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10/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain: Deregulating Reality or Campaign by Anecdote

Like many other progressives, I watched the Friday night debates closely and felt sure that McCain had won the night. I was delighted and surprised to find that most after-debate focus groups gave the win to Obama, if not by a knockout, on points. Then I had to question myself about why was I so sure that McCain had won. Obama's performance was okay but not dazzling. He knew his stuff, but again, failed to invest it with sufficient passion, playing defense to McCain's attacks.

Obama was right on most points, except for the question of what to do about Afghanistan, where history shows that a massive army -- be it British or Russian -- cannot "defeat" a tribal society that lives in caves, hidden from view by the roughest terrain. See British diplomat and adventurer Rory Stewart's books on that country and you will find the clearest insight into the nature of these people and the futility of fighting a western style war in those mountains. Obama made good points about the absurd bellicosity of the Republican candidate, who stood nearby as a cartoon illustration of the huff and puff and blow your house down rhetoric that McCain reverts to when he doesn't have a flag to wave. Clearly for me, and those like me, Obama made the best case for his presidency -- he would be the informed and rational leader we need -- but McCain showed greater skills at moving crowds with flashes of passion. He was lovable, irascible Uncle Henry, a bit of a braggart, a sometimes bully, but a familiar family figure, full of jokes and stories. Quite simply, having honed his story-telling skills for the past year in the Karl Rove College of Advanced Mendacity, McCain is the better liar, the professional storyteller who knows how to manipulate an anecdote to his advantage far better than Obama.

I worried that the American public had been so seduced over the past eight years by self-serving stories -- rather than practical realities -- that the storyteller would always win the day. The Republicans have been trying to win this election by anecdote because they cannot win by facts and on their record.

Take the Eisenhower story. McCain spoke of Eisenhower's two letters written on D-Day, one an apology for failure, one triumphant after a success. Nice story. The fact that it did not connect to anything McCain said was typical of what he was doing. Oh, it may have had something to do with taking responsibility, a noble, manly virtue, but in what way did it apply to McCain, who had not, in this campaign, taken responsibility for any past mistakes, let alone the naming of the disaster waiting to happen -- Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate? The entire purpose of the story was "Hey, my friends, heh-heh, in case you haven't noticed, I'm another Eisenhower."

Stories about Eisenhower and stories about Reagan have one aim in mind -- to cover the speaker with borrowed glory -- the cheapest kind of name-dropping, Hollywood-style, virtue by association. Of course there was the repellent quoting of the wisdom of Henry Kissinger by both men, squabbling over who most agrees with Henry, the living gift of disaster that never stops giving. And then there was the revealing bit about the bracelet given to McCain by the mother of a solider killed in Iraq, a woman who begged him to wear it and justify her son's death by fighting on until victory. Before the warm glow of McCain's story was about to once again turn him into a walking war monument, Obama flashed his own bracelet from a war stricken mother with the opposite message, stop the war, bringing the battle of the bracelets to a draw. And like a vaudeville comedian with an old but always successful act, we waited for the eternal punch line in McCain's story, the POW years.

In all McCain's blathering about corruption in Washington I had hoped that Obama would mention the Keating Five -- the S&L scandal which nearly ended McCain's career, and will forever cast a shadow over all his protestations of fiscal virtue. But Obama the gent held back -- probably wisely. Leave ancient history to McCain, and focus on the dire present. Alas, I have to accept the fact that my candidate lacks my natural mean streak. Oh, how I wish I could lend it to him for the next debate.

Although I share an age with McCain, when I look at him I think not of myself, or my generation, but of my dear departed father and his generation, the WW1 and Depression era Americans. Dad was a great guy, but he never found a truth that he could not improve by turning it into a self-serving story. He was a successful salesman -- employing the old 20th century salesman's techniques of asking questions about the customer's family, the 'how are those great kids of yours?' the schmoozing of the customer -- in this case the voter - that I see in McCain. And I take personal offense at all that not so subtle appeal to the Jewish vote by vowing to protect Israel from Iran -- as if that was even an issue -- another low point in the debate for both candidates. Speaking with Iran may be the best way to help secure Israel, the diplomacy that McCain cannot allow. It is deeply offensive to any Jewish voter who cares about the fate of Israel, to have a candidate try to exploit such fears in this way.

Despite all those "my friends" of McCain's and all that blather about protecting the little guy (please, everyone, mercifully kill "Main Street" as the euphemism for just folks); it comes off as so much hyper-salesmanship. And all those "I was there to meet with President Whatsis and General You Know Who...to see for myself" -- more self-congratulation; McCain praising himself for touring the hotspots of the world on taxpayers money. It came off not as earned wisdom but as an old man's bragging as we braced ourselves for the slide show of travel pictures and celebrity photo-ops. What I most saw in McCain at that debate was raw ambition, covering a boiling rage with folksy tales and flashes of righteous anger -- anger which any sane man would think McCain should direct against himself. If he learned anything from Eisenhower's story of the two D-Day letters, he, McCain, should have opened the one which took blame for the catastrophic financial situation we find ourselves in today, a catastrophe aided and abetted by McCain, the financial world's deregulator, and one who continues to deregulate reality.

Read more reactions to the first presidential debate from HuffPost bloggers, including Nora Ephron, Bob Shrum, Madeleine Albright, Paul Reiser, Arianna Huffington, Sean Penn, Sheryl Crow, and more.