WILKES-BARRE, Penn. — The woman refused to give her name, but was happy to share her problems. She’d seen her friends on fixed incomes struggle with rising gas prices and the cost of health care. She herself, at age 66, didn’t see retirement as a financial possibility. In short, things were bad, and she wanted someone to make them better.
"I want to know what he’s going to do," she said of the man she was supporting for president, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee.
The woman had come to Wilkes-Barre’s F.M Kirby Center to see her man in the 2008 presidential race late in the morning of July 23. Now she was sitting in a grand, refurbished theater at the heart of a place that used to actually make stuff, where family-run businesses ran garment mills and factories while they served as the town’s benefactors, but, like the rest of the region, had fallen hard.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Now she and 800 others were waiting for the Straight Talk Express to come riding through. On the other side of the globe, McCain’s Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, was meeting with world leaders, holding court with the anchors of the Big Three TV networks, photographed in presidential style as he surveyed the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel and Germany.
Now was the time for McCain to prove his mettle when it came to domestic issues and show himself as a man who really understood the great fears and problems of the country, to feel our pain. And he was blowing it.
"I could easily go the other way if something strikes me right," the woman said, moments before McCain took the stage for another town hall.
More than blowing it, McCain was exposing his perceived weaknesses. He seemed bitter and jealous of the attention Obama was getting. His comments about both Obama’s experience and sense of moral duty have been getting harsher. Rather than seeing the dignified man talking to his country about its problems, people were beginning to see the disgruntled old man, who seemed angry at everything Obama represented — youth, idealism and the fulfillment of promises made by the martyrs of the New Frontier.
Left to himself, McCain sadly chose not to follow in the footsteps of Macaulay Culkin’s character in “Home Alone.” He should have. Culkin, you might remember, ran wild through his house, did everything his brothers and sisters wouldn’t let him, helped that old weird guy reunite with his family and even stopped crime.
McCain, on the other hand, had chosen not to take advantage of Obama’s absence. Instead, McCain chose to complain. He and his campaign bristled about the amount of coverage Obama was getting, and even issued fake press credentials on Tuesday evening on the tarmac here in Wilkes-Barre that read “McCain Press Corps/JV Squad/’Left Behind to Report in America.” Publicly, McCain made fun of the fact that only now was Obama meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, though he had called for a 16-month withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq throughout his campaign.
What McCain failed to do was use the opportunity to run amok, Culkinesque, across the country. Instead he was shoring up weaknesses of his campaign. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of Americans trusted Obama to handle the economy, while a paltry 35 percent said they trusted McCain. As for immigration, 48 percent said they trusted Obama on this issue, a good 10 percentage points ahead of the Arizona senator. On the federal deficit, 50 percent said they trusted Obama to handle it, with 36 percent siding with McCain.
The message of these numbers would seem clear: It’s nice to talk about Iraq dude, but it’s time for some “Straight Talk” about Ohio and Pennsylvania, Maine and New Hampshire.
Instead McCain whiffed on a hanging breaking ball. This began beneath the darkened skies of Portland, Me. After a photo appearance with first father and former President George H.W. Bush at the old-money environs of the Bush compound at Kennebunkport, he arrived at a picnic outside a small military museum. As usual, the audience was filled with veterans who have come to love McCain over his great bravery during Vietnam. The day had grown muggy, but Good Humor trucks offering up Spider-Man pops, complete with gumball eyes, made things tolerable.
Shelia Filippone, 66, a nurse from Newton, Mass., was ready to hear something, anything that related to the rhythm of her life. Like many people I’ve met during this campaign, Filippone said she’d like to retire but simply couldn’t. She was looking for answers, real answers, from McCain about what he would do to make her life better.
“I’d like to hear what he has to say about Social Security and how he plans to shore it up,” Filippone, on her first year of Social Security said. “What’s he going to do about the minimum wage? We have a major health-care crisis in place, and I want to see what McCain plans to do. I don’t know what his plan is.”
Filippone would leave the event with her questions unanswered. Taking the stage, McCain — sporting his Navy baseball cap — looked out into the audience, thanking the veterans for their service. He brought up a young boy from the front row, wearing the same cap as his, and began to riff. McCain presented the energy crisis and dependence on foreign oil as the greatest crisis facing the country, then argued for new sources of power— wind, solar, nuclear and, sigh, tide. McCain then declared that we had, in fact, succeeded in Iraq, and that soldiers coming home would do so as victors. He closed with a story from his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, meant to bring the crowd to a patriotic fervor.
Such a turn, such a story, would have seemed strange just a few months ago. But as I’ve written before, McCain has begun to bring out the experience of those terrible years more and more. Once, it seemed like he was unwilling to talk about his POW experience. But now one can expect to hear about the torture and concrete slabs, about how he chose to stay a captive when offered an early release as the son and grandson of admirals.
Certainly they are moving stories, not fit for any sort of belittlement. However, there is only so much one can rely on the emotion evoked by what Oliver Wendell Holmes, after the Civil War, called the “incommunicable experience of war,” where, in one’s youth, “hearts were touched with fire.”
But they have little to do with, to quote Obama quoting the late Martin Luther King Jr., the “fierce urgency of now.” They do well for McCain in reminding people why he has the character to lead, but do little to illustrate that he understands the problems faced by those he wants to lead.
McCain seemed to further that impression when he dismissed Obama as "someone who has no military experience whatsoever."
That seemed a turning point for McCain—one he might not recover from. Before he’d dismissed Obama as a man who didn’t understand military strategy or the rules of wartime engagement. Now he had called Obama out as someone who didn’t deserve to lead the country because he — like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt— had never experienced war, and was somehow lacking because he had never been beaten or fired a shot for his country.
Such attacks were in evidence when McCain returned to his spiritual second home, New Hampshire the next day. The event was a town hall— McCain’s favorite forum — in a small opera house in Rochester. He had come back to the state where he’s an honorary favorite son, where he took the 2000 GOP primary and then again, eight years later, on his way to an improbable nomination win. It was where he could rely on the loyalty of friends.
“I think he certainly has a lot more experience with these issues, with domestic affairs,” said Rob Martin, sitting with his wife Marin. “He can reach across the aisle. It’s not at all clear whether Obama can reach out to Republicans.”
Evidence of that ability wasn’t there as McCain was greeted with the warm New England hug. As the press filed from a slanted wooden table in a corner of the building, McCain was simply vicious—despite a polite exchange with an elderly woman who expressed an opposite world view when it came to the United States’ occupation in Iraq. McCain again talked about clean coal and the need for offshore drilling, about better treatment for veterans. He made a reference to expanding health care, to illustrate his counter-proposal to Obama’s comprehensive, universal package.
But then, in perhaps his harshest attack on the junior senator from Illinois to date, McCain nearly accused Obama of treason when he said, "It seems to me Sen. Obama would rather lose a war to win a campaign."
On Wednesday, when McCain began his town hall in the refurbished theater in the bucolic downtown of Wilkes-Barre, it seemed like he might finally have realized that he could run the table on the domestic agenda with Obama abroad. He spoke of the great economic challenges and gas prices, about the need for charter schools and, sigh, the need for wind and solar and tide power, along with offshore drilling. With the gas tax holiday he merely wanted to give the average guy a break.
“I strongly believe our best days are ahead of us,” McCain said. “I believe in the fundamental greatness of America.
But it was too little, too late. McCain had had a week to himself, to show the public he was more than a war hero, to illustrate that he had a plan to help America rise from the depths of this dark and terrible time. But he had squandered his opportunity. Soon he will be rejoined on the continent with his rival, no longer able to take advantage of being left behind, a man alone.
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