At times this week, the aftermath of Election 2008 has seemed like a bronze-medal round in the Olympics: having lost the gold, the Palin side and the McCain side of the Republican ticket has squared off in the media postmortems, each to assign the other the greater share of blame for the loss. Sarah Palin, who has a political future to think of, has aggressively defended herself in a blitz of interviews—with Greta Van Susteren and Matt Lauer, to be followed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Larry King today.
John McCain appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last night, but he declined to be drawn in to the blame game, despite an open invitation from Leno, who asked point-blank whether Palin hurt the ticket: ”If there’s one thing I think Americans don’t want,” he said, “it’s a sore loser.” Of course, McCain doesn’t have a future run to think about, so he has more incentive to stay above the fray. (Also, though pointing fingers at Palin may protect the reputation of campaign staffers who want to avoid blame for the loss, it doesn’t help much if you’re the guy who actually chose her.)
It may be left to McCain’s biographers to determine what he really thought of Palin, though reading between the lines, both candidates have been offering each other praise that’s been warm and faint at the same time. (He, “I’m so proud of her,” and she, “Bless his heart!”—as if they were talking about a talented child and a beloved grandpa, respectively.) And as long as we’re reading tea leaves, he did let slip a Neiman-Marcus joke.
But on the surface, McCain was all good humor and honor, much as he was in his exceptionally gracious, cathartic concession speech. He even declined to blame the media for his loss, even though it has to be annoying to be told—as Leno said to McCain—that you were facing “a historical movement,” as if it were your right and honorable place to lose an election for an office to which you genuinely believe you were better suited.
And yet McCain’s personal traits—self-deprecation, refusal to point fingers—do make him well-suited to the role of the honorable runner-up. Regardless of who was better equipped to be President, from a late-night-couch standpoint, McCain has proved exceptionally well equipped to be the guy who almost got to be President.