McCain’s Big Speech: More Prison Cell Than Policy

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Number of sentences in John McCain’s acceptance speech about his experience as a POW in Vietnam: 43.

Number of sentences about his 25 years in the House and Senate: 8.

The convention ended as it began: a commemoration of McCain’s hellish years in a Hanoi prison cell four decades ago. The political equation was a simple one: POW equals patriotic hero equals a fighting president. Before McCain walked down the long runway at St. Paul’s Xcel Center, a baritone voice declared over the P.A., “When you’ve lived in a box….you put your people first.” Case closed.

But there was a speech to get through. And before McCain arrived at the climactic I-was-a-POW finale, he delivered, in wooden style, a no-better-than-par speech that was mostly a series of traditional GOP buzz phrases: lower taxes, cut spending, open markets. He noted, “We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don’t legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities.” (Just not community organizers.) Was the speechwriter who penned Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech too busy to work on McCain’s?

Unlike most speakers at the convention, McCain acknowledged that some Americans are facing tough times. “I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market,” he said. “Bill got a temporary job after he was out of work for seven months. Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills.” And he said he would fight for Jake and Toni Wimmer of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. “Jake,” he explained, “works on a loading dock; coaches Little League, and raises money for the mentally and physically disabled. Toni is a schoolteacher, working toward her Master’s Degree. They have two sons, the youngest, Luke, has been diagnosed with autism.” But how would McCain help these folks? Moments later, he offered a dumbed-down version of his economic plan: ” I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it.” (By the way, many analysts and journalists have repeatedly noted that Obama’s economic plan would cut income taxes far more than McCain for Americans below the top 1 percent.)

Over and over, McCain cited his love of country and his dedication to the nation that “saved” him. He tried to present himself as the candidate of change, who wants to transform “almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children.” (He did not explain why after eight years of a Republican administration the country needs so much change.) McCain reminded the GOP delegates that he has on occasion challenged his own party. His domestic policy ideas, the few he offered, did not rouse the crowd–except when he called for more oil and gas drilling. In response, the delegates once again enthusiastically chanted, “Drill, baby, drill!” It was one of the biggest shout-outs of the night. The audience was notably silent when McCain called for boosting alternative energy sources.

Maverick, fighter, fixer–McCain said he was all of that. But, above all, he was McCain the warrior who had returned home. He had fought for the country once before–and he had suffered. He will fight for it again. “I have the record and the scars to prove it,” he declared. “Senator Obama does not.” Wave the bloody shirt.

McCain denounced the “constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving” the nation’s problems. But this week McCain had commanded a convention that had reprised the standard GOP playbook of spin and fear. Speaker after speaker accused Barack Obama of plotting to raise taxes on middle-income voters. They portrayed Obama as weak, indecisive, inexperienced–particularly concerning national security. On the final night, retired Lieutenant General Carol Mutter, denouncing Obama’s stance on Iraq, told the delegates that the United States’ “enemies don’t talk about timelines for retreat.” Yet the United States’ ally in Iraq–the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki–has called for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops. (Whoops: reality.) Repeatedly, GOP speakers claimed that Obama is not a man who can handle evil. “We cannot afford a president who thinks you can negotiate with evil,” proclaimed Representative Mary Fallin, an Oklahoma Republican. But didn’t Ronald Reagan negotiate with the Evil Empire? On the first night of the convention, the delegates watched a tribute film to the late President Gerald Ford that celebrated his negotiation of an arms control treaty with the Soviets. (A onetime negotiator-with-evil, Henry Kissinger, was sitting in the V.I.P. section as Fallin spoke.)

Branding Democrats as national security weaklings and tax-and-spend drunkards was predictable. After all, the convention planners didn’t dare defend the current administration. In fact, there was hardly a mention of the Bush presidency–except when George W. Bush addressed the convention by video on its first night. And there was no talk of what the Republicans did between 1994 and 2006 when they controlled both houses of Congress for most of that time. The convention was a very Soviet-like affair; the Bush administration and the Republican Congress of recent years were airbrushed out of the picture.

And there was a heavy dose of us-versus-them–with “them” being the usual targets of conservative agitators: the media, liberal elites, Hollywood celebrities, “cosmopolitan” Americans (as Rudy Giuliani, of all people, put it), and the government. McCain was exploiting the culture wars. Sarah Palin praised small-town America and mocked Obama for having been an urban community organizer. Onetime football coach Joe Gibbs called for a government of people who “follow [God’s] game plan, his Bible, his word,” adding that John McCain would be such a leader.

There were more words spoken at the convention about the evils of elites than the subprime meltdown, more words devoted to depicting Obama as an ambitious egomaniac than to addressing the health care crisis. Former Senator Fred Thompson dismissed the Democratic convention for focusing too much on the economic challenges of the day. (He nearly called the Democrats whiners.) When Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife and a multimillionaire heiress, recalled traveling on the campaign trail and seeing Americans facing “difficult situations,” she noted that these Americans could “make things right” if the federal government would get “out of our way.” A string of speakers accused Obama of failing to recognize the true threat of Islamic terrorism, but none of the major speakers said much–or anything–about Afghanistan. McCain himself uttered not a single word about Afghanistan. And nothing about climate change. More words at the convention were spilled about McCain the POW than job loss in America. And the Vietnam War was mythologized over and over as a fight waged for America’s freedom and survival.

On the last night of the convention, Senator Sam Brownback told the delegates, “It’s not about him; it’s about us.” Not really. It was about what happened to John McCain forty years ago and what that means to Americans today. His acceptance speech broke no new ground, and it was not meant to. It was just another reminder to cap a convention of reminding. The balloons then dropped, video fireworks fell, the crowd cheered. And for McCain, it was on to the final battle, the old soldier, faith-tested and faith-proved, accompanied by a stylish hockey mom representing small-town goodness–against those whose mettle have not been tested, whose love of country has not been tested, whose America is rather different from the America of the Republican convention.


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