New York Times / Timothy Egan
October 16, 2008, 12:28 am
The Deal, Sealed?
This was the one where Bill Ayers finally came up. The “old, washed up terrorist” in John McCain’s words, who went from entitled brat with bomb fantasies to Chicagoan of the year to Willie Horton with an earring and a PhD.
The braying kooks on the far right demanded it. Sarah Palin threw slabs of Ayers’ sirloin to angry crowds, delivered in that crinkly-nosed, oh-honey-I-shrunk-the-kids style. And even Senator Obama said as much, with his say-it-to-my-face taunt of last week.
And when, a half hour or so into the third and most riveting of the three presidential debates, it finally came up — relieving us for a moment from a fast-escalating panderfest to Joe the Plumber — it fell flat.
At a time when a vanquished conservative president is nationalizing the banking system as his closing act, when millions of American lives are going off financial cliffs, when two wars strain the very thought of Pax Americana, we got this media-fed moment on Bill Ayers.
“We need to know the full extent of that relationship,” said McCain. Oooooh! That’ll change the election.
“It says more about your campaign than it does about me,” Obama replied, professorial as ever.
And that was it. Little wonder that independent voters in CNN’s flash poll favored Obama 57 percent to 31.
McCain, though much better on Wednesday night than he was in the first two debates, looked pained, pickled along with his honor. Some of the reaction shots made Bob Dole at his grumpiest look botoxed into serenity by comparison.
McCain hasn’t been “McNasty” since he was a cadet with that nickname, and it doesn’t suit him in old age. He tried Ayers. He tried ACORN. He even tried infanticide.
But you can tell McCain wants his reputation back; he wants out of this angry old man role. Being the designated white guy for Fox News does not suit him.
His best indignant moment — a line that may follow him to his grave, with many permutations of irony inherent in the words — was his retort: “I am not President Bush.”
But with that cleared up, McCain went back to some of his obscure obsessions, including yet another mention of that overhead projector that Obama helped to get some museum in Chicago. Imagine if Herbert Hoover, debating Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 at the depth of the Great Depression, kept dwelling on the problem with university chalkboards, and some old sympathizer with Sacco and Vanzetti.
In the first debate, John McCain wouldn’t look his rival in the face. In the second debate, he wouldn’t address him by his name — “that one,” as the t-shirts now proclaim.
And in the third debate, he scuffed and huffed, but ended up with a somewhat muddled conversation with a plumber. Little wonder, in the ideological wilderness of 2008, a time when McCain’s dark-side supporters want him to stay dirty, that McCain chose to dwell on a guy who spends a lot of time with his head in the toilet.
Near the end of the debate, McCain was calling him “my good friend, Joe.” And then, in sarcasm, he said, “Hey, Joe, congratulations! You’re rich!” Huh?
But absent was a central, overarching reason for electing the old guy. And as harsh as that sounds, Americans will usually choose young over old, unless young looks callow and empty.
Sometime in the next month or so the real John McCain will reappear. We’ll all welcome back a man of self-deprecating dignity. And we’ll say good riddance to the man who gave us an unqualified running mate with a witch doctor and a pathological inability to tell the truth about herself.
So, forget about radical chic or any other nonsense defining this election. The fantasy of the right has been put to rest. In this year of living dangerously — 20 days that are shaking the world — personal attacks don’t work, as innumerable polls showed in the last week.
And forget about the Bradley Effect, lying about race. We should be looking at the Reagan Effect: did Obama look like a president, as Ronald Reagan had to in the last week of the campaign to unseat Jimmy Carter?
History showed one thing in 1980. It’ll show the same in 2008.