Political Positions

Mark Sawyer: 'At the RNC, Shock and Woe'

Political Positions

Mark Q. Sawyer takes a look back at Sen. John McCain's RNC acceptance speech and offers a scathing critique, in this piece titled Shock and Woe: McCain's Speech to the Convention.

Sawyer is director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and the author of Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba.

John McCain's speech to the Republican National Convention and to the American public was as Jeff Toobin noted on CNN, "the worst speech by a nominee that I've heard since Jimmy Carter in 1980. I thought it was disorganized, themeless ... I thought it was very, very boring until the end when he started talking about his personal story, which is, of course, remarkable and always important to hear. I personally cannot remember a single policy proposal that he made because they had nothing connecting them. I found it shockingly bad."

Toobin nailed it right on the head. McCain rambled and delivered his normal befuddled performance, where he seemed to wrestle with the TelePrompTer. However, those are just style points, let's turn to content.

The only parts of the speech that worked were the anecdotes about his time as a POW, to which he randomly returned when he had no ideas to offer in the supposedly substantive parts of the speech.

McCain tried to co-opt the theme of "change" from Obama, as if a Republican with whom he agrees on economic, foreign and social policy has not been in the White House for eight years; as if he hadn't been part of a Republican caucus that, until 2006, had controlled Congress for ten years. Did I mention that the sitting, two-term Republican President's name was not mentioned at all?

As if that was not bad enough, McCain botched other parts of the speech. He tried to borrow from John Edwards by finding ordinary Americans to illustrate his points. One example: when he cited Americans suffering from the housing crisis. McCain reached into his populist bag when he said, "I fight for Americans. I fight for you. I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Mich., who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market."

Real estate investments?! So let me get this straight, John. Your "populist" message is that in current market conditions, a couple of real estate speculators lost their "investments" but not their home? How many Americans other than John McCain and his friends have real estate investments beyond their one and only home. McCain has seven that he can count after consulting advisors; how many did the Nebe's have? Not even "elitist" Barack Obama has a small vacation cabin to claim as an investment. McCain is most worried about people like himself who own more then one home as investments and might lose money on them. Didn't Bush say it was speculators like McCain and the Nebe's that got us into this mess in the first place?

McCain stepped all over the message of the other convention speakers — except Lieberman — when he tried to strike a bipartisan tone. The RNC became a hodge-podge of messages: We are fiercely partisan, and Democrats represent an evil force threatening small town America ... and, at the same time, we love Democrats who have good ideas, but we won't talk about anything specific.

That leads me to another point: After attacking Obama for months for offering few specifics and simply platitudes, McCain did just that. He offered no clear conception of what victory looks like in Iraq, delivered the standard Republican attack on big government (especially health care), and promoted choice for education and lower taxes (even more worn out). It was a uniquely vacuous speech. The coup de grace for me was when he channeled what conservative talk show hosts and bloggers have used to demonize Michelle Obama when he stated, "I really did not love America until I was deprived of her company," by his imprisonment in Vietnam.

All it took for Michelle was an inspiring electoral campaign to kindle her patriotism. For McCain, it was much more — imprisonment and torture in Vietnam! So arguably Michelle Obama was more easily shocked into her own patriotism than McCain, who I guess was flying missions in Vietnam not out of love of country and duty but because it was a chance for fun, ego building. I guess he is the "original" Maverick like Tom Cruise in the movie, Top Gun.

I know this may seems harsh, but the speech was shocking and singular it its awfulness. They even got the visual background wrong, using Walter Reed Middle School in Hollywood instead of Walter Reed Veteran's Hospital. But, of course, all the better, because McCain offered no specific support for injured veterans in the speech. His voting record is equally as dismal on veteran's issues.

Perhaps I am biased and unfair, but I think the Republicans have so scared the so-called "liberal media" that only one person was willing to say it. They have been so intimidated by these Republican claims about liberal media that no one save Toobin dared say it what a parade of evil it really was.

The speech posed McCain as the messiah because of his personal suffering — not anything he will do for America or Americans. It was the politics of biography and ego dressed without substance. It's the same thing he has repeatedly attacked Obama for but without the rhetorical flourish.

Obama's speech had flourish, inspiration and substance. My response to McCain — and it even seemed on the convention floor — was shock and woe. McCain can't wait 'til the next town hall.

— Mark Q. Sawyer



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I much agree with Mr. Toobin. The Obama speech had at least a plan for the people.

McCain's speech was bundled with rhetoric and spoke in general terms.

I thought the McCain speech was dry and leaned to much on his POW days that we already acknowledge. McCain had hecklers and yawning delegates. Obama had people of all races of America jumping for hope and change.

