? Probably. Did he convince people on the fence? Probably.

He convinced them victory is likely going to be found in Obama.


  1. This is really good. Very well written. I've never seen this blog before. Saw a link from Wall Street Journal blog. Keep it up! Maybe you get picked up by another outlet.

  2. very well written.
    too bad you're so wrong.
    I give you a A for prose.
    D for everything else.

  3. "Denture-rattling close" is very fine. Words to make you hear and feel but above all to make you see -- right?

  4. Yes. Denture-rattling is best line. I wonder if the "D" you gave Palin and McCain is a default grade you would give all Republicans?

  5. I'm surprised you didn't comment on the similarities of the photos on this and the Palin post. Fists, certainty, power.

  6. If you are going to go after jowls and dentures you have to attack OBama's bat ears and Biden's near-mullet....Biden rocks the bifocals and he will have the Ben Franklin thing....