Land of the Giants

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

McCain: Dover, N.H., March 18

JOHN MCCAIN IS AT A THING CALLED A "HOUSE PARTY" making his stump speech. The stump is the central stairwell of the house, which is, to be precise, a mansion, a heroic place with exposed beams, a fireplace the size of your kitchen, and chairs so huge and heavy that if you sat in one you might get lost for a week. The walls of the central room are painted in a continuous equestrian mural. Through the Palladian windows, you can see an icy river surging toward the sea. It's all very dramatic. Life has been good to these particular Republicans.

"Thank you for welcoming all of us into this middle-income tract home," McCain begins. He gets the laugh.

For 20 minutes, he speaks without notes, tells a favorite joke (punch line: "It's just the O'Reilly twins getting drunk again"), and manages to pair a winning self-deprecation with a seriousness of purpose, culminating in his declaration that his entire life has prepared him to become president of the United States.

This is a classic, by-the-book New Hampshire house party, complete with attractive blond political spouse, scruffy journalists, cameras, boom mikes, a campaign bus parked outside by the horse barn, and a thick blanket of snow. It is the great virtue of New Hampshire that someone who wishes to be president must get down on the level of everyone else, or at least stand no higher than the stage of a town hall or the third step of a private home's staircase.

There has been speculation that McCain is too old to ascend to the presidency; up close, you can make that judgment yourself. He shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, poses for a photo. Best of all, he takes your question -- directly. There are no filters. There are no informational middlemen. There's no news medium. It's just you eyeball to eyeball with someone who's got a notion of being the next (to use a phrase that's a little out of date) Leader of the Free World.

This is called "retail politics." It's how things are supposed to be done in New Hampshire. Citizens get a chance to look over a candidate and "kick the tires a little bit and check under the hood," as Barack Obama likes to say.

So much of what is packaged and distributed in American politics at the national level is, let us be honest, a lie -- or spin, or an illusion, or a partisan manipulation of facts, or something bought and paid for by special interests. Perhaps it's just bad journalism, or tabloid trash, or the mindless spew of cable TV shouters. You don't have to be completely marinated in your own cynicism to perceive that much of what we call "politics" is a farce, a sham, a travesty and a buncha bull malarkey.

Hence the virtue of retail politics. Retail politics might not cure all our civic sins, but it makes us feel better. The scale is so human and humble, the surroundings so picturesque. The enterprise seems more authentic. There's just the candidate in the flesh -- a real human being. If he can't think on his feet, it'll show. If he has the soul of a lizard, we'll know.

And so as McCain works this house party, everyone's feeling good.

Except . . . Except everything's different this time.

Starting with the fact that we're in the wrong freakin' year.

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