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By Jay Cost

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Thoughts on McCain's Speech

I typically do not engage in exegesis of candidate speeches, but given the reaction to McCain's address from many quarters, I think a dissenting view might be worth hearing. That plus the uniqueness of the speech's substance inclines me to make a more fuller comment than I otherwise would.

On the first viewing of McCain's speech, I was pretty much in line with Tom Bevan's thoughts on it: it was good enough, but far from great.

Later in the evening, though, I felt compelled to go back and review it. I couldn't get a few of the lines out of my head, which made me wonder if I had misjudged it.

I have to say that it grew on me by leaps and bounds. Over two weeks of speechifying and politicking, it was my favorite.

Obviously, McCain is not an eloquent speaker. He's a plain speaker with a blunt, flat delivery. The speech was written for a man with that kind of style, which made it extremely direct. So, everybody got the gist of the McCain candidacy last night. That's a very good thing for any candidate: his message got across.

The speech also had its charming moments. His ad lib in response to the protesters was just great. With that third interruption, I really thought McCain was going to lose the crowd. His "please, please, please" seemed plaintive and desperate for a moment, but then he wowed me: "Please don't be distracted by the ground noise and the static." He then cracked a big, genuine grin, and followed it up with, "I'm gonna talk about it some more, but Americans want us to stop yelling at each other...OK?" And then another ear-to-ear grin. That was pure McCain. Good humored and bipartisan. As moments go, that was the best of either convention.

And we simply have to give McCain credit for this kind of gutsiness.

On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure; my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause more important than me.

Then I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and an angry crowd waiting to greet me. I was dumped in a dark cell, and left to die. I didn't feel so tough anymore...

A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I'd been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I'd been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.

Who does this in a nomination speech?

Typically, presidential candidates use their time in combat to reinforce the warrior virtues. Recall, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty!" McCain basically turned that on its head last night. It was not his heroism or leadership in war that shows he's ready to command. Instead, it was the horror of war that made him understand how great our country is, and why it is worth fighting for. He was a cocky jerk prior to his captivity, but the brutality of that experience broke his selfish, independent spirit. It was the idea of America that saved him, and - per the speech - he was reborn her humble, imperfect servant.

Delivered in his blunt style, these passages reinforced the idea of McCain being honest even when it isn't expedient. He's willing to talk straight about anything, including his own frailties.

But this was not confession for its own sake. Last night - McCain did three things: (a) Reminded us that he's a maverick; (b) Told us what the maverick would do if we elect him; (c) Told us why he's a maverick. [So, contrary to some pundits, it was actually a very well-organized speech.] The confession at the end was the "why." He fights for the country, not for a party, because it was in Hanoi that his country saved him. Country first, party second.

This might not resonate with strong partisans who see their party as the protector of the national interest, but there is a huge subset of voters who see politics the way McCain describes it. Get average people talking, and sooner or later you'll hear them say, "Nobody stands for all of us. Everybody stands for their narrow faction."

Ultimately, this speech was very Jacksonian to me. It was Jackson, as much as anybody, who made the president the representative of all the people. This notion can be oversimplified, for sure, but at its root it is accurate. The president should not speak for a mere faction, but should articulate the true public voice. I don't know whether McCain can actually do that, but he clearly sees this task as his top priority, which puts him a notch or two above many previous nominees of both parties.

Final point. Contrary to some critiques I read, McCain's middle "laundry list" section of the speech definitely defied Republican orthodoxy at key points. There might be plenty of reasons not to like this speech, but lines like this are not the things we hear from Republicans:

-I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy and it often seems your government hasn't even noticed. Government assistance for unemployed workers was designed for the economy of the 1950s. That's going to change on my watch.

-We will prepare them for the jobs of today. We will use our community colleges to help train people for new opportunities in their communities.

-For workers in industries that have been hard hit, we'll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one while they receive retraining that will help them find secure new employment at a decent wage.

That middle one is actually quite noteworthy. Just a few months ago, I heard the exact same policy proposal...during a keynote address of a Democratic think tank! I thought to myself, "Now...that's a good idea! Why doesn't somebody do that?"

-Jay Cost