Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Old John McCain and A Young Republican Party

Steve Thomas, in the comment section below my earlier post on Rove’s advice for McCain, nailed it:

I just listened to McCain’s speech. McCain’s own telling of his story was different from the telling by his surrogates. It was a story of his passion, so to speak: he told us not about his heroism but about his shame. "They broke me." He was ashamed, he told us, and recovered his, well, self through the help and love of his buddies. The crowd seemed to think he was contrasting himself with Obama. He was rather contrasting himself with the vain, arrogant, self-centered [expletive deleted] named McCain who took off earlier that day from the aircraft carrier. I, an Obama supporter, would have to be morally dead or a partisan goon not to be moved.
I got on the blog late tonight, after getting the kids off to bed and checking homework, with the intention of composing a post about exactly that part of McCain’s speech. I meant to do it because, in watching him tonight, I really tried to find some clue about how John McCain really understands himself and what it is he is trying to do--in other words, I wanted to know why he wants to be president apart from the obvious ambition that all politicians possess. The answer he gave us--even if you still don’t like him for it--is an interesting one and one that is, whatever else you may say about it, a much better answer than the one Barack Obama gave that seven year-old some weeks ago.

If you look at his words carefully in that passage where he talks about his youthful arrogance and the eventual "shame" it brought him and you take those words as this whole convention’s central and organizing theme (as I think he clearly meant them to be) you may learn something about John McCain that you might have missed up until now. I think, perhaps, I did. Is it possible that there are a good number of things that many of us have "misunderestimated" when it comes to John McCain? Do we really understand him as he understands himself or do we understand a cartoon that we have painted in our minds because he has "poked us in the eye" one too many times? Forget policy differences (if you can) for just a minute. God willing, we’ll have eight years to "yell at each other" over those. I freely admit that I didn’t like everything about the speech . . . and I could start ticking off a list of things I positively disliked if I wanted to miss the larger point.

Richard Adams had this insight on McCain’s speech and I think there’s also something to it:

After Governor Palin’s speech last night, perhaps McCain thought his task was to play elder statesman. Perhaps the inartful delivery helps a bit with that. The goal was to portray him as someone who might be a bit bored by the bells and whistles of politics, but who is mature, seasoned, experienced, and sober. Will it work? McCain seems to have better political judgment than many think.

To repeat myself from earlier today, I think this may speak to why John McCain chose the much younger and much more interesting and fresh Mrs. Palin to be his running mate and it also answers Peter Lawler’s concern about McCain "looking old." Don’t fret, Peter. McCain did look old, but he looked old in a good and refreshingly unashamed way--not in that craggy, old, grumpy fuddy-duddy way. He looked grandfatherly, patient (yes, there’s some strain in that I think) and wise. Moreover, he looked blessedly loving--not only of America but also of Americans. Perhaps too much so, in places, yes. But, again, I don’t want to miss the larger point. In admitting his own youthful arrogance and explaining the lessons he learned from being taken down more than a few pegs, perhaps he’s sending an indirect (or maybe not so indirect) invitation to us to question our own sometimes too youthful impatience with American politics and, really, all of life in general. McCain could not get through his time in that cell or that hell without the help of his fellow Americans committed to his and their mutual interests and happiness. I’m sure they didn’t always agree about what those interests were or about what might help in their pursuit of happiness. Still, he had to learn to work with them and, in that, he came to learn that he should want to work for them every bit as much as he was pleased to work for himself. There is necessity and there is duty in this life. A generation of American politics worked very hard to confuse the two, separate them, and turn them in against each other so that nothing might be considered higher than the demands of one’s own heart. That generation is not represented on this ticket . . . and, interestingly, it’s not represented on the Democrat’s ticket either. But the ideas of that generation still have a pretty strident advocate in Barack Obama.

When you think about it, it looks like the Democrats still think the old have something more to learn from the young than the young have to learn from the old. Reason tells us that both old and young have something to learn from each other and this is why the dynamic of mentor and student is so compelling to both. But common sense tells us that the young can and should learn more in such relationships because they lack experience and, in with that, enough patience to inform their judgment.

