Tuned In

John McCain Shows Us His Scars

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The most seemingly comfortable section of John McCain’s acceptance speech was his talking about his own torture. Never known as a wizard with the teleprompter, McCain grew most at ease toward the end of his speech, talking about his journey from wayward youth to prisoner of war to candidate. In perhaps his most memorable line, he joined his story of sacrifice in Hanoi (repeating many highlights of the bio video that played before he took the stage) to his claims of having worked for reform in Washington, as well as to a dig at Obama as a tyro who hasn’t earned his stripes yet: “I have that record, and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not.”

In a way, scars are the message and the promise of the McCain campaign, both politicially and as stagecraft, intentionally and inadvertently. Where Obama’s motto is “no drama,” McCain’s campaign has lived (and at one point nearly died) by drama. Where Obama brought the genial rollout of Joe Biden, McCain gave us the Palin rollercoaster. Where Obama sells himself on cerebral decision making, McCain prides himself on his gut. Visually and thematically, the Obama campaign suggests: we will bring you change, but offer you a smooth controlled ride. McCain’s has suggested—as an aide said when the news of Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy broke out—that “life happens,” the approach to the campaign implying that you may hit some turbulence but that you can trust McCain to pull it out in the end.

One message is not inherently better than the other, and voters will have to sort out the alternatives. But they were reinforced in the two candidates’ acceptance speeches. Obama’s was smoothly managed, dramatically framed and, as his audience has come to expect, proficiently delivered. (To disclose again: I voted for Obama in the primaries this year, and for McCain back in 2000; take that for what it’s worth.) And McCain’s—well, McCain’s was a bit more of a bumpy ride.

Part of that, certainly, was beyond the candidate’s control. He was interrupted several times by anti-war protesters, from Iraq Veterans Against the War to Code Pink. At one point McCain played off a heckler nicely, ad-libbing: “Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, OK?” Other times, he seemed to be momentarily thrown off his stride. The jarring intrusions could play different ways: they could make his opponents seem unreasonable and uncivil, or his supporters’ response could make his backers seem angry and beset (as when one ripped away a sign from a protester and threw it to the ground on camera, or when McCain would be interrupted by seeming boos and “USA!” chants until it became clear the crowd was shouting down a protester). Either way, the incidents reminded the audience that we’re still dealing with the war’s civil costs, as well as its costs in blood and treasure.

The visuals of some of McCain’s speeches have been a problem in the past, and this convention seemed to learn from some while inexplicably repeating others. After Obama cinched the nomination in June, McCain countered his speech with one delivered in front of a lurid green screen, which made him look pale and sick and which Stephen Colbert mined for a “McCain green screen challenge,” having viewers replace the green with their own backgrounds.

This time, the Republicans gave him (and the other speakers) the backdrop of a huge video wall, playing images of Americana—waving flags, fields of corn. Shot from middle and long distances, it made for a striking frame, better than the pseudo White House Obama spoke in front of. But when the candidate was shot tight, it made for unfortunate effects that someone in the campaign should have noticed in the run-throughs: when McCain was framed by a shot of a building and grass, he was surrounded for several minutes by that same sickly, alien green. (That particular picture, by the way—of a big unidentified building and a rolling lawn, was perhaps not the best visual for a candidate still recovering from a “seven houses” gaffe.) Someone eventually changed the backdrop to a billowing flag against a blue sky, which was gorgeous in long shot, but still left McCain bathed in a too-bright blue in close-up.

(I know this sounds shallow. The reason it matters will sound even shallower: McCain is a 72-year-old man who is a halting speaker to begin with, and fairly or not, he cannot afford visuals that make him look anything less than completely hale. You may not like it, but that’s politics.)

As for the speech itself: McCain is notoriously uncomfortable reading from a prompter, and last night was no exception. The speech was well-written, lyrical at times, on the page; but he delivered it with misplaced emphases, fit and starts and an out-of-place Cheshire grin at the end of what should have been emotional kickers. (“And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.”)

Again, this is nothing new for McCain, the campaign knows it, and its best and clear strategy is simply to make it part of the package: I’m not a slick politician, I don’t deliver grand oratory, take me as I am, flaws, scars and all. And that presentation fit, in a way, with the content and strategy of the speech, which strategically acknowledged flaws: his own (he cited his impetuousness and people-skill problems, by way of making himself a maverick) and his party’s (he said some Republicans had lost their way in power, by way of offering his own Republicanism the answer). He offered some policy suggestions and promises of reform, though nothing too overly specific; the main thrust of the center of his speech was to show his, and more important, Washington’s scars.

Still, his delivery of the policy and governance part of his speech was mixed: sometimes passionate, sometimes unfocused. He got most involved at the end, where he talked about his experience as a POW—repeated many times earlier in the night by others—longer and in more detail than he generally has in public. “They broke me,” he said plainly. It was emotionally moving; whether it was politically moving will depend on whether he got his audience to connect the idea that he had served and sacrificed in the past with the idea that he would make changes that they want to see in the future.

At the very least, though, McCain ended his party’s convention by offering a choice. Not just between liberalism and conservatism, change and experience or one kind of change and another, but between two different styles of personality and presentation. Kicking off the two-month general election, the Republican who has cited Teddy Roosevelt as a model made his case, appropriately enough, by way of a rough ride.