Gen ‘08

In the July 30 “New Republic,” Michael Crowley has a thoughtful profile of McCain right-hand man, co-author, and speechwriter Mark Salter. Here’s the 53-year-old Iowan’s challenge as he heads to to his cottage in Maine to work on Sen. McCain’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention:

Salter hints the speech will spotlight McCain’s moments of self-sacrifice, as when he refused early release from captivity in Vietnam or challenged his own party over campaign finance reform. The contrast, he says, will be the “selfishness” of “self-interested” political partisans–i.e. Obama–who, he argues, have risked nothing of substance in their lives.

…[T]he challenge Salter’s convention speech encapsulates is the generational showdown this election has become. The baby-boomer speechwriter must come up with an address that explains why voters should choose the elderly McCain’s experience and grounding in traditional values over the youthful Gen-X audacity of Obama. In the Salter narrative, the self-sacrificing war hero could not meet a better foil than the Obamamaniacs’ narcissistic world of Facebook and YouTube and Scarlett Johansson. But voters aren’t likely to base their decision on the past. With the economy on fire, gas prices soaring, and the Bush presidency a disaster, voters are feeling the fierce urgency of now. Even many Republicans concede John McCain may be waging an unwinnable fight.

A funny thing happens in that second paragraph. After reprising Salter’s somewhat overwrought argument that McCain’s narrative is redolent with self-sacrifice compared to that of the untested Sen. Obama and his self-obsessed, youthful hordes, Crowley doesn’t bother sticking up for the younger cohort. It wouldn’t be a tough argument. After all, aren’t Salter’s own boomers supposed to be the most narcissistic generation in history? Instead, Crowley nods in the direction of Salter’s world view but then suggests that voters will be so distracted by their troubles and worries that they…well, I guess he’s saying that they’ll vote for whomever more persuasively promises instant relief.

That sounds like a voters-are-dumb argument. Since voters definitely aren’t dumb, perhaps Republicans shouldn’t be so discouraged. Obama is brazenly reaching for the Kennedy mantle, especially with his coming star turn in Berlin. Not much of a Kennedy person, even I’m offended. Obama’s no Kennedy. A 13-year veteran of the House and Senate, the son of a U.S. ambassador, Kennedy’s World War II and Cold War bona fides (together with his fictional missile gap and deft manipulation of state secrets about Cuba) even enabled him to edge to Richard Nixon’s right on foreign policy in the 1960 election. He didn’t shift a whole range of positions within weeks of winning primaries with them, and he never said blithely that he’d be President “eight to ten years.” He earned his aura by his easy style and humor in office as well as his martyrdom. Obama pretends to it as a national figure for under two years. If Europeans go nuts over him, what does that prove? That they’re as easily fooled as Americans and their lapdog network anchors?

Sure, Obama may be the real thing. Inexperienced leaders have sometimes risen to historic, wrenching challenges. But nobody really knows if Obama is such a leader, because nothing in his record demonstrates it. Supporting him urgently is by and large an act of faith. Meanwhile, there’re ample grounds for Obamagnosticism. Ryan Lizza, who studied him carefully for “The New Yorker,” wasn’t even willing to say for sure that Obama puts the public’s interests ahead of his own political advancement. His policy shifts, even if some are in the right direction, add credence to the view that he’ll do whatever is necessary to win. I think voters will notice that and begin to hold him to a higher standard than either they or the media have so far. In the months to come, for the very reason that they’re worried about their future, as Crowley notes, voters in key states will look for a substantive debate about issues that matter to them, and they’ll know when they’re being spun and manipulated. In anxious times, authenticity counts. McCain’s “experience and grounding in traditional values” may yet come in handy.

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