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

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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