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Re-Branding the Old Elephant

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Sen. John McCain rallied supporters by emphasizing his experience and declaring that "it's time for us to show the world again how Americans lead" during his presidential nomination acceptance speech Thursday night.

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By Tom Shales
Friday, September 5, 2008

Apparently the leadership of the Republican Party thinks voters are turned off by specifics, and so Sen. John McCain's acceptance speech as its presidential nominee last night was a hodgepodge of generalities, musings on courage, reminiscence about his years as a POW in Vietnam, and rabble-rousing calls for change.

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But what would that change entail -- what new programs or policies or ideas? That was left to the audience's imagination. On CNN, Jeffrey Toobin called McCain's address one of the worst convention speeches he'd ever heard. Yet even he had to admit that it was kind of exciting to watch. Maybe McCain understands television better than people think.

He used the word "change" at least 10 times in his bombastic speech -- the convention's emotional climax -- but since the Republicans have controlled the White House for the past eight years, what does McCain want to change from? And to? It really is an audacious ploy, to tell people that the country's got to correct the mistakes made by a political party when that's the very party you represent.

It's like staging a revolution against yourself -- saying that the Republicans have got to go so the Republicans can move in and clean up the mess.

"John McCain was re-branding his party as the party of change," one CNN commentator said after the speech. "Re-branding" is a very popular term these days, but what does it mean? Perhaps that you can make something true just by saying it's true.

George W. Bush, who happens to be president now -- and one of the least popular in history -- was not mentioned by name during the speech; he has been largely a nonentity in the world created by the convention organizers and participating speakers. McCain alluded to the fact that "some Republicans" gave in to "temptations" in recent times, but like much of the speech, this was vague and evasive.

Ronald Reagan was cited and quoted infinitely more often than Bush, and Reagan is not only out of office, but also dead.

As has been widely noted, McCain is not particularly comfortable speaking to large crowds or using the prompting devices that are standard fixtures at such occasions. By a hair McCain surpassed the low expectations, though he stumbled over one line and had to say it over -- and frequently repeated phrases because he thought crowd noise had drowned them out. But it hadn't, so his repetitions came across as befuddled.

The Republicans were in a happy, happy -- borderline hysterical -- mood, and enthusiastically cheered even Cindy McCain's awkwardly delivered introduction of her husband, as if she were giving one of the great speeches of all time. The candidate's speech was preceded also by a short film that told, for the umpteenth time, the story of his heroism when serving with the military in Vietnam. Heroism it certainly was, but it doesn't really constitute a platform on which to run for president.

Then again, maybe it does. Because McCain himself revisited the war yet again in his speech, although in terms that were sometimes movingly self-effacing and seemingly humble. "I was blessed with misfortune," he told the crowd, because his experiences as a prisoner, and his comradeship with other Americans held by the North Vietnamese, brought about a life-changing epiphany.

Before this ordeal, "I didn't think there was a cause more important than me," McCain said, but he learned in the filthy prison cells in which he was kept and tortured that (as John Donne said in slightly different words many years ago) "no man can stand alone," i.e., no man is an island. "My country saved me," McCain said, "and I will fight for her as long as I draw breath, so help me God."

At this point, the director should have cut to a reaction shot of Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee who statistically would stand a chance of becoming president should the ticket be victorious in November.

A few protesters began shouting unintelligibly during the early portions of McCain's speech, suggesting deplorable security operations at the convention. The crowd drowned out the screams of the demonstrators by chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" As the ruckus died down, McCain ad-libbed: "Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, okay?" The speech, which Anderson Cooper of CNN characterized as "back to the future," ended with McCain stirring up the crowd with a refrain of "Stand up, stand up and fight!" as the cheers grew louder, louder and finally deafening. What were they cheering? Some nice thoughts about patriotism and a pledge to bring "change" to Washington from a man who's been serving in Washington for decades.

No, it didn't make sense, but darned if it didn't make for good TV.


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