John McCain is clearly not a gifted rhetorician. His voice is high and reedy. Unlike Barack Obama, he could never make a living as an advertising announcer. Last night’s speech demonstrated that McCain is no Churchill either. Listening to John McCain is a lot like listening to the president of one’s local American Legion chapter deliver the annual Veteran’s Day address.
McCain’s speech was different from our standard political fare. It made no attempt at grandeur. It failed to compete for a place in the roll of great American political speeches. But it was unusual with respect to being obviously both entirely sincere and deeply personal.
The beginning section was particularly Rotarian, featuring a long series of expressions of gratitude toward, and affection for, his wife and other family members, including (remarkably) his 96-year-old mother. Maybe America is not so much in danger of being governed by Sarah Palin anytime soon, I reflected, noting McCain’s mother’s remarkable preservation.
From the personal tributes, McCain advanced remorselessly on to the inevitable platitudes and promises. To my displeasure, he demonstrated that he is dumb enough to subscribe to the nonsense about Anthropogenic climate change and conformist enough to offer to assume the responsibility of producing new energy technologies. The market seems to some of us to be already providing very ample cash incentives to anyone who can produce those.
Only in the final six minutes of so of McCain’s speech did he proceed beyond conventionalities and become genuinely moving. John McCain turned suddenly to address the subject of his experiences as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Rather than “reporting for duty,” as some have done, and trying to claim the presidency on the basis of his war-time heroism and service, McCain depicted his capture and subsequent ordeal as a personal conversion experience.
Before being captured, he described himself as proud and arrogant, eager to break rules and have fun, his focus of attention and admiration being John McCain. Injured and reduced to helplessness with two broken arms, and unable to feed himself, McCain described how two of his fellow prisoners did everything for him. One could hear both the shame of his own helplessness and his humble gratitude in his voice.
McCain described ultimately being broken and degraded by the Vietnamese communists by extreme and prolonged torture (and I don’t mean pouring water over saran wrap on his face), and being lifted from despair by the code of honor and brotherhood faithfully maintained through the worst adversity by his fellow prisoners.
It was McCain’s experience of the American character, of the operation of American values in the worst possible circumstance, the daily manifestations of courage, decency, and goodness, that made John McCain genuinely love his country, and yearn to serve it unselfishly, he told us. That experience made him into a new man.
“I won’t let you down.’ John McCain promised. And his deep sincerity was perfectly obvious. John McCain did not convince me that he was going to make the greatest political speeches, or that he was going to suddenly develop 50 more IQ points, become an intellectual, and adopt firm and reliable conservative principles, alas! But, he did convince me that he does mean to do his best, according to such lights as he possesses.
I wish those lights had a bit higher wattage, but I have no doubt his lights are better than Obama’s, his values and his experience are better than Obama’s, and Lord knows! his vice presidential choice is a lot better than Obama’s.