I sat down in my rocking chair tonight, armed with a glass of Ovaltine and toast with ration-stamp jelly, and experienced McCain's speech like it would have been experienced had he been a mid-century presidential candidate: on the radio. (With no TV at home, I didn't have much of a choice.)
Tonally, over the radio I actually liked the speech other commentators are now panning as "mediocre", "not a great success", or even "shockingly bad." What to others sounded flat (was it the crowd? McCain's expression?) to me sounded plain-spoken and unadorned. His use of repeated phrases -- "I won't let you down. I won't let you down. I won't let you down" -- sounded reassuring. His treatment of Obama was classy. The middle of the speech definitely dragged, and I agree with Jon and Mike Gerson that the policies it laid out weren't what one might have hoped for, to put it lightly. But in the beginning McCain achieved a sort of feisty protector-of-the-frontier cadence ("I've fought ... I've fought ... I've fought ..."). And at the end, he didn't merely retell his POW story like every other convention speaker has -- as if its sheer awesomeness was itself reason enough to award him the White House -- but, instead, explained what changes the experience had wrought in him. It still didn't do it for me, but he made the best case yet for what all that POW stuff might tell us about how he would govern. He sounded, basically, like somebody you might like to help shepherd you through an uncertain time.
Mostly, though, it was funny how many of the burdens that John McCain bears melted away without a visual feed. There was no stiff arm; no awkward, ill-timed grins. He sounded ten years younger and infinitely more energetic when his voice wasn't paired with the image of that white-haired, rigid-expressioned and almost delicately fragile-looking head. There was no loathed green backdrop. There was no uncomfortably white and old-looking crowd, no impression given that his movement doesn't fit the moment or even that he's affiliated with Republicans. I couldn't even really tell there were protesters. It was just the idea of John McCain, disembodied.
If only, from his point of view, everyone could only have listened to the speech on the radio. While Obama thrives off the energy of his supporters, just the idea of John McCain is what one imagines he must wish his campaign could be. No anachronistic-looking crowds, no social wingers holding up signs. No other GOP politicians standing around, no Bush. No backdrop of the Republican Party.
Unfortunately, I might have been the only person in the country listening to the speech on the radio; if anyone else was, they were probably more likely to be liberal urban elitist NPR-fetishists than undecided voters. Watching it on TV probably better captured the reality, the optics, and the context. You can't wish away the ones who brought you, or the fact that you were in better shape to do this eight years ago, or that, after you've finished telling your powerful life story and walked offstage, history will still seem to be leaving your ideas behind.