Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Number of sentences in John McCain's acceptance speech about his experience as a POW in Vietnam: 43.
Number of sentences about his 25 years in the House and Senate: 8.
The convention ended as it began: a commemoration of McCain's hellish years in a Hanoi prison cell four decades ago. The political equation was a simple one: POW equals patriotic hero equals a fighting president. Before McCain walked down the long runway at St. Paul's Xcel Center, a baritone voice declared over the P.A., "When you've lived in a box....you put your people first." Case closed.
But there was a speech to get through. And before McCain arrived at the climactic I-was-a-POW finale, he delivered, in wooden style, a no-better-than-par speech that was mostly a series of traditional GOP buzz phrases: lower taxes, cut spending, open markets. He noted, "We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don't legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities." (Just not community organizers.) Was the speechwriter who penned Sarah Palin's acceptance speech too busy to work on McCain's?
Unlike most speakers at the convention, McCain acknowledged that some Americans are facing tough times. "I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market," he said. "Bill got a temporary job after he was out of work for seven months. Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills." And he said he would fight for Jake and Toni Wimmer of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. "Jake," he explained, "works on a loading dock; coaches Little League, and raises money for the mentally and physically disabled. Toni is a schoolteacher, working toward her Master's Degree. They have two sons, the youngest, Luke, has been diagnosed with autism." But how would McCain help these folks? Moments later, he offered a dumbed-down version of his economic plan: " I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it." (By the way, many analysts and journalists have repeatedly noted that Obama's economic plan would cut income taxes far more than McCain for Americans below the top 1 percent.)
The speech was the easy part. But she did it well.
Delivering the most anticipated vice presidential acceptance speech in modern political history, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin accomplished the mission. She talked family, biography, policy, and John McCain. Especially John McCain the POW. And--Democrats beware--she demonstrated she's handy with a rhetorical stiletto and can slice Barack Obama and Joe Biden while flashing a stylish smile.
The 44-year-old Palin did not wipe out questions about her experience. She did not address allegations she had abused her office while serving as a small-town mayor and as a governor. She did not defend her more extreme social positions, such as her support for teaching creationism. But in politics, performance counts for much. And for a little-known politician who had been hunkered down for days, as negative stories and rumors flew about, she had a helluva opening night. Next, Palin will have to face the media--one of the targets of her speech--fielding presumably tough queries about her actions (and life) in Alaska and her foreign policy experience (or lack thereof). But for the night, she held her own--and showed that she has the potential to be a fierce and effective critic of the Obama-Biden ticket.
On Wednesday, ABC News' Charlie Gibson interviewed John McCain. An excerpt:
GIBSON: Senator, since I've been following politics, every single presidential nominee has said that the first quality they look for in a vice presidential pick is the capability and the readiness to take over as president. Can you look the country straight in the eye and say Sarah Palin has the qualities and has enough experience to be commander in chief?
MCCAIN: Oh, absolutely. Having been the governor of our largest state, the commander of their National Guard.
Later in the interview, McCain said, "Governor Palin knows the surge has succeeded. She's the commander of the Alaskan National Guard."
We now interrupt the spin for some facts. After interviewing the service commander of the Alaska National Guard, McClatchy newspapers reports, "Palin has never personally ordered the state guard to do anything." Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It appears she has no command experience whatsoever. The news service notes, "The governor has granted [the service commander] the authority to act on his own in most cases, including life-or-death emergencies -- when a quick response is required -- and minor day-to-day operations."
So it's clear: when McCain and his surrogates talk about Palin's experience, the only honorable course is to not mention the Alaska National Guard.
The McCain campaign has informed broadcast media that they should block off an hour for McCain's acceptance speech on Thursday night. An hour? That's a lot of McCain. Or any politician. Is the campaign expecting his speech to be interrupted by numerous ovations? Does it want to prove to voters that McCain can pull off such a strenuous action?
McCain has never been accused of being a stem-winder. So even when it's time for the most important speech of his long political career, less may be more.
The first night of the Republican's hurricane-delayed convention didn't matter--thanks to John McCain's decision to place Sarah Palin on his ticket. By choosing the little-known Alaska governor, who a short while ago was mayor of a small town and who has come to the national stage with soap opera in tow, McCain made Palin the story of this shortened week. There's more anticipation for her acceptance speech (on Wednesday night) than for his (Thursday night). George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani—forget about 'em, only Palin truly counts.
But the first night did reveal what McCain's strategists are thinking—or worrying—about. The speakers focused over and over on McCain's experience as a Vietnam prisoner of war and devoted little time to his 21 years in the Senate. It was almost as if McCain's two-and-a-half decades in Congress were a dirty secret. And one of the main speeches of the night—delivered by former Senator Fred Thompson—was full of 1980s-styled Republican red meat. (Democrats support abortion rights and will raise YOUR taxes.) It seemed as if the convention planners were so concerned about the Republican base that they had to go back to the future and plagiarize the Reagan playbook. And throughout the night, there was practically no acknowledgment there's any economic pain in the world outside the Xcel Energy Center. The McCain people say, this election is about character, not issues. Tonight really proved that: McCain doesn't need to feel voters' pain; they need to feel his.
The Republicans were somewhat fortunate they only have three evenings to program, due to Hurricane Gustav. How many times can McCain's "service" be praised before a well-behaved, not-very-excited crowd of well-dressed, older and predominantly white Americans who sit in neat rows beneath an electronic billboard bearing the phrase "Country First" and who hold on their laps placards that proclaim, "Service"? And how many Teddy Roosevelt references?
McCain may be the top of the ticket, but Palin has been the main attraction. After the news of her teenage daughter's pregnancy emerged—and smothered rumors that Palin had faked a pregnancy to cover up a supposed earlier pregnancy—the convention seemed to freeze. At receptions, during panel discussions, and in hotel lobbies, there was no talk of Bush's speech, which was first canceled and then rescheduled (as a video address on Tuesday). And no talk of what would be in McCain's speech. The one question is, how will she do?