On Tuesday night, not long after Barack Obama defeated him for the presidency of the United States, Sen. John McCain made a concession speech from a stage outside the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, a speech that was startling in its humility, grace and wisdom.
“My friends, we have — we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.
“In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving,” said McCain (or an amazing simulation of him).
“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. …
“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”
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That crack about “an amazing simulation of him” a few paragraphs back isn’t just taking a shot. Almost as soon as McCain had uttered what must be one of the more moving political valedictories of recent times, the blogosphere, the punditburo and people in general asked the logical question? Who is this man? What have you done with John McCain? And if that’s really John McCain up there … where has this sense of fair play and principle and rhetorical even-handedness been for the last six months?
Irony of ironies: Even in the concession speech, there’s another layer to contend with, another John McCain that contradicts the ones we’ve come to know, or at least experience, for the last ten months.
It’s gotta be said: At campaign’s end John McCain was ill-served by a horde of advisers who miscalculated the national hunger for change, the power of the Internet and the intellectual command of a little known governor from Alaska whose fall from grace would parallel his own. He got bad advice from a campaign manager who said, apparently with a straight face, that this pivotal presidential election wasn’t really about issues, it was about personalities.
The candidate became known by the company he kept, too. People don’t like to be told they live in “a nation of whiners,” especially when the man who said it was serving as a lobbyist for an international banking and subprime mortgage corporation that had a hand in the mortgage meltdown. Even as he advised the McCain campaign on economic matters.
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But make no mistake, much of this fall had to do with John McCain himself. He was bullheaded and impetuous when the nation screamed for compromising and deliberate. He was tics and edges and sharp elbows when the country yearned for curves and poise and cool. He chastised those who invoked race and ethnicity in an already-heated campaign, even while he was either the wink-and-a-nod beneficiary of everything they did, or a passive participant in their character assassination of Barack Obama.
He was tirelessly focused on the peripheral when the country shouted for attention to the issues that matter. He admitted to knowing next to nothing about the economy when the economy was for voters the only thing that mattered. He was convinced the United States economy was fundamentally sound, when the people of the United States knew better. He couldn't remember how many homes he owned, something the people of America can't afford to forget.
There have been other such existential contradictions in the McCain persona for some time now. His hiring of a lobbyist to run his Senate office, even as he championed campaign finance reform that impugned lobbyists. His role in creating the Reform Institute, a nonprofit group promoting tighter campaign finance rules, followed by his resignation from the group after news reports found the group was getting the very unlimited corporate contributions he opposed.
And how could a man with such a supposed command of global affairs and national security, a senator well traveled abroad could be so wrong, so laughably out of touch about the world he’s traveled in? Voters through the primaries and into the general campaign discovered the McCain World Atlas 2008, a curious gazetteer in which Czechoslovakia still exists, Iraq and Pakistan share a common border, Shiites and Sunnis are interchangeable blocs of the Iraqi people, Somalia and Sudan have traded places (as well as Spain and all of Latin America), and Vladimir Putin is the president of Germany.
You’re forced to wonder if a President McCain sent planes to bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran, if they’d actually wind up dropping ordnance down smokestacks in Greenland.
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But John McCain finally failed to achieve the presidency because he wanted the prize more than he valued what the prize is worth. We are a nation whose natural inclination is to look forward, before moving forward. We don’t do reverse gear very well. We never have and we never will. That’s what the prize of the presidency reflects: our investment in the future, in the wide untapped Possible of this amazing, unpredictable nation. Not what advertises itself as the future in campaign literature.
We want the real thing. The iPod, not the phonograph.
In a splendid essay in The Huffington Post, written three weeks before the deal went down on Election Night, columnist Mike Barnicle nailed the outcome, even then:
“It is a sad story: a proud and independent man permits a handful of advisers to take his hard-earned reputation and alter it to such an extent that the original is now hard to recognize, nearly invisible behind a curtain of cynical ads and the preposterous pronouncements of a woman whose candidacy is an insult to intelligence. …
“Soon, the 'Straight Talk Express' will bank west and head for the Arizona desert and election eve. And John McCain will sit up front, staring out the window, exhausted, as the plane crosses the land he loves and the people -- millions of them -- he failed to connect with because while he was once indeed a prisoner of war, he has spent the last ten weeks letting himself become a prisoner of the past.”
Mercifully, campaigns end — the relentless examination of the candidate and his statements and jokes, practices and policies gives way to something else.
Vaya con Dios, John McCain, you old sidewinder you. For now, we’ve seen enough. There’s nothing to scrutinize anymore.
Image credit: McCain: The Huffington Post (immediate source). McCain world map: funnyordie.com