Sad, really. That was my immediate melancholy reaction to John McCain's speech to the Republican convention in St Paul. This was not your daddy's John McCain; heck it weren't even the John McCain of 2000. McCain, I'm afraid, seemed a wee old man up there and his delivery - never a strong suit - was even worse than usual. unwittingly, no doubt, it gave the impression that his heart wasn't really in it. He seemed flat and oddly uninterested.
Though McCain talked about the need to fix Washington his essential message that We messed it up, so it's our responsibility to clean it up may not be quite what voters want to hear when they have the alternative of selecting a party that hasn't been in power for the past eight years. He tried the insider-as-outsider trick, but before this audience of true believers it didn't quite catch on.
Did McCain make a compelling case for his candidacy? No, at least to my foreign eyes, not quite. There was no big idea, no really compelling vision, little more, actually, than a sense that McCain's sacrifices ovr the years, many of them terrible, had somehow earned him the right to be President. But the Oval Office isn't a lifetime achievement award (cf, George W Bush) is it?
Much of McCain's speech was standard Republican boilerplate anyway, culled from party platforms of the past and Heritage Foundation fact sheets. True, I liked his rhetoric on school choice, but I don't beleive a President McCain is going to be in a position to advance that cause very far. Elsewhere, it was the standard GOP talking points on taxes, energy (a strangely, even idiotically, large issue this election).
Even the foreign pollicy section of the speech was oddly perfunctory: just a couple of lines about al-Qaeda and Iraq and then a longer chunk on Russia. OK! Perhaps McCain assumed that everyone already knows his views - and the length of his experience - in foreign policy and that there was therefore little need to spend much time on the matter.
So what was he able to offer? A pledge to be a bipartisan President (not what the conventioneers wanted to hear!) and above all the constant reiteration that John McCain would always - can only, in fact - put country first. If he didn't enjoy it so much you might almost say there's a hint of martydom about all this. Or, if you prefer, a mild smugness that McCain's sense of public service is so much nobler than anyone else's. Still, the old man means it, even if the wise-cracking reformer of 2000 is finding that a lot can change in eight years, not all of it for the better.
Even McCain's perororation - an impassioned call to service and a pledge to always fight for lady America - which some friends thought saved the speech (for those watching who made it that far) sounded more like a speech McCain might make at a university graduation ceremony, exhorting the young and the privileged to consider a life of public service.
Which reminded me that though McCain talked movingly about his Vietnam experiences here, he has done much better before. In fact, I couldn't help but think McCain might have been better off just delivering the commencement address he gave to Liberty University (and Columbia) in 2006. True, there's little policy in this speech but it's better written and gives a much more compelling sense of who John McCain is and his sense of the wisdom and consolations of age and experience than anything he said in St Paul this week. Since this convention was largely built around biography, he might as well have given a better biographical speech.
One final observation: the cheers when he mentioned Sarah Palin were louder than any other response McCain drew from the crowd. One had the sense then that McCain's party, never fully enamoured of him anyway, had moved on and, worse, that he knew it. Perhaps this is a mistaken impression, but McCain's speech seemed like a missed opportunity and, rather than offer a compelling argument for his presidency, was a sorrowful rumination on where it had all gone so terribly wrong.
But that may be, as I say, a mistaken impression. Voters may be more impressed than I was by what they may see as McCain's dignity, nobility and sense of service. But as the applause died down I couldn't help but recall Enoch Powell's famous old line that all political lives end in failure.