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:
“While this war has many components, we can’t make victory on the battlefield harder to achieve so that our diplomacy is easier to conduct. That is not just an expression of our strength. It’s a measure of our wisdom. That’s why I commend to my country the reelection of President Bush, and the steady, experienced, public-spirited man who serves as our vice president, Dick Cheney.”
I commend the reelection? Were we in the House of Lords? This was not a kick-ass call for Americans to swing behind the commander-in-chief. The crowd did respond with shouts of “four more years.” But the delegates were not entranced by McCain’s can’t-we-get-along plea. What popped their cork, though, was a swipe McCain took at filmmaker Michael Moore (who was in the hall, as an accredited columnist for USA Today). Defending the war in Iraq, McCain said,
“Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and graver threat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our critics abroad. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who–“
Now the delegates went wild. It was the first signs of life in the audience. When the jeers died down, McCain continued:
“–who would have us believe Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves, and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children held inside their walls.”
McCain, a war hero, fretting over Michael Moore? He was only elevating Moore’s status. It was red meat, but McCain looked smaller for hurling it to the delegates. He then returned to his pitch for unity:
“We have nothing to fear from each other. We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom, and promote the general welfare. But it should remain an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause, and in the goodness of each other. We are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always….We’re Americans, and we’ll never surrender.”
McCain then left the stage in what seemed record-time. He had failed to sway the crowd, for soon after the delegates were roaring with delight when Rudy Giuliani spoke and sarcastically derided John Kerry for being a flip-flopper. This was an all-out attack on Kerry’s sincerity. Giuliani, like McCain, voiced a yearning for the good ol’ post-9/11 days when Americans came together, when Chicago cops traveled to New York to help out, when a fan at a Red Sox-Yankees game held up a sign that proclaimed, “Boston Loves New York,” when Republicans stood hand in hand with Democrats. But Giuliani gleefully bashed Kerry as a man without principles. That’s not the way to foment unity. (How Republicans can assail Kerry for being a knee-jerk liberal and, at the same time, accuse him of being nothing but a finger-in-the-wind, ever-shifting pol remains an impressive acrobatic feat.)
Guess who went over better with the Repubs? Though Giuliani speech was much too long–delegates started streaming out before it was done–the GOPers cheered him on much more than McCain. It appears the Republicans enjoy calls for unity when the are coupled with in-your-face attacks. (Which probably could be said of Democratic partisans as well.) McCain was upstaged by Guiliani. His speech–skipped by the broadcast networks–barely registered. Yet the Bush campaign has gotten what it wanted: McCain’s submission. He has become a prop of the Bush campaign. Given McCain’s genuine streak of independence–on campaign reform, on global warming, on tax cuts–that is a sad development. But that’s the price this good soldier pays for being a Republican.
Read about my adventures in partying with conservatives by clicking here. And see my report on the problem shared by gay GOPers and fundamentalist Republicans.
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