Anybody wanting to claim victory after John McCain's speech to the Republican Convention Tuesday night had evidence handy. Bush supporters holding a grudge after the two men's bruising primary battle could read back McCain's repeated words of endorsement for their candidate.
But McCain supporters could point to evidence of their own: a notably subdued performance from McCain that seemed half-hearted in its rhetoric. The usually fiery speaker was too low key in his delivery to generate much excitement for Bush. Instead he turned introspective, and nearly maudlin at times.
"I will not see what is over America's horizon," McCain said. "The years that remain are not too few I trust, but the immortality that was the aspiration of my youth has, like all the treasures of youth, quietly slipped away."
As a result, the speech McCain was supposed to make for Bush became something else the Bush campaign couldn't have hoped for: a speech that seemed to be more about John McCain.
McCain took the stage to an enthusiastic ovation as the band played the "Star Wars" theme, a nod to his self-description as Luke Skywalker battling outside the Death Star, a metaphor he used routinely during his campaign. He thanked delegates for their "kindness to a distant runner-up," saying he was "proud to join you this evening in commending to all Americans the man who now represents your best wishes and mine for the future of our country, my friend, Governor George W. Bush."
As promised, he made no mention of his pet issue, campaign finance reform, focusing instead on a speech missing much of the passion and electricity that marked his primary stump speeches. Instead of straight talk, McCain spoke elliptically about "reforming our institutions to meet the challenges of a new day."
McCain also made a brief appeal to voters drawn to his candidacy from outside the Republican Party to consider voting for Bush. "I say to all Americans -- Republican, Democrat or Independent," he said, "if you believe patriotism is more than a sound bite and public service should be more than a photo-op, then vote for Governor Bush ... I support him, I am grateful to him and I am proud of him."
He briefly quoted the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville's description of Americans as being "haunted by visions of what will be," applying the phrase to the industrious and prosperous generation of World War II veterans who "returned with an ever deeper civic love. They believed that if America was worth dying for, then surely she was worth living for."
It was an appropriate reference for a night dedicated to celebrating the Republican Party's military muscle and pride, including a characteristically stiff performance from failed 1996 candidate Bob Dole, who is a decorated World War II veteran; Gulf War hero Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf speaking from the deck of the Battleship New Jersey; and frequent references throughout the night to the honored military career of former President George Bush, also a veteran of the Second World War. The evening seemed, in part, an elaborate way to deflect attention from the fact -- pointed out by pundits repeatedly Tuesday -- that both Bush and his vice presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, avoided fighting in the Vietnam War. (It may be needless concern: In a recent CNN/Time poll, respondents said that Bush was closer than Gore, 49 to 32, to their own views of defense policy.)
But when McCain ended the speech echoing his earlier Tocqueville reference -- "I am haunted by the vision of what will be" -- the energy seemed to seep out of the stadium with him as he swept out of the arena.
At an event where language doesn't usually rise above Madison Avenue-approved third-grade reading levels, McCain's speech might have been a little too heady for what this crowd had in mind. Or maybe the image of a "haunted" McCain, as he effectively finishes his stumping in a race that once seemed like it almost could have been his, was the image he wanted to leave at this convention.