By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-5-08
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com
Sarah Palin’s rhetorical tour de force on Wednesday night energized the once-listless Republican convention – and may have spurred John McCain to give one of the best speeches of his life as well. McCain is not a natural. Unlike his Democratic rival, McCain is far better in informal back-and-forths with voters than with grand addresses in large settings. But it was clear that McCain felt vindicated by Palin’s success – after a week of naysaying that questioned his judgment along with her suitability – and pretty jazzed too. McCain also feels vindicated by his call for the surge against Iraq and his decades of fighting corruption, and based his appeal on his record not just of serving, but of being right and righteous.
While much of his acceptance speech was unexceptional, neither as soaring as Obama’s nor as fun as Pallin’s, McCain ended with a rousing call to Americans to fight for what’s right. Starting with a powerful recounting of his experiences as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam, saying that he learned from the traumas he endured to live for his country not just for himself, McCain called on his fellow Americans to learn the same lesson. Culminating with a patriotic haiku shouted above the cheers of his fellow Republicans, McCain cried: “Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.” Using the kind of rhetoric that usually sets foreign teeth on edge but Americans love, McCain ended saying: “We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.”
McCain’s speech, though less entertaining and memorable than Palin’s, offered an important balance to his running mate’s rhetoric. Underneath all Palin’s charm was an ugly, divisive call for Republicans to revive the Culture Wars of the last few decades. Her us versus them message, though gift-wrapped beautifully, may help Republicans win in 2008 but is not what America needs. Politically, it helped compensate for George W. Bush’s historic lows in the polls, and the perception that Republicans have no fresh solutions to the problems that have appeared on their watch. But it was the equivalent of the lawyer with a guilty client pounding the table passionately to compensate for the weakness of his case.
McCain’s speech reinforced the message that Republicans are patriots who serve, especially in the military, and Democrats are doubters who dodge. But McCain also elegantly saluted Barack Obama and the Democrats as “fellow Americans,” saying: “that’s an association that means more to me than any other.” McCain also called for an end to the “partisan rancor” that characterizes so much of contemporary politics. He used his running mate to emphasize his maverick status as a Washington outsider – and as someone not responsible for the Bush administration’s failures.
The election remains too close to call and will inevitably be fought passionately, and at times, viciously. But perhaps, just this once, Americans can be proud that they have such talented people vying to be their leaders. Perhaps, just this once, we can follow John McCain’s cue, and appreciate the common ideals that unite these leaders and their fellow citizens, even amid the hurly burly and hoopla of a presidential campaign.