The Maverick Does It His Way

Last night was the fireworks at the GOP Convention, the high-wire triumph of Sarah Palin, the street fighting of Rudy. Tonight was the hard work: John McCain laying out his policy vision. So, what did I think?

John McCain is a great talker, but not a great speaker – he’s the polar opposite of Obama, who gives a tremendous speech but does not converse and answer questions so well. Those of us who have grown to know McCain’s speaking style well over the years did not have great expectations for this speech. This is his weak suit. He was inevitably going to be a bit of a letdown from Wednesday night.

Moreover, this was not the speech I would have written for McCain, were I advising him. He laid out his domestic policy vision, specifically in some cases (e.g., education, energy, trade, job training, business taxes), more vaguely in others (health care). But he didn’t walk issue by issue through the differences between his mainstream positions and Obama’s extreme positions. He explicitly distanced himself from the now-departed GOP Congressional majority, but he never explicitly explained the fact that he’s very different as well from President Bush, and he never told the voters that the Democrats now control Congress, despite polls indicating that a good many voters don’t even know that. He explained his support for the surge in Iraq, but he didn’t contrast it with Obama’s call for a complete withdrawal by March 2008. I don’t think tonight was the night to attack Obama, but it was the night to contrast McCain’s positions and record on the issues with Obama’s. He missed that opportunity, and may regret it.

But as the saying goes, you disserve the reader when you review a book or movie you didn’t see rather than the one that is actually in front of you. McCain’s speech tonight, on its own terms, was OK, if rather long and not all that exciting. This was old-style pre-1960s patriotism, and elevating himself above partisanship as McCain so loves to do. I did really like his explanation that hyper-partisanship (which I, of course, don’t disdain the way McCain does) isn’t the problem but a symptom of a self-interested political class.He didn’t have a fancy stage, but spoke in the midst of the crowd, in a setting more like the townhall meetings he prefers. That undoubtedly gave the Secret Service ulcers, especially when the rude and classless Code Pink protestors repeatedly interrupted his opening. Conservatives do not do this to liberal politicians; nobody interrupted Barack Obama. But dealing with people with no manners, no maturity and no decency is the cross borne by Republicans. Hopefully the audience at home gave McCain a break for the choppy intro, recognizing what vile people these are. We already learned that the folks who rushed the stage last night included a major Obama fundraiser. Charming. Fortunately, McCain handles hecklers well, and has long experience with them.

If last night had gone badly, McCain’s section paying tribute to Gov. Palin might have seemed like propping her up, but at this point, it felt more like he was trying to get in on some of the crowd’s unconditional enthusiasm for her. It may have gained him his biggest applause lines until his big finish.

I was pleasantly surprised that McCain dedicated so much of his speech to school choice and charter schools. (On the other hand, we heard nothing about entitlement reform).

McCain also played the experience card without being overtly obvious about it, simply laying out the foreign challenges and explaining that his years in the business enable him to understand how the world works. We could have used some contrast with Obama’s ideas there, but so be it. He did pay tribute to the enduring accomplishment of the Bush Administration, the prevention of any real followup attacks after September 11.

Finally, McCain may not have given a great speech, but he ended spectacularly. Judging by their Denver Convention, the Democrats do not know how to end speeches anymore, not the way Teddy Kennedy did in 1980; Obama’s strongest section was the homage to Martin Luther King, but he kept on going after that, and a week later I cannot for the life of me remember how his speech ended. Bill and Hillary’s speeches each rambled on for several minutes after what should have been their endings. McCain’s closing, after recounting the lessons he’d learned in Vietnam (and contrasting himself with Obama’s self-absorption and self-aggrandizement for a life of decidedly mediocre attainments) was tremendous, and positively Churchillian, stressing the single thing about McCain that Republicans like the most, even for all his bipartisanship and his apostasies from conservative orthodoxy – he’s a fighter. It may not read all that well on the page, but after the long hushed recitation of McCain’s POW years, it stirred the crowd to its feet:

I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your president. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank him, that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on Earth. And with hard work – with hard word, strong faith, and a little courage, great things are always within our reach.Fight with me. Fight with me.Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.Fight for our children’s future. Fight for justice and opportunity for all.Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.Stand up, stand up, stand up, and fight.Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up.We never quit.We never hide from history. We make history.

I loved the fiesty delivery of the closing, how McCain stayed in his rhythm and did not stop for the applause but shouted over it, letting the roar in the hall build and break again and again. It’s how you close a speech.

Time will tell if McCain made a good impression – he certainly didn’t seem old or tired or crabby, and it takes little effort for him to seem presidential, but he did try the audience’s patience. If they stayed for the ending, they got to see the sizzle after eating the steak.