Annals of Oratory: The Anticlimax

Posted: Sep 09, 2008 12:01 AM
Annals of Oratory: The Anticlimax

It would have been impossible to match, let alone top, Sarah Palin's suspense-satisfying, chart-busting, positively Obaman performance in St. Paul, which I'd never before thought of as a particularly romantic locale. Then Mrs./Governor/Mooseslayer Palin turned it into a city of lights.

What a difference she's made. After two days of ice-stolid Republican stasis, the (counter-)revolution was on! Was there a single, solemn commentator who could avoid saying A Star Is Born after her virtuosa performance? Talk about a hard act to follow.

When it came time for his acceptance speech, John McCain and stodgy company had the sense to understand that Sarah Palin's was an impossible act to top. And the wisdom not to try.

There was just no way a rhetorically challenged 71-year-old war hero, even Mr. Maverick himself, was going to compete with the telegenic running mate he'd had the genius to pick from nowhere, or, more specifically, Wasilla, Alaska.

Here was the plan: No orator, John McCain was just going to talk from the midst of the convention crowd. For he's a talker, not a speaker. The idea was to invoke the kind of town-hall meeting at which he's excelled in this campaign. So a runway was built onto the convention floor that would allow The Candidate to talk to The People.

It beat just another canned speech. Better to do anything than something you know won't work. Good thinking, but as always the trick is in the execution, not the conception.

John McCain's speech turned out, with a refreshing exception or two, to be only a speech after all - and a John McCain speech at that. A stage setting can do only so much for a play. The rest is up to the actor, who has the playwright at his mercy. And nobody by now expects John McCain's words to come trippingly off the tongue. If Ronald Reagan could make the most obvious cliche sound fresh, John McCain can take his speechwriters' words and make them sound like only his speechwriters' words.

Good idea, that runway. The only problem was that, once he got to the end of it, The Man of the Hour, or about 48 minutes of it anyway, had to deliver a speech. Or so his handlers must have assumed. What a pity his handlers didn't turn the last night of the convention into a real town-hall meeting, instead of a staged facsimile of one. The country's attention might have been held that way.

Unfortunately, the nominee stuck to the script and just gave a speech.

Fortunately, the folks in the hall didn't, which gave John McCain an opportunity to be his unscripted self. As when a protester had to be safely removed from the premises. Quieting the angry crowd, he sounded like just the kind of unifying leader you want in the Oval Office. "Please don't be diverted by the ground noise and static," the Former Naval Person told the crowd. "America wants us to stop yelling at each other, OK?"


Another nice moment came when the crowd jumped the gun and, instead of waiting for The Candidate to ask them to stand with him at the close of his peroration, they rose and began cheering before he'd finished. His words were drowned out, which left John McCain just where he looks and acts best: at the epicenter of pandemonium. Which might be a good one-word description of an American presidential campaign.

Here's some wholly unsolicited advice to the McCain campaign: Recognize that, when it comes to rhetoric, you've got a kangaroo ticket. The strength is in the hind legs. Have your wow of a vice-presidential candidate do the set pieces. Let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin, or rather Barack Obama. And let John McCain do his Straight Talk, town-hall meeting thing. That way, both he and the country would feel more comfortable.