11/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Debate No. 3: John McCain Should Have Watched His Words

Whether or not Barack Obama topples John McCain on November 4 is still a matter of conjecture. But during debate No. 3 the GOP candidate's use of the word "proud" in regard to Sarah Palin -- i.e. "I'm proud of her" and "I can't tell how proud I am of her and her family" -- did little to help his cause. Remember what goeth before a fall?

Instead of building up the governor of Alaska and making her sound ready for that heartbeat-away hot seat, as I'm sure he hoped to do, one five-letter word, with its paternalistic, patronizing overtones, took Palin and the Republican ticket down some distance. In assuming ownership of Palin's accomplishments, no matter how thin, he characterized her as an old-fashioned help meet -- you know, the little woman who stands behind every great man. It's too bad, because one of the things Election '08 has been about is erasing that tired depiction of our gender.

Invoking the word "proud" is like criticizing your mother. You can do it, but if anyone else goes there, it's considered an insult. When it comes to our kids, our spouse, and especially a running mate, the better thing to say is "I'm so impressed by what you've done," a sentence that demonstrates our support but places all the credit where it belongs -- on the other person.

As long as we're on McCain's use of language, permit me to say that along with my "Joe the Plumber" fatigue is the weariness that comes from being chronically addressed as "My friends." I've been attuned to the folksiness that's crept into our national political conversation since last winter when I heard the author Susan Jacoby discuss her book, The Age of American Unreason. Decrying the anti-intellectual debasement of our culture, Jacoby said: "[Franklin] Roosevelt would no more have addressed his fellow citizens as 'folks' than he would have used obscenities on the radio."

I agree. There's no question that we live in serious times, and it seems that the tenor of the discussion should match. After all, even the ringmaster at the circus addresses us as "Ladies and Gentlemen."