According to Tim Dickinson’s informative Rolling Stone biography, John McCain crashed three airplanes in his career as a pilot. Most famously, he bailed out of his stricken fighter jet in Vietnam, ending up in a military prison. In Tuesday’s debate McCain went down in flames once again. He will be able to walk away from this crash like the others, but not into the White House.
McCain crashed because he ran out of fuel. Sputtering, repetitive, cranky, he went through the motions of engagement with the questions, the issues and the debate. But his heart wasn’t in it. Nor, really, was his brain. He missed his main chance eight years ago. Even he must know that now. But he’s got nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. Oddly similar to the current occupant of the White House.
Debate moderator Tom Brokaw showed that he has overstayed his welcome on national television. Brokaw’s bland demeanor, flat Midwestern cadence and faint, Elmer Fuddy lisp were all he needed to read news headlines aloud for decades. But when the presidential debaters blocked Old Tom’s teleprompter on Tuesday, he waved them testily out of his way. Though all he had left to say was “Good Night and Good Luck.” Tom’s lavish NBC salary bought him a Montana ranch, where he should go now and try to git along with the little dogies, in the land of Brokaw dreams.
Some debate moderators are too passive. But Brokaw went the other way, breaking off conversation and hushing up the candidates, who never did manage to cut loose and talk real talk. “The format!” Old Tom screeched. “Remember the format you signed off on months ago…” But Brokaw himself had opened the show by saying that the world had changed mightily in the past ten days. Screw the format.
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And screw Tom sticking in his own personal extra questions. Contrary to Brokaw’s belief, his opinion is not worth more than that of the “ordinary citizens” invited to observe the debate on stage and ask questions. And were those people drugged or threatened to render them docile enough for prime time? Or is that just Who We Are Now? Brokaw represents a tiny demographic of wealthy East Coast insiders. He is as out of touch with the pain and confusion of average people as the candidates are. He’s in the same bubble, floating above it all.
Where the hell is Howard Beale when we need him?
We needed Howard there on Tuesday night to divert these candidates from tossing canned chunks of their stump speeches at the audience. Understandably, after two years of non-stop campaigning, both men are exhausted. Neither one intends to expend an ounce more of thought or rhetoric than necessary. Like fighters in the late rounds, they are dazed. They just want it all to be over, even more than we do. Obama only raised his gloves – and his game – high enough to ward off the tired blows from the once mighty McCain.
But Obama on cruise control isn’t good enough. He needs to be prodded into new modes of thinking, not the old failed frames McCain continues to brag about mastering and Brokaw continues to ask about rescuing. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill are as sunken as Atlantis. We don’t need someone who can reach across the aisle, but across the globe. The days of Cold War bluster and parochial thinking are not just gone, but inimical to a rational world order that we can either help to shape or struggle to catch up with later.
McCain is a dinosaur. The earth still shakes and the hills shudder with his roars. But they are dying roars, from dying wars. It does no good to refight them now. We can’t do Us against Them anymore. We can’t afford it financially, morally or psychologically. It is time to take a leaf from Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” but in reverse, to build a new, inclusive social model from the rubble of the moral and economic meltdown that confronts us right now. You can almost hear the paradigm shifting. But we must not allow low forms of political life, the Bush-Cheney-McCain types, to act as the stewards of these new changes. The will only subvert them.
Frustrated, frightened American voters are ready for radical changes in the system that has now betrayed them. It is time to ask big, fundamental questions about the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of world we want to make. Barack Obama may or may not be capable of asking those questions and leading that more meaningful debate among his countrymen. John McCain is not. How do we get there from here? That’s what we need to ask. And demand an answer.
James McEnteer is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006).
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