If I had to play for one side or the other, and I had no other thoughts or feelings but the will to side with genius, I’d play for the Republicans. The GOP convention trumped the Democratic—because some intelligence there is, in their control room, who can conceive of mastery on the grandest scale; a moral monster, to be sure; a jinni of evil; a trafficker in political eschatology, unafraid to trespass on myths of the gravest consequence. Someone behind the scenes held the key and boldly turned it: someone foresaw that the means of hatching a McCain triumphant was to make of him a risen God. This was the burden of the Vice Presidential and Presidential addresses, and the galvanism of the last few days.
To understand the trick worked, you must see the core conceit: that John McCain is already dead. Nominee Palin’s speech was a memorial. Her strange phrases conjuring the Presidential nominee as the kind of fellow whose name you will find on war memorials in small towns across this country hung fire, on screens across the country and in the convention hall, until she qualified them—only he was among the ones who came home. The true feeling was that he did not: that somewhere on a town green beneath a motionless flag you can find his name inscribed in stone.
It was a speech drenched in blood and suffering. The gift of Palin that makes her so unbeatable is that she looks indomitable, fertile, fatted beneath the chin and sturdy of frame. The iron in her soul that makes her undebatable by anyone within Washington, which puts her outside the permanent political establishment, is that she is willing to sacrifice each one of her children for her beliefs. Her older son will be sent to bleed on the sand in Iraq. Her 17-year-old daughter, pregnant—another triumph for abstinence education!—will be sacrificed to Palin’s sanctimony about abortion; the boyfriend, poor Levi, will be made the husband in an onstage shotgun wedding, as he takes daughter Bristol’s hand in front of a million viewers. The motionless handicapped infant is a baby prop. At 45, Palin could still pop out more. Her rude health is her means of service; above her hovers the spirit, the absent McCain, whose vaporous death-struck presence, lost in the past, has returned to shepherd all these sacrificial lambs.
Palin provides the flesh. McCain is a ghost. Palin is mother to others, daughter to him. He went to places where winning means survival and defeat means death. He didn’t come back. She puts forward an unfamiliar code of the small town: In her small town, love of country means only work and pain, not local solidarity. Love of country means death. With Vietnam and Iraq crowding in from either side, death means dying when the country is right, and dying when it is wrong. America’s men are always proud of America. Whatever it does; wherever it sends them. Sarah Palin stands at home, beaming while they go. It was one of the most mesmerizing political performances I have seen.
The next night Senator John McCain undid himself. Who convinced him to say what he said? Much of his speech was the way he must like it to be. It was awkward, but sincere. It looked back on a fine career as its speaker declared he still had strength to fight on, even as his death neared. I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God. He testified for America; he echoed a strange formula of our law system, as if he had come before his Judge and Confessor. At the climax, he spoke his story, the familiar narrative of his captivity in Hanoi, now spun out as if it had been fatal; not the watershed of a young man but the termination for a particular human being. McCain had been his own man once, he remembered. He had known pride and independence. Then he was shot down and captured by the enemy. And they broke me. The young man who’d gone to Vietnam did not return. I was never the same again. He did not possess himself as once he had. I wasn’t my own man anymore. The former soldier had been dissolved and translated to a different sphere. He danced in the flame above the mortuary marble. He lay in the mystery of the Unknown Soldier’s tomb. Who served in the Congress, those twenty-five years? I was my country’s. He was remains. McCain was not well. The skin was spotted and translucent. He persisted so that the country might survive. His thin white hair seemed the wispy thatch upon a buried skull.
Who puzzled out the myth? Someone alert in the Party machinery must have taken action when it became clear that McCain could not lift a finger to help himself. The maverick wouldn’t do what was needed to win this race. Many within his own campaign already knew. But the national Party is a different beast; the Elephant will stamp when it must. How had McCain been allowed ever to gain the nomination—except that the voters, unexpectedly, had liked him again as they had in 2000? And there had been no organized Republican saboteurs this time, to stop McCain as they had done with the elaborate South Carolina “black baby” smear eight years ago, when McCain stood directly in the way of young Bush’s rise.
A friend of mine who’d traveled with the campaign relayed an anecdote to explain why McCain wouldn’t win—because his handlers couldn’t keep their man saying what they wanted him to say. Obama had been asked by the press what Americans could do to help the gas crisis. “Make sure your tires are at the right inflation pressure,” he said, stupidly. The Republican operators had a surefire stinger: Obama thinks gas prices can be solved by inflating your tires. It went out in texts and press releases and talking points for the day. McCain was asked about Obama’s remarks, on schedule, at the afternoon press conference, and he had his chance to go in for the kill. Well, McCain said, to tell the truth, keeping your tires filled up is a very good idea.
It used to be a charge against McCain that he hadn’t come back the same from Vietnam. This was a part of the old George W. innuendo. Many think it’s a problem, now, that at his age, and with a history of cancer, McCain may not live through a term in office. And in the new myth both troubles were suddenly made into virtues. Above all, the mythology must prove that the man in the flesh, standing before you, is not the man who matters. He is larger than this; his blood has been spilled and his spirit loosed; we will be washed in his blood. Is it a Christian allegory? McCain can’t lift his arms high enough to be pinned to a cross. It is all loose revelation: he died for us; he is the Great Papa in the sky; he was a man, but it’s all right if he should disappear; he is spread out in the soil, and above the clouds; this time, it is Country First.
I have often asked myself whether eight years of George W. Bush has been God’s judgment on America for our sins. The Bush theft of the election of 2000 turned out to be one of the periodic eruptions of evil into American politics. Now evil seems at an ebb. It was precisely against McCain that the first trick had been played; then the second fell upon Gore, as W.’s operators cynically counted upon him to put the United States before tumult and danger. And that righteous man’s wrong choice to surrender handed us over to two terms of tumult and danger.
I now think God has simply withdrawn from us. There is some spirit working through the Republican Party, that of the tempter. We used to call the spirit Karl Rove and we were wrong to do so. He too was an instrument, and was cast aside. It seemed the abuses and madnesses of the last two elections and two administrations had burned up all the sulfur at last. But this requisitioning of Sarah Palin from the frozen wastes, this theology that sidelines a sane political man to introduce the symbolism of sacrifice, reawakening an underlying cult of death . . . This is the old W.-era touch.
My fiancée has developed a paranoia that Palin’s ascension means a speedy end for the fleshly McCain. He won’t live long in office. There will be a palace coup. A poison plot in the manner of certain Russian premiers’ unanticipated deaths; never proven or provable. A simple “heart attack.” Does McCain believe he will govern? Has he let himself fall too much into the belief, once again, in a normal political world—a GOP of the kind he wants to believe in; not the party he actually saw in 2000 and in 2004—his torturers transplanted to America, the penny-ante Machiavellians, with their disdain for the unfamiliar, and their easy way of disposing of human life?
What had formerly impressed me about this election cycle was that it promised a peaceful succession; a way out of the W. years and their maze of horrors. Whoever would be elected, constitutionalism and sanity must return. This was the situation before the arrival of the Republicans’ second-in-line, and last week’s spectacle at the convention. I have never looked forward to a McCain presidency. But I’d always liked and admired the man. Suddenly these considerations about McCain have become entirely irrelevant. What we look forward to with trembling is not the presidency of an aged Western conservative. What Democrats must be fighting, from here on out, is President Palin, and the Devil she hides.