McCain told us how he came to love America and Americans at least as much as he once loved himself and, arguably, deeper and more intelligently than he ever loved himself. There is something more than glory and honor worth fighting for--and possibly dying for--in America. He tried, in his way, to teach us that important lesson. His way may have been imperfect . . . but it was still a damn sight better than anything I’ve seen the last four GOP candidates offer . . . ever, on that score.

So, if you want to make the case that McCain’s wasn’t a "Republican" speech . . . I think there’s something to that on a couple levels. It was, of course, much more than a Republican speech because it was meant to be an American speech--at least as John McCain understands it. It meant to appeal to all Americans (and Steve’s words are a testament that perhaps it did) and, in this election year, a smart Republican will see this less as a "poke in the eye" than a boon to his cause. (There were more than a few serendipitous blessings in disguise at this convention, I must say!) But it also was dissimilar from every Republican speech I have heard since I’ve been politically sentient (so, roughly, 1988 on) in that it make a conscious appeal to young people. And, irony of ironies (or, perhaps, not), it came from an old man accompanied, supported and very well understood by a tough (and, not insignificantly, attractive) young woman. And I, for one, loved the way he ended the speech with a cheer encouraging us to "fight with me" (even though that can--and probably will--be taken two ways). It wasn’t over the top, as some who seem to lack any eros to accompany their thumos, have speculated. Somehow, it fit. Republicans have long been in need of good cheer and a good cheerleader. Who knew that it would take John McCain to provide both?

Discussions - 6 Comments

julie, well you've made him old and beautiful. but i doubt, really doubt, that he succeeded in making the erotic connection with the young. i do agree, now that you've shown me, that it was a conscious effort to balance THUMOS with EROS. it was not an angry speech, and that's a good thing. still, as i say below, i managed to dose off a couple of times, which might reflect my eros in natural decline. there was nothing grandfatherly, though.

McCain started with a "Republican" speech. Then he explained himself and his transformation through suffering and shame into someone who MUST be beyond party politics. His transformative experience was his inspiration and excuse to be a "maverick", (which descriptive term he obviously likes very much) and to speak beyond party constraints. Unfortunately, by stressing non-partisanship and the need to work together across and above party lines, he undercut all of the substance of the first part of his speech where he spoke about his principles and policy. Which left me wondering what we would all be fighting for.

In the beginning of his speech, we and he were right on those issues, but in the second half of his speech, it didn't matter if we were right or not, working together was the key. Implicit in that is compromise of what is right and good in favor of consensus. We can ignore what is right and good so we will all get along.

So I see the speech in three parts and the third part negates the first part, leaving me with only happy with the middle, which led me to the third, which I am choking on.


I saw that he moved the crowd, but for me it was like watching the excitement of the audience at a sports event. I saw it, remember the feeling, and yet am not part of the event, but merely an observer. Sarah Palin pulled me right through the TV screen. I was part of her excited crowd, right there with her.

So, in the campaign to come, is he going to have Sarah speak to conservative Republicans and be the partisan, while he speaks to the independents and Democrats? I suppose if that is the calculation, it might work. If he is successful in his image building, she is going to take a pounding from all but the right and look an alien in McCain's own campaign. I hope that is all image and not really the case, though in politics, what is image seems to often actually be the case.

Which would mean something of a war with the party during an election. I hope it is a phony war, although that phoniness could become a weapon, couldn't it?

I mean this in the best possible humor, Peter . . . if you had felt the "grandfatherly" aspect of McCain's speech, the speech would have been both weird and ineffective. If you, like the young crowd he sought to inspire with that cheer at the end, had maintained the kind of wakeful "eros" he winked at (even literally on at least two occasions) you would be both weird and ineffective. And I think you're the kind of guy who makes some pretty effective arguments. (It should go without saying that all of us who follow politics this carefully are--if only a bit in your case, Peter--weird.)

Always an interesting read.

Did I see a removed post? I did I did I did see my post removed! ;)


Really, did not intend to offend if I did. Just mention if what I said that was inappropriate so I can refrain from it in the future...

I missed it, Christopher, so I can't be offended. Sometimes these things disappear into the ether if you're not very, very careful about making sure that you click onto "add" after you proof-read in the "next." I've done this dozens of times and, probably, it's been a good thing on occasion!

Just try again.

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