The Test of a Candidate

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Mar 10, 2008 12:01 AM
The Test of a Candidate

While the race for the Democratic presidential nomination could go on till the convention or just mutual exhaustion, the Republicans now have their candidate. Tuesday night, John McCain finally went from his party's expected to presumptive nominee.

On such occasions, the speeches of both victor and vanquished exert an irresistible fascination for fans of American rhetoric, an art form that has seen much better days. Like baseball, which can no longer be called the national pastime except as a courtesy, American eloquence continues its slow fade. But if the speeches of candidates at such pivotal moments no longer merit attention for what they say about the state of the Union, they remain deeply revealing when it comes to the character of the candidates. By their words we can still know them.

John McCain's victory speech had been scheduled for weeks. It was no longer a question of whether he would pass the magic number of delegates required for the nomination (1,191) but when. Tuesday night, he did. Sometimes it just takes a while for the inevitable to arrive, especially when one's Honorable Opponent refuses to accept it. Mike Huckabee finally did, just as he promised he would once that decisive 1,191st delegate was chosen.

Like the senator's victory Tuesday night, John McCain's speech lacked drama. The drama had been played out some time ago, when he came back from the politically dead just last summer. Even his top staff had given up and fled, but he soldiered on. Strangely enough in politics, he won by sticking to principle. The principle? That in war, to quote an American general named MacArthur, there is no substitute for victory.

Not long ago, John McCain's emerging as his party's presidential nominee in 2008 seemed as improbable as The Surge's proving successful in Iraq. Indeed, the senator's fortunes and those of American arms are linked, and what a remarkable turnaround the country has seen in both. Who would have thought it? The whole saga restores one's faith - not just in a presidential candidate but in America.

Yet there was no braggadocio in Sen. McCain's speech Tuesday night - no vainglory, no hollow cheerleading but an almost severe dignity, a subdued acceptance of responsibility rather than an exuberant cry of victory. ("Now we begin the most important part of our campaign: to make a respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people that our campaign and my election as president, given the alternatives presented by our friends in the other party, are in the best interests of the country we love.") Goodness. How old-fashioned. How courteous.

Shades of Adlai Stevenson! It was as if the Republican standard-bearer was addressing thinking citizens of a republic rather than an exultant crowd of partisans.

In this old republic that became a mass democracy some time ago, John McCain's restrained tone was a step back in time, and up. I may be the only one to think so, but his rhetoric, antique as it sounded, was refreshing - as if he were conscious of the grave challenge ahead rather than the heady victory he'd just sealed.

As for Mike Huckabee's concession, I confess to having looked forward to it - not because I'd wanted Arkansas' native son to lose, quite the contrary, but because I knew his well-earned reputation for eloquence. Those of us in Arkansas have been lifted up by his words on more than one occasion.

For example: There was his speech from the state Capitol at the end of his first, long, grueling day as governor of still frontier Arkansas in 1995, when his disgraced predecessor had refused to budge from office hour after embarrassing hour. He emerged from that test not only triumphant but gracious and forgiving.

Some of us in this state had first heard him in the pulpit of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, Ark.; others will never forget his inspiring words on the steps of Central High School in Little Rock on the redemptive 40th anniversary of The Crisis of '57, when the ghost of Orval Faubus was finally, definitively exorcised from that historic site.

Now surely Brother Huckabee would meet this test, too, I thought Tuesday night, for nothing tests a politician, or anyone, like defeat. Sad to report, I was disappointed. Yes, he did meet one test - he finally conceded - but without the elevation, the full quotient of grace many of us had come to expect from the man and preacher.

But this night he made the mistake of so many campaigners at the end of a campaign: He more or less repeated his stump speech instead of plowing new ground. Only in comparison to the other candidates Tuesday night was he eloquent. Which says a depressing lot about the current state of American rhetoric.

Mike Huckabee's concession proved a long, uneven mix of the sublime and strange as he went from citing Scripture and Col. Travis at the Alamo - you can't hardly beat those choices - to plugging a national sales tax, an exaction so unfair that naturally it's been renamed the Fair Tax in keeping with the deceptive times.

Ah, well, even Demosthenes must have had an off night, and surely the country will hear from Mike Huckabee many another time, especially in light of the surprisingly effective presidential campaign he finally wrapped up. Who beyond his immediate family and a few of his more loyal congregants would have guessed that the ol' boy and bass guitarist would have done as well as he did in a national race, reviving us again from coast to coast? The moral of this story: Never underestimate an Arkie. Especially one who clearly loves what he's doing.

It was fitting somehow that the last two candidates standing in the GOP column should have been a maverick senator and a Baptist minister. The warrior and the preacher. Achilles and Paul of Tarsus. As types, John McCain and Mike Huckabee represent the twin sources of their party's and country's - even their civilization's - strength: Athens and Jerusalem.