3 sep. 2008

McCain’s September surprise?


It was “something close to magnificent.”
It was the “best speech by far of the convention,” one that built to a “throat-catching climax.”
It “brought the convention crowd to its feet.”

The gushing reviews could easily have been bestowed upon silver-tongued orators such as Ronald Reagan in 1976, Edward M. Kennedy in ’80, Mario Cuomo in ’84 or Barack Obama in ’04. But these are actually accounts of past convention speeches by a speaker more plodding than gifted: John McCain. When he takes the stage again Thursday to accept the Republican nomination, McCain will be resigned to a potentially unflattering contrast with his rival’s electric performance last week in Denver before 80,000 people. But the Arizona senator’s own track record of delivering boffo convention speeches suggests that nervous Republicans with painful memories of droning deliveries, squinty-eyed glances at teleprompters and hideous green backdrops may not need to be quite so jittery. For weeks, McCain aides have been furiously lowering expectations for his convention speech, painting a portrait of a charisma-averse candidate with all the sizzle of a small-town Rotarian. “McCain is not best on the physicality of speech-giving,” said longtime aide and principal wordsmith Mark Salter. “I’ve got a guy with, for better or for worse, two broken shoulders and a broken leg — he’s a little stiff, ya know,” he said of McCain’s Vietnam War injuries, punctuating his reminder with a wry chuckle.
A look at McCain’s convention history, however, suggests that such doleful expectation setting may be just that — and that his campaign isn’t quite as upset about being compared to Obama’s Invesco Field spectacular as you might think.
McCain’s unexpected choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate has also brought a new energy to delegates gathered here, giving McCain a real opportunity to connect with the emotion and passion of the GOP base.
Through the years, McCain has embraced the varied styles of convention oratory, turning in performances that ranged in tone from attack dog to inspirational warrior-poet to defiant leader. In 1988, he gleefully joined the GOP chorus that was savaging Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for being clueless when it came to national defense. Dukakis, McCain thundered, “seems to believe that the Trident is a chewing gum, that the B-1 is a vitamin pill and the Midgetman is anyone shorter than he is.”
The then-Massachusetts governor’s veto of a pledge of allegiance law was “outrageous,” McCain declared. But, in a speech that led him to be deemed one of the convention’s “winners” by the Associated Press, McCain also won a standing ovation in New Orleans by recounting his 5½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Similarly, McCain’s 1996 convention speech nominating Bob Dole ultimately did more to boost McCain than to boost Dole. A moving tribute to the World War II veteran’s era of sacrifice delivered with only a few days’ notice, the speech connected the Vietnam generation to that of Dole’s generation with the symbolic reminder that the Kansas senator had worn McCain’s name on a POW bracelet while McCain was imprisoned in Hanoi.
And in 2004, McCain electrified the audience at New York’s Madison Square Garden by denouncing “disingenuous filmmaker” Michael Moore while the creator of “Fahrenheit 9/11” was, unbeknownst to McCain, sitting in the gallery in his role as a guest columnist for USA Today.
McCain’s rising crescendo of a close — “We’re Americans. We’ll never surrender. They will” — was so powerful that his campaign has made it a staple of its videos and ads this year.
This time, though, McCain’s speech must cross a much higher threshold. It’s his convention this time, so he’ll have to incorporate the best elements of his past performances, balancing inspiration, attacks and statesmanship. And his speech will also be judged against the dazzling star turn that Obama took in Denver last week. The Illinois senator self-consciously downplayed his usual rhetorical flourishes in a speech that was closer to a State of the Union address than a barnburner. McCain aides want to avoid the comparison in terms of style and pizazz. But they recognize that the two speeches will inevitably be matched against one another and are eager for the guts of McCain’s message — and his vision for governing — to be contrasted with Obama’s.
Both candidates, said Salter, who is tasked with crafting McCain’s speech, are making “the same central claim: We’re going to change Washington, do things differently and get to work on our country’s problems for a change.” “Whoever wins that argument ultimately probably wins this thing,” Salter contended in a recent interview in his tiny, no-frills office at the campaign’s Arlington, Va., headquarters.
