John McCain's Service to America Tour got off to a sputtering start Wednesday morning at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Taking advantage of the long weeks before the Democrats choose a candidate, McCain is reintroducing himself to the American people. This takes the form of a personal essay, read from the page and earnestly delivered.
The good news is, as a piece of literature, the speech is thoughtful and even touching. It traces McCain's path from a rebellious youth to the unlikely leader of the Republican Party. Yet, as a political maneuver, the speech has two strikes against it: its very self-absorption belies the central point that McCain is ready to forsake his individualism for the good of a larger cause; and it is fundamentally nostalgic at a time when Americans are demanding change.
For half an hour, McCain reminisced to the press corps and fifty-odd Annapolis alums at an invitation-only event. A set of American flags flapped behind him, and the football stadium--ominously empty and inscribed with the names of battle sites (Iwo Jima; Inchon; Normandy)--stretched below. Indeed, between the cool air and the Navy gridiron, it might have been October.
McCain recalled his father (a four-star admiral, himself the son of a four-star admiral) dropping him off at the gates of Annapolis, an event followed by four years of misspent youth. McCain doesn't go into the details, but he credits his misdeeds to "individualism and irreverence," qualities his family and the Naval Academy--not to mention later the Republican Party--tried to temper, if not quash. McCain doesn't explicitly talk about being a POW, but he does refer to later experiences persuading him to the greater virtue of community and selflessness. The speech concluded with a call to citizenship, which McCain defines as "countless acts of love and courage."
When he was finished speaking, the audience of fifty or so applauded politely, and the campaign fired up a John Philip Sousa march--the jaunty, brass band as reminiscent of an earlier era as the audience's fedora hats and aging faces.
Like Barack Obama, McCain seems to be wrapping his candidacy almost entirely around his biography. (This must be maddening for Hillary Clinton, who's not likely to expound on how her experience as a cuckolded spouse inspired her to turn toward citizenship.) And, like Obama, McCain arrives at the epiphany that working as part of something larger than oneself is more meaningful than working alone just to prove one's independence.
Yet, McCain's plunge into self-examination suggests that he has not quite transcended the limits of a powerful sense of self. He acknowledged at the beginning of his speech that even some within his own party find him contentious or too willing to work outside party lines. It's this audience that McCain's speech really seems crafted for: he is at once trying to explain himself and show that he can be bent. However, in recalling his youthful bridling against discipline and convention, McCain seems less contrite than delighted. To all the people who currently find him intractable, McCain says, "they should have known me then." This note of self-regard suggests a President McCain will have more in common with McCain the plebe than McCain the Bush-hugging politician.
Second, McCain's self-portrait--although moving in its quest for honesty--seems sepia-tinted in comparison to Obama's or even Clinton's. Simply by virtue of walking in the room, both Obama and Clinton summon recent history--civil rights, globalization, and feminism. In contrast, McCain's formative experiences seem to belong in a J.D. Salinger story. A classmate after the speech recalled that everyone at Annapolis had known who John McCain was--not for his insubordination, but for his family. McCain himself wryly mentioned being better-looking at Annapolis, and in an instant a picture emerges of a young, talented man, so confident in his place in the world that he can afford to be irreverent.
That he was pretty soundly knocked off that high horse seems to be the point of McCain's essay, as well as the evidence for his ability to lead not only the Republican Party, but also a nation. But if it is humility that McCain is trying to prove, he may want to reconsider both his sincerity and his political tactics. Tellingly, he spoke almost not at all about the future, either his own or the country's. Instead he invoked with equal parts rue and longing "the perpetual springtime of youth."