Friday, September 05, 2008

A Tale of Two Speeches

"It was the best of times, it was pretty good times."

I think that about covers the Dickensian response to the Palin and McCain speeches, in order.

Watching the wind-up to Sarah's speech, with Baptist minister Mike Huckabee and America's Mayor Rudy Giuliani doing the warm-up, I have to admit I was worried that the preliminary speakers might outshine Sarah Palin. I mean, both of those guys have given speeches many times before, in front of crowds that large or larger. Rudy was a keynote speaker at the RNC in 2004, both of them spent months on the campaign trail. There were more people at the RNC than Wasilla, Alaska has residents.

The pressure was on. The credibility of John McCain, his judgment, the fate of the campaign was on her. Around the nation, 40 million people were watching. What did Sarah Palin do, bloodied from press accounts that she's unready, she's a bad mom, she's a hick from Alaska? I think Robert Redford dramatized this best:

As another internet wag put it, "Deer in the headlights? More like a deer-in-the-crosshairs look."

Sharp suit. Flawless makeup. Brilliant smile. Cool as the other side of the pillow, she strode out onto the stage and lit the fuze on the biggest stick of dynamite under the predictions and assumptions of the "in-the-know" political crowd since a former B-movie actor and GE spokesperson took a rhetorical baseball bat to a former peanut farmer. She was warm when describing her family, ironic when describing the criticism of her service as mayor, scathing in denouncing the hypocrisy of "Bittergate" and funny with an ad-libbed line about hockey moms, pitbulls and lipstick, among other moments.

Despite teleprompter problems, she showed a rare gift with timing and pacing for her crowd. Thirty-six minutes later the speech was in the can. The house lights came up and the family came out, including the impossibly-cute Piper, who spit-styled her brother's hair to a nationwide, "Awwwwww...", and the gum-chewing future son-in-law. They played the theme from 'Rudy', but they should have been playing the theme from 'The Natural'.

Folks, this just became a ball-game.

She so far-exceeded the low expectations of her performance that Keith Olbermann, the living embodiment of the Peter Principle in broadcast journalism, was reduced to spluttering, "People who like this sort of thing will find this ... the sort of thing they like."

They like her, Keith. They really like her. She definitely slammed the door on the "Eagleton option" an idea floated by Democratic operatives based on some querulousness on the part of some GOP talking heads. About the only people associated with the Vice-President who are having mental problems right now are the ones discounting her. Even Joe Biden is trying to lower expectations for the forthcoming VP debate (set your Tivos, it's October 2 at 8pm):

“I will be unrelenting in my debate with governor, the governor of Alaska in terms of the positions she has taken,” Biden said. “But I will not do what she is able to do so well, and many others–not bad. I am not good at the one-line zingers that go at, you know, that’s not my deal. So if that is going to be the measure of how these debates go, then I’m not going to do very well.”

Let's just say we'll all be watching, Joe.

Twenty-four hours after Sarah Palin became 'Sarah' to a sizable percentage of the electorate, John McCain took the stage. The lead-in to his speech was not as good, frankly. Cindy McCain has never made a speech in front of so many people, the video introducing her was excellent, she's clearly an admirable person but she as clearly is uncomfortable speaking in front of such a large group. The video of McCain's life was about the three-hundredth mention of his POW experience, but there was one more yet to go from the man himself.

Of course, there were two Code Pink activists and a Ron Paul supporter who had to interrupt the proceedings, and McCain, who is not a teleprompter kind of speaker, was knocked slightly off by the crowd drowning out the protesters with chants of "USA! USA! USA!", that didn't help in the beginning. Both his speech and Senator Obama's were State of the Union-type addresses with relatively boring laundry lists of policies and things they wanted to do. And McCain is not nearly the orator that Senator Obama is, so it seemed to drag even more.

I do think the differences were apparent for anyone predisposed to see them. McCain was openly asking for bipartisanship, he promised Democrats and Independents in his cabinet. He took virtually no shots at Obama personally, even went out of his way to remind a partisan crowd that we're all Americans. I'm glad to see that my request for an apology regarding past Republican excesses made it into the speech, it had to be there. Maybe it will affect someone, maybe it won't.

The major distinguishing characteristic was his humility. I spent a few hours when I was in college with a guy named Charlie Plumb, who was also a Naval Aviator and also a Vietnam-era POW. Charlie is an inspiring guy, which is part of the reason he's a successful motivational speaker. While I can't imagine how hard it must have been to be an American POW in Vietnam named 'Charlie', from meeting him I have tremendous respect for the resiliency and mental toughness of Vietnam-era POWs, of the privations they went through, their brotherhood, and their love for our country.

When McCain finally told his own story, his reflections on his experience and how it changed him, I have to tell you I was near tears. It was the best part of the speech, I think it was the best part of any speech so far this year, because it was real and authentic:

Long ago, something unusual happened to me that taught me the most valuable lesson of my life. I was blessed by misfortune. I mean that sincerely. I was blessed because I served in the company of heroes, and I witnessed a thousand acts of courage, compassion and love.

On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure; my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause more important than me.

Then I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and an angry crowd waiting to greet me. I was dumped in a dark cell, and left to die. I didn't feel so tough anymore. When they discovered my father was an admiral, they took me to a hospital. They couldn't set my bones properly, so they just slapped a cast on me. When I didn't get better, and was down to about a hundred pounds, they put me in a cell with two other Americans. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even feed myself. They did it for me. I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence. Those men saved my life.

I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our Code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn't in great shape, and I missed everything about America. But I turned it down.

A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I'd been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I'd been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.

When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn't know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. And then he told me to get back up and fight again for our country and for the men I had the honor to serve with. Because every day they fought for me.

I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's.

I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.

If Obama is the poetry of Langston Hughes, John McCain's speech is the simple declarative sentences of Hemingway, and no less emotional for their unadorned simplicity and humility.

And so the balloons came down and the fight is on. McCain likes that word, he used it often last night. The run-up was the launching of a national political career for Sarah Palin, called a "Hail Mary pass" by many in the media. As it turns out, Sarah Palin can catch the ball, even if her QB has a bum arm -- a pair of them, actually. Hail Mary passes sometimes work out.

This is going to be a long race and a close election. But it will be fun to watch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Darren. This article was beautifully written, and totally captured my thoughts as I watched and reflected on the speeches of the past two nights. John McCain has learned not to allow himself to be counted out. Open-minded people can't help but be affected by the sincere words sof a true American hero.