I can make one general and, I think, indisputable observation about last night's Republican debate: The printed word is much kinder than the camera.
To read this morning's straight press coverage of this latest of Tweedle-Dee road shows -- now whittled to a foursome and staged at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library -- one would think John McCain was the very picture of consistency, forthrightness and self-confidence. Now there's a man who knows his own mind. That's the way his quotable quotes come across when clinically excised in print.
But you had to be there -- that is, you had to be watching -- to savor the real flavor of his performance. It bordered on the depraved, revealing a stagnant mind packed only with squalid, mimeographed attack lines. McCain was frequently hesitant, often robotic, seemingly suffering from a surgically affixed and insipid grin, and on occasion looking and sounding like a man well on his way to the disease that ultimately afflicted his deceased host.
His modus operandi was to assault and dissemble. These are, of course, the customary pillars of professional politics, but McCain swiftly razed them to the level of bungling amateurism. However it wasn't as though he seemed uncomfortable in the role of an evasive and snarling dog; it was more a case of someone who had been told that whatever he did just before Florida, do it again. But he couldn't quite remember, it seemed, just what that was, so he struggled to piece it all together again, right there, live, on camera.
This isn't to suggest his performance was suicidal. No, that would require assistance -- a base, that is, with the sufficient objectivity to deduce from McCain's farrago of incompetence that there was something seriously troubling about the man. But hell, we've seen this road show before, most notably in 2000 and 2004, and it went over like gangbusters.
And poor Mitt, the sole target of McCain's raging dementia. Still reeling from his unpredicted crucifixion in Florida, he was reduced to a drooling, defensive display of indignation. McCain had slammed him with "the Washington-style old politics," he bellowed, "which is lay a charge out there, regardless of whether it’s true or not, don’t check it, don’t talk to the other candidate, just throw it out there, get it in the media, in the stream."
Welcome to Obamaland, Mitt. And in response to your rather pitiable protestations McCain merely sat, with that aforementioned insipid grin, occasionally muttering "of course" Mitt was guilty. Simple as that, case closed. I'm investigating the possibility that John is being schooled in debate tactics by my two ex-wives. (OK, I was a little guilty of unbearability. Well, more than a little, actually.)
McCain did once again have the opportunity to say something of an honorable tint, but naturally he's barred from that, given his targeted audience. It has to do with the 2001 tax cuts, which he now says he voted against only because of their lack of concomitant spending reductions. Yet on the Senate floor way back then his principal and stated reason for opposition was that "so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief." My, my, what Republican primaries can do to reason -- and honor.
At any rate, Mike Huckabee (however limited his appearance) again won the Honest Humor award, mostly for noting that sure he supported massive highway construction projects in Florida last week, but this week he's inclined to favor California-bound ones. If wit held voter appeal, Mike might have had a chance. But it doesn't, so he doesn't.
And then there was Ron Paul, who, frankly, should have walked out. Whatever you think about his positions -- and he was the only one to encapsulate the brutal reality that our foreign policy is "bankrupting this country," though he dilutes his effectiveness with mysterious demonologies about "the monetary system" -- you also have to think that if CNN didn't want his participation, which it clearly didn't, then it should not have invited him. Had I been Paul, I would have returned the insult by gently removing my lavaliere mic and going home.
The McCain-Romney slugfest was worth it for us, the others, though. The latter was wounded from the get-go and it showed. The former, however, exhibited some kind of bizarre, self-confident incompetence, and proved that no matter how old the bull, his bullshit can still sell. Just watch it fly off the shelves next week.
****to P.M. Carpenter's Commentary -- because, to be blunt about it, things are rather desperate here. I am not, as some readers have assumed, of the professorial class who lives off the fat of the ivory tower, though I do hold a doctorate in American political history. Rather, I am but a typically impoverished public scribe who relies on a substitute-teaching income as a too-meager base for this daily column. I therefore must also rely on you, the regular reader, to supplement the production of what you regularly enjoy, or, on occasion, become enraged at. The purpose is merely to stimulate thought and challenge the conventional. So, if at all possible, please click the button above and make a contribution of $10, $25, $50 or $100. And then enjoy. Thank you -- P.M.