John McCain helped restore his reputation for straight talk when he finally referred the GOP sin that dare not speak its name: "I am grateful to the president of the United States…" Of course, not even McCain could call the president by name: the only Bush mentioned by name was Laura.
McCain can be forgiven for holding a grudge against the incumbent president. The GOP’s numbers are in the tank largely because of the president’s unpopularity. McCain can’t really run as a Republican and expect to win. McCain was reaching out to unaffiliated voters last night, to independent swing voters, the people who say that they vote for the person and not for the party, and he did so by presenting his biography, not his platform.
John McCain is a hero. No doubt about that. Every time we watch the evident stiffness in his shoulders as he waves, we are reminded of what he suffered as a POW. That is the prism through which he wants us to view him, but it tells us next to nothing about the prism through which he views America and its problems. We all want to see peace and prosperity return. The question is: How?
John McCain again reverts to biography to paint the future and so he is a maverick as well as a hero. The word was repeated over and over again, like a mantra, last night. The maverick image was tied to the image of rugged, Western individualism by Cindy McCain in her speech when she suggested that there was nothing the American people can’t do for themselves "if only the federal government gets itself under control and out of our way." Okay, Ms. McCain. Writing from Washington, I want to get out of your way. Let’s start by closing down the federal government’s Central Arizona Project which brings water from the Colorado River to Phoenix. What? Phoenix (and Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, etc.) can’t survive without that water? The myth of western individualism versus the federal government is one of the most tired and easily exposed falsehoods in American history.
The video that introduced McCain repeated the maverick trope but, curiously, it did not mention a single piece of legislation. There were times when McCain was a legislative maverick. He teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to pass campaign finance reform, but mentioning that might have elicited boo’s from the GOP faithful. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, which was the mark of a maverick, but in order to win the nomination he had to change his position. McCain stood up against the right wing of his party to push for comprehensive immigration reform, but that earlier support would have also received boo’s in the convention hall and, like the tax cuts, McCain has backtracked from his original maverick stance. So, McCain was a maverick, but it is difficult to see how he is now.
Vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s speech the night before was effective in many ways but most especially in her frequent invocation of the simple pronoun "we." When she spoke about small town America, about families, about conservatives, she effectively included herself in the group. McCain, who like our Father in heaven has many mansions, was stuck talking in the second person when he addressed the issue on most people’s minds, the economy. "These are tough times for many of you. You’re worried about keeping your job or finding a new one, and you’re struggling to put food on the table and stay in your home." It lacked the emotive power of Palin’s speech entirely.
McCain did get emotional when he spoke about the former Soviet republic of Georgia and most especially when discussing Iraq. But, Iraq is a war that most Americans believe should never have been fought and which they want to end. That McCain’s most impassioned lines came on an issue where he is so clearly out of touch with the American people made him seem very out of touch. His passion to end earmarks may strike a better note with voters, but it will do next to nothing to balance the federal government’s budget and fix the economy.
For Catholics, there was the explicit call to create a "culture of life." But, the more important appeal to Catholics came from the prominence given to McCain adopted daughter, who Cindy McCain found in one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages. Mother Teresa is, with John Paul II, the most revered Catholic of recent memory and the picture of Cindy McCain talking with Mother Teresa lingered across the jumbotron screen.
Given the shameful way that George W. Bush defeated John McCain in 2000, you could not help feeling that a wrong had been righted as McCain accepted his party’s nomination. But, the John McCain of 2008 is a far cry from the John McCain of 2000. Then, he truly was a maverick. Today, saying it won’t make it so.
Michael Sean Winters