By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
LISTENING to John McCain’s acceptance speech Thursday night was like surfing. That is, it was like surfing if you’re me:
Paddle, paddle, here comes the wave, can I catch it, paddle, paddle, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, can I get on my feet, yes I’m getting up, I can’t believe it I’m standing, I’m doing this, can I straighten up, yes this is it, whoa, whoa, yow, WIPEOUT, long fall forward, interminable period way under water, scraping on coral, pop back up, swim to board, paddle, paddle, paddle….
I haven’t surfed since 1971, because that’s the last time I was in Hawaii, therefore the last time I saw a wave worth the effort. A long wait. But I’ve waited my whole life for someone to give the speech Sen. McCain set out to give Thursday night. And, in stretches that practically made my heart stop — stretches where I thought, he’s going for broke, standing up, can he ride it all the way? — he actually gave it.
Earlier in the week, I had thought I’d have to settle for Joe Lieberman’s paean to post-partisanship, the best bits of which went over like a lead butterfly with that partisan crowd. Most of the week was just like the week before in Denver, the usual party pooge. Sarah Palin did a great job for a rookie her first time at bat, but hers was the usual veep role — take down the opposition.
But in the hours leading up to the McCain speech, the word went out that he was going to try the thing that had not been tried before: to accept a major party’s nomination while simultaneously rejecting and opposing all the vicious nonsense that parties have stood for over the past 16 years. Just minutes before he started, I read on The New York Times Web site: “McCain Plans to Speak of Dedication to Bipartisanship.” He was going to try the thing that I had hoped Barack Obama would try the week before — but which, except for a few encouraging passages, he passed on, delivering a pretty standard crowd-pleasing acceptance in Denver.
McCain was better positioned to attempt the unprecedented. Poor Obama had to please all those Clintonistas who hadn’t wanted him. McCain had greatly appeased those in his party who least wanted him with his choice of Gov. Palin, which freed him to reach out over the heads of the convention delegates to the rest of America.
And for the first 26 minutes and 44 seconds, he delivered a speech that was all that I’d hoped for. “I don’t work for a party,” he said, and you knew he meant it.
Then, just when you thought he had decided to give a speech that told all partisans where to get off, wipeout, he’d spend several moments underwater. But then he’d climb back up and gamely start paddling again.
There were so many indelible impressions to be gained from that speech, but here are some of the highs and lows for me:
- He mentioned, as so many had before him (to the point of monotony), his reputation as a “maverick,” saying “Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment; sometimes it’s not.” That was a mild way to describe the central ironic tension of the moment. That hall was filled with people who had long despised him for going his own way, and now he was their nominee, and what could they do but grin and bear it?
- The passage about education was just embarrassing, a wipeout of stupendous proportions. In almost the same breath, he promised the ideologues who hate public schools their “choice” and then implied he’d improve public schools by renewing the teacher corps — attracting and rewarding the best, running off the worst. Let me give you two clues, John: First, the American taxpayer will never foot the bill for both turning around failing public schools and paying people to leave them; it’s one or the other. Second, Ronald Reagan had it right — the federal government has no business trying to run our schools.
- “Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, and that’s an association that means more to me than any other.” No one could doubt that this man truly believed that. He has lived it.
- “His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages, and force families into a government-run health care system where a bureaucrat… stands between you and your doctor.” Oh, spare me. The one thing wrong with what Obama wants to do on health care is that he doesn’t have the guts to say, “single-payer” — and nothing short of that will solve the problem. At about this point, I started thinking how Obama and McCain are a complementary pair: One can sound dangerously naive on foreign affairs, the other on domestic.
- The very best part was the part that could have gone very bad: talking about his own heroism. He made it a parable of why radical individualism is a dead end. “I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent….” But God sent him misfortune as a gift. “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.” And that’s when he truly learned to love his country.
- At other points he vacillated between the self-centered ideology that Obama has decried as “you’re on your own,” and assurances that he’d make “government start working for you again,” even extending New Dealish assistance to those workers displaced in the shifting global economy.
On the whole a noble effort, but the occasional dunkings in waves of cold ideology left me worn out. I’m so glad these conventions are over. Maybe once they escape the suffocating embraces of their respective parties, both Obama and McCain can better remind me of why I wanted them to win those nominations to start with.
McCain made a good start on that Thursday.
Go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.