St. Paul, Minnesota
As our communication system speeds up, driven by the power of cable television and the Internet, news cycles take on characteristics of a tropical storm: swirling centripetal winds, sudden shifts of intensity and direction, a tendency to darken the horizon and blot out memory, or awareness of anything else that might be happening. Participants—news purveyors and consumers—are always in the eye of the storm. So there was rough justice in the arrival of Gustav, a real hurricane, to rain on a Republican National Convention taking place under sunny skies 1,300 or so miles up the Mississippi. Real as it was, for news junkies, Gustav was only the fourth media storm in a week.
First came Media Storms Hillary and Invesco Field, packing plenty of wind and questions momentous-seeming enough to build suspense. (A media storm requires an open-ended question to keep anchors talking and bloggers blogging.) Would Mrs. Clinton’s speech for Barack Obama at the Democratic convention be sufficiently tinged with insincerity to alienate her supporters from the candidate? Would his acceptance speech before a crowd of 84,000 on a football field, in front of a set that might have been borrowed from the TV show The West Wing, make him seem less presidential?
“Not really” was the answer in each case but before it could register the questions had been shoved aside as a new one loomed: Could a caribou-hunting mother of five, with creationist leanings and membership in a church that preaches that these are “the last days” and that God has chosen as a “refuge” the state of which she’s a first-term governor—and maybe also chosen her to play that role—put enough verve into John S. McCain’s campaign to redeem, at a single stroke, his reputation for independence and his sorry standing with social conservatives? A perfect media question that had been daringly sent aloft by McCain himself, instantly eclipsing Obama’s big night. The first episode of Media Storm Sarah lasted less then forty-eight hours, then Gustav came along.
The real storm passed without furnishing the images of private greed and public lassitude that made Katrina an enduring symbol of the Bush administration’s aloofness and incompetence. George W. Bush’s party, spared the embarrassment of having to welcome him and his vice president to its convention, made a solemn show of transforming itself for one evening into a social service organization, filling its party hats with contributions for the hurricane’s victims. Gradually then, the Gulf was left to dry out and the political surge resumed, only now the story line John McCain and his advisers had scripted had suddenly changed on them. From a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the Alaska governor as heroine—a feisty battler against corruption in her own party, in McCain’s reformist image—it threatened to turn into Juno, last year’s sentimental comedy about a pregnant high school student who cheerfully decides to have her baby.
That the seventy-two-year-old’s choice of Sarah Palin as a possible successor had been deeply irresponsible by any standard of governance seemed to matter to only a few Republican dissenters. (“If it were your decision, and you were really putting your country first,” asked David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter turned blogger and think tank gadfly, “would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?”) What mattered now, as the convention resumed, was whether McCain could regain control of what’s known in the political consultants’ game as “the narrative.”
“A week is a long time in politics,” Harold Wilson’s old maxim, needs updating for the Internet age. Make it seventy-two hours. In that perspective, the former fighter pilot’s seemingly impulsive gamble on Sarah Palin was a brilliant success. This never figured to be an enthusiastic convention. It was going to be “like a shotgun wedding,” a McCain staffer suggested to me, a couple of weeks before Governor Palin’s family situation made that an unfortunate analogy. For the social conservative base of the party and other Republicans on the right, here was the original RINO (an acronym standing for “Republican in Name Only”). Their downcast mood was captured by the moniker of an otherwise obscure Web site: getdrunkandvote4mccain.com. It wasn’t that these conservatives considered McCain a closet liberal; his lengthy voting record in favor of George Bush’s legislation mostly passed muster. It was that he was, by their lights, flagrantly, flamboyantly unpredictable and, when the mood was on him, righteously impervious to their righteous influence.
Here was the man who’d stood with Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, on campaign finance reform; with Edward Kennedy, on immigration reform and a patient’s bill of rights; who’d denounced the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance”; who’d voted against Bush’s proposed amendment to outlaw gay marriage and played a leading part in normalizing relations with Communist Vietnam (which then put his image on a small commemorative frieze at the spot in Hanoi where he was dragged out of a lake after his jet was shot out from under him in 1967); the man who brokered a bipartisan Senate compromise that doomed three of President Bush’s most conservative judicial nominations by preventing a rules change that would have made it possible for the majority his party then had in the Senate to cut off debate; who was disparaged as McKerry, on the suspicion that he’d briefly entertained John Kerry’s proposal four years ago that he join the Democratic ticket; who, even as the delegates were packing to come to St. Paul, had them worrying that he was going to try to shove Al Gore’s hitherto pro-choice Democratic running mate, Joe Lieberman, down their throats as this year’s Republican nominee for vice president, in a bid for independent votes.
