The GOP Convention: Maverick in Name Only

You could make an amusing game of Mad Libs out of this week's Republican National Convention. Just take a standard stump speech, and shuffle into it different combinations of the essential terms repeated endlessly over the last four days: "Ladies and [moose], I stand before you tonight not to [drill, baby, drill] but to [reform]. Because I don't [drill, baby, drill] for the [God], I [country first] the [country first] until it [troops]. Thank [maverick], and God bless [moose]." In this way you'll have much of the fun of being an actual speechwriter for the convention without any of the pressure. And it would beat listening to John McCain's speech again.

After Sarah Palin moved the crowd to fire their shotguns jubilantly in the air Wednesday night, McCain's big speech Thursday night probably would have felt like anticlimax no matter what he did. Yet even graded on a curve, McCain was capable of better than he delivered. The physical abuse he suffered in Vietnam limits his motion behind a podium, and the voice—always higher and more constrained than you expect—lacks the dynamism for Obama-esque runs up and down the scale. Those natural disadvantages seem all the more prominent when he decides to muddle through an uninspired list of policy contrasts with the Democrats—one that could have come from the mouth of any recent Republican candidate—or when he's stuck with some awkward stagecraft. The first few minutes of the speech appeared to be simulcast from the Emerald City. When the camera pulled back, the green, green backdrop turned out to be the lawn in a projected photo of some lavish house or schmancy school. Who thought this was a good idea?

McCain was stronger when he turned, near the end, to a heartfelt description of his captivity, and a closing riff in which he used a little elevated language—something that he and speechwriter Mark Salter used to much more stirring effect at the 2004 convention. Characteristically, though, he was at his best when at his most pugnacious. "I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party," he informed the party to their faces. "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption." He wasn't merely talking about an independent streak here—he was demonstrating it. He also had a classy moment when he reached beyond pro forma praise—"He has my respect and admiration"—to say something warmer and larger-spirited about Obama. "Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us," he said. "We are fellow Americans, an association that means more to me than any other."

In the end, though, sentiments like that make you wonder if McCain is aware of the convention that just got staged on his behalf. From night to night, you could pick out bright moments. Mike Huckabee offered one of the most evocative defenses of the party—one that was tough without being petty—when he said, "Let me make something clear tonight: I'm not a Republican because I grew up rich. I'm a Republican because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor, waiting for the government to rescue me." Over four days, however, the weight of the GOP's preoccupations crowded out the moments that excelled. The rainbow-hued videos began to look like special pleading from a party that remains overwhelmingly, embarrassingly white. The tributes to the military and the skillful use of patriotic icons—much more skillful than the Democrats, with their pastel-tinted stage—were undoubtedly sincere, but generally used as a force multiplier for attacks on the other party. On the evidence of these four days, the Republican vision of governance is ensuring that the lightly taxed American people are amply defended on their way to church.

Democrats aren't paragons of virtue. They cut their share of corners and took their share of cheap shots. But after looking again at the toughest speech from Denver—John Kerry's fusillade against McCain and President Bush—it's clear that the Democrats came nowhere near the level of personal animus that flowed from the Xcel Center stage. No question, it sometimes made for good viewing, like Rudy Giuliani's bilious freestyle or Palin's obnoxious taunts. But much of the time—Romney, Graham, Lieberman—it didn't. The most odious feature of all was a 9/11 film, an opportunistic use of images still so vile, including the explosion from the second's plane impact, that it was—to this New Yorker, anyway—literally nauseating.

John McCain has shown himself to be better than his party's baser instincts—in much the same way that Obama, by the end of last week, put daylight between his outlook and that of other Democratic leaders. So the GOP convention ultimately leaves you feeling a deep sadness, because it forecloses the kind of campaign these two extraordinary men might have waged. Forget about debating issues or competing visions of citizenship: the battlefield prepared by this convention is another culture war—more attacks on character, more personal slights, more fights about nothing. Add the media and the advocacy groups to the mix, and it's easy to imagine this race looking by November like one of those barroom scuffles where everybody locks up everybody else's arms and shouts at the same time, so nobody can do or understand anything. "The hand we feel on our shoulder belongs to Abraham Lincoln," said Cindy McCain last night. It's a powerful image and I like to think that it's true, though I wonder if she seriously thinks that this week he could have approved.