SEPTEMBER 5, 2008
Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that McCain wordsmith Mark Salter had been circulating drafts of last night's speech for eight weeks, meaning he’d been working on it for much longer. After hearing the final product, I can’t help thinking it suffered from all the writing and re-writing. This was a stitched-together mess—like a Hollywood blockbuster that sucks in dozens of screenwriters, becoming a little less coherent with each overhaul.
As in Hollywood, the speech felt like it had been rewritten from one focus group to the next. Salter’s signature style is a kind of brooding lyricism. But somewhere between McCain’s second pronouncement on the changing global economy and his plug for greater community college access, it became obvious that Salter wasn’t the creative force behind this performance. Instead of Salter-esque standbys like duty and valor, the reigning theme was “me too”--as though Team McCain was surprised when Obama spoke to Rust Belt voters last week and felt it had to match him. By the time every consultant worked in a shout-out to his favorite swing state, the speech was so un-Salter-like even McCain seemed unfamiliar with it.
McCain is hardly the most spell-binding orator on his best days. Last night he alternated between distant and sing-song-y. “And that's just what I intend to do: stand on your side and fight for your future,” he said at one point. I’ve rarely heard a politician invest the word “fight” with less emotion. Then, a few minutes later, he was practically maudlin. “Their lives should matter to the people they elect to office. They matter to me,” he assured a family from Michigan. McCain once played an over-the-hill crooner in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. When he recited those lines, I couldn’t get his old lounge lizard impression out of my head.
McCain did finally find his voice toward the end of the speech, with a stirring reflection on his Vietnam captivity (probably the lone Salter composition to see the light of day). As he has many times before, McCain recalled how the experience taught him to surrender his personal pride to something greater. But there was a spareness that made it more affecting than usual: “I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's.” Unfortunately for McCain, the passage came far too late in the night to be useful. McCain’s Vietnam testimonial should have framed the entire speech—motivating his interest in leadership and undergirding his policy vision. Instead it felt tacked on, little more than a nod to the speech-writing convention of ending on an eloquent note.
Even on its own terms the text was shockingly ineffective. If you’re going to write a mundane, tactically-minded speech, it should at least achieve your tactical objectives. In this case, the obvious goal was to woo independents, hence all the talk about non-partisanship and accountability. And yet there were frustratingly few examples of McCain’s achievements on these fronts. I counted only a single, four-sentence riff with specifics, and even that was light on details: “I've fought to get million dollar checks out of our elections,” McCain said. “I've fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes. I fought crooked deals in the Pentagon. I fought tobacco companies and trial lawyers, drug companies and union bosses.” Everything else was bland generalities.
Similarly, any appeal to independents would want to contrast McCain’s commander-in-chief bona fides with Barack Obama’s--easily his strongest selling point. And yet McCain left the national security comparison entirely implicit. “We face many threats in this dangerous world, but I'm not afraid of them,” he said. “I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better, and what it should not do.” When it came to national security, Obama was far tougher on McCain last week than McCain was in response.
Probably the most memorable moment of the speech occurred at the outset and had little to do with McCain himself. It came from a couple of protesters, who got in some licks before losing out to the “U-S-A!” chants that are all the rage at conventions these days. The back and forth seemed to knock McCain off stride, but in retrospect, at least it had the virtue of energizing the hall. The same can’t be said of McCain’s pedestrian prose. By the end of the night, the Republicans seemed like they’d come full circle: down with Obama, up with Palin, then down again with McCain. Or, in the vocabulary of conventions: Palin stepped on Obama’s bounce, then McCain stepped on Palin’s.