In a somber voice John McCain’s first response in last night’s debate started, “ on a sad note, Senator Kennedy is in the hospital.” Interestingly no one picked up on yet another bit of inaccurate grandstanding – Kennedy checked out a mild seizure brought on by a change in medication but at that moment was back home watching the debate. Once again, McCain was seeking to grab a headline as he has done so successfully all week. Barack Obama rightly pointed to his many mixed messages from healthy economy to “suspending” campaign, but missed the point. As long as your name gets out there, a new message means a new story. That has been the McCain mantra throughout his career, with the exception perhaps of Chuck Schumer, no one likes the cameras more. From when he stepped on post-convention coverage of Obama’s acceptance speech, he has milked every headline available. But it’s a risky strategy because at some point the wolf becomes more of a joke whose cries sound hollow, seen for the sound and fury that they really are. The biggest such joke is playing out in the imploding of Sarah Palin. Sarah – where is she now?
In a recent posting I suggested that the key question of this campaign was “are we better off now than we were eight years ago?” To me last night’s debate added another, and in the end perhaps more powerful one. It was what Alessandra Stanley’s article in the NY Times was rightly headlined “a generational clash”, the past vs. the future. It was evident from the moment the two candidates took the stage. John McCain looking at least his 72 years against the trim youthful Obama. If the contrast between the television visages of Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy were great, this picture presented something many times more powerful. It’s true that Jim Lehrer began with a quote from Dwight Eisenhower, but McCain’s additional story about the World War II general, only underscored a mindset locked in the last century. And there lies the underlying issue of this campaign, past vs. future. In the end, all of McCain’s experience, as Hillary Clinton learned, may not be a winning argument, perhaps even more so. After all Clinton’s candidacy offered an unprecedented opportunity of having a woman in the White House that, by definition, always promised a look ahead not backwards. Even so, she couldn’t overcome Obama’s message and personification of change.
There is also a substantive, if ironic, message in these two campaigners. The experienced McCain presents, perhaps a forceful character, but nonetheless an erratic one. He may be knowledgeable, but more than often comes off as shooting from the hip. If that’s seasoned, it’s counter intuitive. In contrast, the “young” and “inexperienced” Obama comes off as measured and thoughtful. His cool drives some supporters to distraction, but they are not thinking. Who would you rather have pick up that phone at 3:00 AM, a guy who will shoot out an impulsive order or one who will pause to weigh his options and the consequences of acting one way or another. It seems to me we have had more than enough shooting off from mouth and hip in these last eight years to last a lifetime.
I don’t envy the man who raises his hand to take the oath this coming January 20. The problems he faces may be greater than almost any president in our history. But I do hope he will be thinking about the future, not recounting golden oldies and anecdotes of past wars long since receded into history. It’s what we will do not what we did. It’s the future, stupid.