My initial reaction after the McCain speech was ” workmanlike” and “basic.” But I rewatched the last ten minutes or so. Upon further review I have to conclude that it is political art practiced well. It’s not flowery or over the top, but it is stirring. I leave it to professional speechwriters to tell me otherwise, but it seems that it is not the language itself that is so moving. It is the core idea: we can and should all stand up for our country. Yes, McCain is an especially effective presenter of that idea, but the emotion stems not from his biography or the language, but from the central core idea.
And that, it strikes me, is the difference between the Obama and McCain speeches. I can’t for the life of me recall a single line now from Obama’s speech or really what the animating idea was. “George W. Bush’s presidency stinks,” I suppose. Really, the message was base partisanship — throw the bums out. And so it isn’t hard to understand how a speech like that quickly fades from memory.
But when there is a motivating message of high principle — stand up for your country and resist partisanship — it is easier to recall the text of the speech itself. Of course, it helps that the most stirring part of McCain’s speech was at the very end with the message as the repeating cadence (“Stand up for. . . “).
Unlike the Seinfeld-ian Obama speech and campaign (which leave one meandering around in a field of intellectual “nothingness”) McCain’s speech, like his campaign, is about something other than not letting the Democrats get their mitts on the White House. And it could not be more different that Obama’s message.
How ironic that the key phrase and image for Democrats was people getting “knocked down” and for McCain it is people “standing up.” If that isn’t a contrast in vision I don’t know what is.