A couple of weeks before August 28th—the night that accepted the Democratic nomination for President, in a Denver football stadium—Stuart Shepard, the digital-media director of the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, one of the most powerful organizations on the religious right, posed a question to his Internet viewers. “Would it be wrong,” he asked, “to pray for rain?” Shepard’s answer, apparently, was no, because he proceeded to do just that. He prayed for there to be rain—abundant rain, torrential rain, “rain of Biblical proportions”—in Denver on August 28th. “I’m praying for unexpected, unanticipated, unforecasted rain that starts two minutes before the speech is set to begin,” he said, adding, “I know there will probably be people who will pray for seventy-two degrees and clear skies, but this isn’t a contest.”
In the event, Obama gave his speech under clear skies with the thermometer at seventy-two degrees. It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from this about the efficacy of prayer. Still, Shepard and others who assume that the Almighty faxes meteorological talking points as a matter of routine must now be puzzling over what He meant last week by arranging for a hurricane just severe enough to disrupt the opening of the Republican National Convention (and freshen the public’s memories of the present Administration’s Katrina incompetence) but, mercifully, not so severe as to do too much damage to the innocent.
The Focus on the Family approach to divine intervention having fizzled, needed a deus ex machina. The deus—or rather, in this case, the dea—he found, sprung fully formed from the brow of Rush Limbaugh, is the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. The machina is “the base,” the Christianist conservatives who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Governor Palin ticks every box on the checklist of the social right. She opposes abortion rights, even for women and girls made pregnant by rape or incest. She thinks that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. She does not believe that global warming is caused by human activity. She supports public funding for homeschooling. She is against stem-cell research. She opposes “explicit” sex education and supports the abstinence-only kind, though she is surely aware of its indifferent record of success.
With the selection of Sarah Palin, McCain completes the job of defusing the enmity (and forgoing the honor) he earned in 2000, when he condemned Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.” His motives in choosing her were entirely tactical and mostly—the mot juste is that of Mike Murphy, once McCain’s top political aide, overheard by an errant microphone—cynical. Besides placating the right, those motives included the short-term goal of preempting the weekend news cycles that might otherwise have been devoted to reviewing Obama’s triumphant Democratic Convention. The price that McCain paid, and that could sooner or later be exacted from the nation, was the abandonment of what he had repeatedly called his overriding requirement for a Vice-President: someone who would be ready to take his place at a moment’s notice—“you know, immediately.”
According to Time, Palin’s acceptance address was drafted—by a former Bush White House speechwriter—before she was chosen and then retailored to fit her. Like almost every major speech at that Convention (Mike Huckabee’s being an exception), it substituted sarcasm for humor in its sneers at Obama. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said. “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights,” she said, a little chillingly. “Listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or even a reform, not even in the state senate,” she said. This last was simply false; Obama’s legislative record, both in Illinois and (given its brevity) in Washington, is impressive. (Also, it’s McCain whose books have been “authored.” Obama wrote his.) But the speech was well crafted and more than competently delivered, with even its most mean-spirited lines accompanied by perky smiles and wrinklings of the nose. McCain’s gamble, though shockingly irresponsible as an act of potential governance, is, for now, a political success: Palin attracted close to forty million television viewers, the crowd in the hall went wild for her, and a Rasmussen poll taken immediately afterward showed her with higher “positives” than any of the three men on the national tickets.
After that, it was inevitable that the Presidential nominee’s acceptance speech would be an anticlimax. But, if it did not excite, neither did it disgust. McCain was gracious to his opponent—“I wouldn’t be an American worthy of the name if I didn’t honor Senator Obama and his supporters for their achievement”—and his call to “comfort the afflicted” and “defend the rights of the oppressed” sounded interestingly like a community organizer’s job description. The speech contained only one serious falsehood: the charge that Obama would “force families into a government-run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor.” It was withering in its rhetorical critique of McCain’s own party. “We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption,” he said. “We lost their trust when we valued our power over our principles.” He promised to bring Democrats and independents into his Administration. He acknowledged the pain of America’s sinking economy. But the sketchy solutions he proposed were indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s.
At the end, McCain peered not into the future but forty years into the past. His retelling of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was powerful, and the lesson he drew from it—that it caused him “to learn the limits of my selfish independence”—was the very opposite of Republican boilerplate. But its backward-looking orientation—at one point, McCain described where he was when he learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—underlined his age and, with it, the recklessness of the most important decision he has made as a candidate.
The speech made clear that it will not be enough for Obama and the Democrats simply to equate McCain with Bush. If McCain wins, he will, almost certainly, “change the tone,” as Bush promised, falsely, to do eight years ago. In certain details, McCain may even change the policies, though there was little in his speech to encourage that hope. But he is seventy-two years old; if he is elected and reelected, he will be in his eighties by the end of his second term. If he does become our next President, then all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, had better pray for his health.