Democrats find it necessary to blow a kiss McCain’s way before denouncing him, saying they honor his heroism and service. Some Republicans felt no such compunction. (Even today a handful of holdouts have posted a video on YouTube, now featured on Pat Buchanan’s Web site, that attempts to “swiftboat” McCain’s heart-wrenching account of his experience as a POW.) If all was not forgotten, much was forgiven the instant McCain introduced the pro-life mother of five, who’d recently shown herself true to her principles by giving birth to a Down syndrome baby, as the first female Republican candidate on a national ticket.
Sarah Palin was twenty-four when Ronald Reagan left office. She could be embraced as living proof, therefore, that the conservative movement has a future despite all the hand-wringing to be found among intellectuals like Frum who, in asking why their party remains stuck in the same old positions on health care, global warming, wage stagnation, and widening economic inequality, sometimes seem to be working on its advance obituary. In the view of the delegates—a whiter than usual collection of politicians, aspiring politicians, true believers, and hail fellows hoping to be well met—the answers to such troublesome questions could come later. Even if it was true that Sarah Palin had been spotted on one occasion in 1999 wearing a Pat Buchanan button, she was no throwback. She was fresh and new, a gift from none other than John McCain to a restive wing of the party that had been unable to advance any plausible national candidate from its own ranks.
The enthusiasm didn’t have to be orchestrated. On the afternoon she was announced, I was told, contributions amounting to $90,000 simply “walked in” to campaign headquarters in Phoenix, hardly an everyday occurrence. Close to $5 million was collected on line in the first twenty-four hours. Religious leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention eagerly offered their testimonies. Speaking at a forum held, with some incongruity, at an institute at the University of Minnesota named after that old liberal stalwart Hubert H. Humphrey, the minister said McCain had “done something inexplicable” for the mood of the religious right. “He hit a grand slam on that one,” he said.
I spoke to Randy Pullen, chairman of the Republican Party in McCain’s home state of Arizona, a longtime thorn in the senator’s side on the issue of illegal immigration who last year narrowly won his position in opposition to a candidate strongly backed by McCain. The mood at the grassroots was one of “elation,” he claimed. Local Republican offices in the state had been flooded with hundreds of calls “in a matter of an hour or two” from people offering to volunteer, or others saying they were reversing earlier decisions to drop their party registration. This is a wing of the Arizona party that cannot elect its candidates to statewide office or Congress, even when they win primaries, and that Senator McCain had brushed off repeatedly, the wing of the party that would have sat on its hands, if not walked out, had he given in to his reported inclination to choose Lieberman over the woman who was hailed as “the first Christian” to be mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (population 9,780 in the latest census estimate), after she defeated a Lutheran who never claimed to be born again.
Barry Goldwater, whose Senate seat McCain has occupied for twenty-one years, was sometimes caustic in his later years about the impact of “that religious bunch” on Republican politics. “I think all good Christians should kick Falwell in the ass,” he said. Once acclaimed as the apostle of modern conservatism, he would go unmentioned as a second Arizonan advanced to the Republican nomination.
What did it say about McCain’s judgment and steadiness that he could careen between a liberal apostate he knew well and a frontier salvationist he knew hardly at all who’s the opposite in most respects? On the easiest level of interpretation, it said that Peggy Noonan was wrong to worry last June that McCain didn’t really feel a need to win, that he “has already got what he wanted, he got what he needed, which was to be top dog in the Republican Party, the party that had abused him in 2000 and cast him aside.” It said (surprise!) he really does want to win, that he’d been persuaded, probably for the first time in his career, that he’d need every possible Republican vote no matter if he got a majority of independents.
Even after conspicuously trimming his earlier positions on immigration and tax cuts for the wealthy during the primary season, McCain remained the first Republican to emerge victorious from the primaries without the votes of a majority of registered members of his party who cast ballots. Drawing an analogy intended to show the steeliness of his candidate, a McCain operative told me that Obama had made a probably fatal mistake by not putting Hillary Clinton on his ticket. He recognized that having an unmoored former president hovering over the White House could prove to be a big problem but having such a problem, the McCain man said, would have been better for the Democrat than the defeat he now faced.