The world is your playground/And you want to win.
So sang the frontman for a little-known and unimpressive rock band named Dexter Freebish at the opening night of the GOP convention. Was he sending a subtle message? Nah, he looked much too happy providing a generic backbeat for delegates who moments earlier had cheered a film tribute to Gerald Ford (it was a short film). And conventions are not the place for subtle messages.
Ask John McCain. In 2000, he was the victim of one of the dirtiest assaults in modern politics. Bush-backers circulated vile rumors about the man, and the Bush campaign refused to condemn this hit job. George W. Bush campaigned with the leader of a marginal veterans outfit who falsely accused McCain of betraying veterans, and the Bush administration would later reward this scoundrel with a job. Yet McCain played the loyal soldier at the 2000 convention, where he delivered a weird and robotic speech in which he endorsed Bush and did little to promote the reform-minded message of his own campaign.
Four years later, McCain, the former Navy pilot and POW, again agreed to fly wing for the fellow who skipped out of his Air National Guard service. For weeks, McCain has been stumping with Bush (even while he has defended Kerry’s Vietnam record), and some have asked, why is he cheek-to-jowl with Bush? Not too long ago McCain seemed to entertain–if only for a moment–the notion of running as John Kerry’s second. And how could he not bear a grudge against Bush for 2000? When I asked a Republican strategist close to McCain why McCain finally took a seat on the Bush Express, he replied. “He’s a Republican.” Does he want to be veep, should Dick Cheney take a powder? “He’s a Republican,” I was told. Is he positioning himself for a run in 2008, when he will be 72 years old? “He’s a Republican.” Does he want to be Secretary of Defense after Bush throws Donald Rumsfeld overboard? “He’s a Republican.”
Hey, maybe the reason is that he’s a Republican. Washington is a binary culture. You either are a D or a R. And if you’re an R you are expected to answer the call when it comes. So there was McCain, the first prominent speaker of the 2004 Republican convention, and this much-ballyhooed gig ended a flop.
McCain may be BMOC in Washington. But he hardly received a hero’s welcome from the less-than-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden. (Reminder to McCain fans, myself included: McCain was rejected by his party in 2000.) When McCain took the stage, the big-screen television showed Cheney clapping rather unenthusiastically. And McCain’s speech did little to rouse the delegates.
Keeping with the skip-the-nuances M.O. of most conventions, McCain delivered a set of obvious nostrums, as he supported Bush’s prosecution of the so-called war on terrorism and defended the war in Iraq: right makes might, love is stronger than hate. His rhetoric hardly soared: “But we must fight. We must.” McCain issued a heartfelt call for reviving the national unity that appeared to exist in the days after the September 11 attacks: “We were not Democrats or Republican, liberal or conservative. We were not two countries. We’re Americans.” He noted that Democrats, like Republicans, are committed to winning the war against terrorism. “I don’t doubt their sincerity.” He praised Bush, though his actual endorsement had an odd ring: