I had to get the hell out of the VFW Hall.
I’ve said that before, but never under these circumstances. Tonight it was just too damn hot. And besides, McCain wasn’t saying anything, anyway. Things had been much better up in Franklin where the day started for me, halfway into the No Surrender Tour.
But now I was sweating more than I had at any point since mid-August, wearing a suit and a tie and stuck in the back of the room with the kids and the drunks who couldn’t have cared less who was the special guest unless he was raising beer prices. I could feel a growing number of drips snaking their way down my legs as the temperature grew with every cigarette puff and every fidgety movement by the peanut gallery. It wasn’t pretty.
Humble servant of the truth that I am I stuck it out, with only slightly damp pant legs to show for it, and came away with little to no new insight on the candidate than I had an hour earlier. Suddenly I could sympathize with the Big Media schmucks who pay a thousand dollars a day to follow candidates around on the press bus and hear the same schlock four times daily.
We gentle country bloggers pay the price for that in our pocketbook, but not in our souls.
It was a warm early September day, with sunshine so beautiful that it caused a complete change in venue from the porch of the Grimm household to the shade of the bus for sun-fragile John McCain. If you have ever seen the pale hue of my stomach, you will know that I say this as a brother and not as an insult.
The house sat on the banks of the Merrimack River, with a large hayfield off to the right and a small thicket of woods beyond the field. The garage, clearly belonging to a long-time GOP supporter, was decorated with dozens of campaign signs from elections past, including a wall full of nothing but McCain 2000 gear. There was also a terrific spread of cheese and crackers. And beer.
The Senator arrived about fifteen minutes late, and walked out of the bus behind a long file of veterans who took their place alongside the bus, a veritable squadron of surrogates at the ready to show off their scrambled eggs for the crowd and vouch for John McCain if called upon to do so.
McCain’s wife Cindy was also on hand, as was his daughter and her Nicole Ritchie-like sidekick. The missus introduced her husband with a story of her brief reluctance to allow him to campaign yet again, ans how she was overruled by his strong sense of duty and unparalleled leadership skills. The daughter hung out in the back, gossiping with her friend and spying the Diet Coke bucket over in the garage. A remarkably beautiful family all around, but a lot of make-up going on there. I mean a lot.
John McCain’s first move upon taking the mic was to poke fun at the party host’s lovely home, apologizing for appearing at such a modest place. He then joked that the difference between him and Hillary Clinton is that she wants every American to own a home, but John McCain wants everyone to own a home like this.
As usual it wasn’t McCain’s only joke of the day. But also as usual, it was his only joke that wasn’t directly related to the military. Whether at a VFW hall in Concord or a town meeting in Merrimack, there are two things that strike me most about John McCain:
Number one, he is usually quite witty and honorable in his discourse. Number two, the axis of his entire life seems to revolve on the axis of the US Military. Every anecdote, every joke, every compliment he pays somehow relates to the military.
In Franklin he joked about how Marines are “generally ugly” and said how he once tried to get into the USMC but was denied entry because parents were married. Hey-o! He apologized for a few of his veteran colleagues having flown in the Air Force. Ooooh! Down in Concord he re-told a long joke that I had heard in Merrimack a month ago that had to do with a trained monkey flying a plane in the Pacific in WWII. I mean, I like monkeys and all, but if I were the comedy consultant I would tell John to stick to the Daily Show and calling high school kids little jerks.
Understandably, these jokes fall flat on my tin ear. I grew up in a Navy town for six years and was even the first person to make a three pointer in the year 1989 at the NAS Whidbey gym, where my mom worked as fitness coordinator, when my lucky heave banked into the net much to the chagrin of a dozen or so sober sailors at 12:01AM. Then again, if these guys were celebrating New Years at the base gym they deserved to get embarrassed by an eight year old. Point being, I am not a total greenhorn when it comes to military culture. I just think it isn't exactly the richest material at McCain's disposal.
The same can be said for his stump this time around. On the No Surrender Tour, McCain’s stump would be more appropriately compared to a cut-down tree for it’s intellectual strengths than for the age old venue where frontier political speeches began. In other words, it was short on nearly everything.
I understand he wasn’t hosting town hall meetings about the details of health care and economic policy here, but I can literally boil down his conversation to four bullet points:
- We need to let the troops win.
- If we leave then we “choose to lose.” And we can’t “choose to lose.”
- The moveon.org ad was contemptible.
- The troops want to win. Let the troops win.
Did I mention let the troops win? Furthermore, I love the allusion to the 1995 Mariners with the choose to lose thing, but give me a break.
This literally took less than ten minutes and was followed up by three or four of the surrogates coming out to attest to McCain’s impeccable judgment and leadership abilities. This included former CIA chief James Woolsey comparing John McCain to Winston Churchill.
No doubt about it, there are few things as impressive out here on the campaign trail as listening to former POW’s telling stories of McCain’s heroism in Hanoi. In fact, there is probably nothing as impressive on the merits. But it takes more than a tragic and brave military career to gain the nomination, and this No Surrender Tour struck me as a blown opportunity to use Iraq’s renewed momentum to catapult McCain back into the forefront. Why not use it to buttress some of his centrist policy arguments and maybe pull in some moderates? Why not accompany it with a long-term view of the region to try to pull some anti-war Republicans back off the fence?
Instead John McCain treated this tour like a dog and pony show, and he seemed annoyed to do so. Now, that either had to do with real anger and frustration over the way that America is regarding the war right now or else he would rather be out there talking straight to the people and he bowed to his ever-shrinking consultant pool. These are just some thoughts of mine, with no basis whatsoever. But if you ask me, this No Surrender Tour waved the white flag on attracting new voters.
McCain is better than any other top-tier Republican has the ability and honor to erect the Big Tent that the GOP has falsely spoken about for years. In Merrimack a month ago he respected the war protesters outside of the town hall. He spoke empathized with an anguished immigration hater. His war stance obviously leaves a lot to be desired by a LOT of people, but if there is one Republican who has a chance to capture some of the respectable middle, its John McCain.
Right now, as far as I can tell, his base relies entirely upon veterans and the upper middle class. If he talks like he did at the Town Halls, about sound energy policy and common sense immigration fixes, he might expand that base. But if he really is so obsessed with the honor and wishes of our military, as opposed to the honor and wishes of our nation as a whole, that he thinks his best bet is to go around touting the victory capability of our military, he might as well give up on winning the GOP nod.