Where the difference comes in — and what McCain is likely to at least hint at in his speech — is in the experience of saying vs. doing. “McCain has had a voluminous record of not just crossing the aisle … but [doing so] on big issues where your party leadership did not want you to or was not happy with your effort to do it,” Salter noted. “McCain has a very long record and the scars to prove it. Obama has nothing.” But what Obama does have are the sort of oratorical chops that could make even McCain’s best performance pale in comparison.
Asked how to compete with Obama on that score, Salter, happy to drop the bar, said with a sigh: “We don’t try.” “They’re two different guys,” he continued, mixing lowered expectations with a weary recognition of the Democrat’s skills. “Obama’s a studied and extremely talented orator. Everybody’s aware of that. … He’s blessed with a near-baritone voice, but his physicality, his movements — it’s very fluid.” But, he added with another laugh, “you might have noticed in our campaign, we are making the argument that that doesn’t qualify you for the presidency.” The goal, therefore, is to not overreach and wind up even more diminished. “I want McCain to be who McCain is.”
If it were the candidate’s choice, that may mean turning the moment into a New Hampshire town hall meeting on steroids, with McCain striding around the Xcel Energy Center stage with a wireless mic in his hand and nary a teleprompter in sight.
But Salter assured that McCain will read from a teleprompter. First, though, “he’ll practice dozens and dozens of times,” Salter said, recalling that before McCain gave his speech to the 2004 convention he practiced with the prompter 15 to 20 times. He likely won’t memorize the speech, but he will have it down to the point where the cadences come naturally. And his language will be plain, even spare, said Salter, who offered a few clues about the rhythm.
Reminded that McCain used a series of two- or three-word commands — “Stay strong. Do not yield. Do not flinch” — to deliver a powerful finish in his 2004 convention speech, Salter suggests such a refrain may be used again. “It’s not his style to do the couplets followed by applause,” he said. “The peroration has to be very simple and direct.”
Without prompting, Salter recalled another such punchy exhortation. In 1993, well before he entered the national spotlight, McCain was asked to give the commencement address at the Naval Academy. “It was a big honor for him,” Salter recalled. “His father had done it, and he really wanted it to be good.” At the end were the same short sentences — “I know you will” — designed to motivate the newly commissioned officers in the Navy and the Marines. “It was very effective for him,” Salter said.
As for the actual content, Salter would not reveal any details but hinted McCain could lay out his vision for how he could fix the broken political process. “You keep it simple: ‘This is what I want to do; this is what I think we need to do,’” he said. “Then you talk and get passionate about a lack of willingness in this town to take these things seriously. ‘Election after election, political class after political class, they all go to Washington, and the place never changes.’ It’s all about being reelected, or becoming a committee chairman, or whatever — and none of this [stuff] gets done.” Important issues aren’t being addressed by a rickety, Cold War-era government because of politically driven inertia, Salter said. “‘Here’s what I’m for; here’s why I’m for it; here’s what I think it will do,’” Salter suggested as a potential theme. “Now why can’t we do it? Because there is no commitment on either side to getting anything done except beating each other in the next election.”
While acknowledging that McCain must “convey statesmanship,” Salter made clear there will be room for highlighting differences. “You also want to convey and we always want to convey that [McCain’s] got life experiences, military experiences, political experiences that are vastly greater than Barack Obama’s and have prepared him to be president in challenging times.”
And, ultimately, the final pitch is not unlike the one Hillary Rodham Clinton offered during the Democratic primary: With McCain, you can have the appealing elements of Obama (change agent) but skip the more worrisome parts (inexperience). It’s the best of both worlds.
Or, as Salter put it: “If you’re a little concerned about the experience factor, here’s your guy — he’s been a changer all his time here.”