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.