The RNC is finally over. The passionate appeals to moose hunters and weepy veterans hit their marks, George W. Bush was successfully exorcised from the party, and John McCain finished by waving to a cheering crowd, his Trophy Vice by his side.
The crowd wasn’t so enthusiastic all night, at least compared to Wednesday night, when Sarah Palin took the stage with her snarling put-downs and high-maintenance hair. Universal opinion says McCain isn’t a great orator, and his limitations were on full display last night. The most interesting part of his speech–besides the delicious line crediting the recent successes in Iraq to the “the leadership of a brilliant general, David Petraeus,” in effect telling Bush exactly where he could put his surge–was the screen behind McCain, which a puzzled New York Times described as "a solid-color backdrop that flicked from green to blue."
With no clear way to mark depth of field, McCain seemed to be floating disembodied before the camera. (It’s so unphotogenic that I’m having trouble finding an example of it in the places from which I usually swipe photos.) This mise-en-scene was emblematic of the rhetoric of the entire convention. All of the buzzwords thrown around the convention–change, maverick, hockey mom, elite, service, patriotism–have, by this time, become free floating signifiers, unmoored from their referents in actual experience or from any coherent political belief system. Even the most concrete and vivid trope, "Drill, Baby, Drill!" is empty; no serious person, including the sitting president and his would-be successor, actually believes that offshore drilling will do much to alleviate our energy crisis. Stand up to his party? McCain didn’t even stand up to Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom gave taunting speeches full of absurdities.
As for McCain’s trademark Hanoi Hilton story, it’s certainly a more convincing conversion narrative than George Bush’s narcissistic story of embracing conservative Christianity. Bush always makes it seem like God’s plan is to make a better George Bush. But the endless repetition of McCain’s Vietnam War experience made it seem less like a crucible of being than a template for nursing old wounds. As Paul Krugman suggests, the resentment voiced by Republicans this past week was Nixonian in scale and tone. Palin’s speech was a tour de force of resentment, and, despite McCain’s promises of fundamental change within the Republican Party, her appearance was a call to man the same old battle stations. And to fight what, exactly? As several commentators have noted, the attacks on Democrats were largely contentless.
It’s fitting, then, that the image of John McCain giving his acceptance speech didn’t come clearly into focus until the camera pulled back to reveal that glowing blue behind McCain was actually an American flag blowing in a cloudless sky–another in a series of standard Republican images. McCain’s message isn’t complete until McCain himself fades into the background.
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