During the past several national elections, whenever a Democratic presidential candidate has changed his or her mind on an issue, or trimmed his or her sails in the face of hostile public opinion, the mainstream media have been quick to tag that candidate a flip-flopper. When John McCain changes his mind, he is being a maverick, a tell-it-like-it-is hombre. For all the fawning press Barack Obama has received, the grace and favor with which he has been treated is nothing compared with the free ride McCain has enjoyed, at least from the predominantly old white guys who dominate convention coverage.
The benefits of the doubt Obama has been granted — and he is granted fewer every day — are probably attributable to his freshness as a tasty new morsel for a television-dominated process. TV demands lean meat it can fatten so it has someone to devour. The fact that Republican McCain as well as Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton have survived repeated cycles of this cannibalism gives them a special status: survivors.
Survival, in fact, is perhaps the most exalted state to which a politician can ascend in the ultimate reality show known as presidential politics.
Survivors have proven their very seriousness by having escaped scandal or defeat, or having weathered a particularly turbulent political storm. And because they have survived, they reap the benefit of extra consideration. Past skill warrants a suspension of judgment rarely extended to most politicians.
Senator Ted Kennedy is a case in point. His survival of a cheating incident at Harvard and the drowning of a female companion at Chappaquiddick (tempered as they were by the murder of Kennedy’s two brothers, as well as by other family tragedies) gives his career as a national icon an unspoken but palpable poignancy that is further enhanced by his ongoing cancer battle. Kennedy’s unexpected and moving speech at the Democratic National Convention was another triumph over adversity. As such, it was an apt metaphor for a nation that has had to endure eight years of President George W. Bush.
The Clintons may be on a path to achieving similar gravitas. Hillary’s speech certainly laid the foundation for such a reputation. She was breathtaking in the sweep of her Tuesday night convention speech, fortifying in her message that the Democrats must unite behind Obama to spare the nation four more years of Bush policies, this time with McCain’s name on them. It only remains for Bill to equal, or exceed, her performance for the Democrats to put behind them the memories of the Clintons’ attempt to blackmail Hillary’s way onto the ticket by holding her voters hostage. After Tuesday night, it is hard to imagine that stain having any relevance.
(The Phoenix goes to press before Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama speak. Readers can follow their performances and find analysis and video of the entire convention at thePhoenix.com/election2008.)
Survivors endure by confounding expectations, as Hillary Clinton did once again and as Michelle Obama did for the first time. McCain certainly did that when he almost single-handedly revived his sputtering campaign earlier this year. Still, McCain’s hold on the nation’s imagination is rooted in the five torturous years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison camp. In marked contrast with the restrained way in which— up until recently— he has used this personal history, McCain seems willing to dilute the magic of past pain and extol his sacrifice to combat run-of-the-mill political attacks.
McCain styles himself as a regular Joe. But there is nothing routine about a candidate’s wife owning seven, or more, houses and condos. It is routine to be whacked — or at least joshed — for it.
McCain, however, has lived in a bubble of his own construction for so long that, with the active complicity of so much of the press, he appears to believe in his own legend.
What sort of maverick cuts the cloth of yesterday’s fashion so quickly to conform to his party’s style of today? McCain, once the reasoned champion of immigration compromise, is now one with Lou Dobbs’s massive-deportation logic. McCain, who once rightly criticized Bush’s tax cuts as leading to a new style of fiscal irresponsibility, today champions supply-side idiocy. And McCain, who once felt the wrath of right-wing Evangelical fury, today prostrates himself before the pulpit of the born-again vote.
To date, McCain has received a pass for his duplicity. Maybe he has learned from Bush that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe you.
The task facing Obama in the campaign ahead is to penetrate the rhino-like hide that the national media enablers have helped McCain sheath himself in, to expose McCain for being the choice-opposing, militarist enemy of civil liberties that he is.
If Obama can not do so, then all of the hope in the world can not save him— or, for at least four more years, the United States.