McCain did have a positive effect however, it tickled the ears of the republicans.

Sent by Lyle K. Deere | 1:08 PM | 9-8-2008

Whoa! Thanks for the report and really glad I missed the speech.

Looking at a well-thought-out summary like this also has the advantage of not making you fall asleep.

Sent by Paul Maurice Martin | 1:12 PM | 9-8-2008

I was absolutely terrified by the photos at the beginning. They called up some classic fascist (there, I said it!) imaagery with every concept coming around to someone in uniform.

Behold McCain - the hero in arms!
Behold the familiy - together in arms!
Behold the mighty warplane (secutiy)!
Behold the firefighter in combat (optimism)!
Behold the soldier hugging Iraqis (peace)!
Behold the amber waves of grain!
Behold the path of our children from Walter Reed Middle School to uniform!
Country (Fatherland) First!

How can he say all this? (Here comes the speech...)Because of his struggles in war. If we all go through war, we'll come out with the same bright and sunny outlook!

No matter how you boil it down, no matter what words he used, everything came to this central point.

Republicans have become a frightening lot. They ate this stuff up.

Sent by HL | 2:30 PM | 9-8-2008

Mr Toobin, thank you for your brain, harsh or otherwise.

Add this to the McCain dribble: we will embrace technologies to help solve the problems facing us in the 21st century...(cheers and chanting all around: drill! drill! drill! drill!).

Excuse me, this putty faced baffoon doesn't even know how to use email and we're going to move forward at HIS speed??!! The dream team couldn't even get the green background to go away, very unflattering by the way for pale complexions. If he's in charge hell will freeze over before we even get off the ground and if that fails Polly Anna Palin will be sure to bring on another ice age. For all we know McCain probally thinks Orville Rickenbacker is really alive and still popping popcorn somewhere in the midwest.

Could this get any more pathetic?

Sent by george gekas | 3:35 PM | 9-8-2008

My apologies; I meant to say a big thank you to Mark Swayer's brain. Mr. Toobin you're still cool too!

And absolutely no apologies to anyone who goose steps to the McCain/Palin mantra...drill! drill! drill! drill! war! war! war! war! debt! debt! debt! debt! hooray and praise the lord!

Sent by george gekas | 6:08 PM | 9-8-2008

With the Palin seduction and token, it is increasinly clear to me that none of this matters. This article doesn't mention the detail that the most enthusiastic responses to his speech concerned Palin. She is the lightening rod and the only thing that matters. If they are elected, she will likely be president for more than 8 years. The first since FDR. If McCain dies within two years of taking office, Palin would be able to finish his term, run for re-election and then re-re-election. This is what happened with LBJ in 1963, 1964 and 1968--although he volunteered not to seek a third term in 68, he could have; And she would. McCain knows what every student of politics has known since 1948; 1968; and EVERY election since 1980--White people, especially the Reagan Democrats and swing voters--reject liberal ideology because of the perception that liberalism panders to nonwhites. Imagine now that it has arrived in the actual Black face of Barack Obama. McCain can rely on the "neighborly" facade of Palin and how people can "relate to her" (read: White). It is why Michelle's words created a firestorm and McCain's, not even a flicker.

Sent by massai | 7:07 PM | 9-8-2008

Thank you Mark Sawyer for speaking truthfully. There certainly doesn't seem to be much in the general media about how vacuous and how dangerous McCain and his republican cronies are. If we don't get Obama elected we are in deep deep trouble. In truth Barrack has had his plans out in writing for months and months. He knows the dangerous precipice we stand on, and has not been afraid to speak about it. I am also really sick of the "polls" and their stupidity. Of course Pallin would apparently support stupidity since she tried to get certain books banned from her town's library and doesn't believe in sex education (obviously). I can't understand how people can even stand to hear her voice or vapid nasty comments. I'm afraid for our country if they are duped by this Republican rhetoric. I am definitely in a state of shock and woe, but I can't believe the majority of people will be duped.

Sent by Pinkie Marama | 8:45 PM | 9-8-2008

Re: Pinkie Marama, I too am Very afraid the populace will buy into this also. I do not understand why the mainstream news outlets aren't saying anything about this charade. But then, with Rove behind anything, I believe they are as you said just plain afraid. What happened to my America?

Sent by Sheila Cross | 6:24 AM | 9-12-2008

George thanks, i didn't catch that:

we will embrace technologies to help solve the problems facing us in the 21st century...(cheers and chanting all around: drill! drill! drill! drill!).

Truly amazing and completely absurd!

Sent by Jon J | 1:34 PM | 9-12-2008


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