Ezra Klein and Alex Pareene on McCain’s Dreams for the Presidency and O’Reilly Versus Obama

"Dude, what are you doing here?" "I was going to ask you the same thing." Photo: Fox News, Getty Images

Every day until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein and Gawker’s Alex Pareene discuss McCain and the presidency as a “badge of honor,” O'Reilly's treatment of Obama as just another “total loser,” and just what Charlton Heston in Viva Zapata has to do with all of it.

A.P.: Somehow this "short week" has been the longest one EVER, but I am soldiering through, like Sarah Palin without her TelePrompTer.

E.K.: I'm gritting my teeth and enduring the length, like Todd Palin on a moose hunt. So what'd you think of the BIG SPEECH!?

A.P.: That means McCain's, right?

E.K.: If you'd like.

A.P.: It was boring. It was good, I guess, but the deflated, barely hidden disdain of the crowd bled through on TV. They got riled up when the hippies got kicked out.

E.K.: Weird moment, right?

A.P.: God, it was kind of terrifying.

E.K.: McCain had just said, "Many of you are struggling to put food on your table and keep your home," and the place erupted in thunderous "U-S-A" chants.

A.P.: I mean, McCain looked very literally not in charge of his party as they chanted and screamed and he did nothing.

E.K.: It was like, yep, only in America could you lose your home and go hungry. Woohah!

A.P.: Ha-ha-ha, yes!

And then no one got riled up again until STAND UP at the end, when suddenly it looked like the Republican nominee for the presidency was borrowing the rhetorical tools of Dennis Kucinich.

E.K.: I mean, I'll give McCain some credit here. It may not have been a very good speech, but in a fairly literal (rather than Biden-esque) sense, it was an honorable one. Few dishonest attacks, mostly positive, etc.

A.P.: Oh no, I agree completely. It seemed like the speech McCain's been dreaming of giving since whenever he set his eyes on the presidency, but sort of grafted on to this dumb 2008 stump speech. Grace and humility and then SCHOOL CHOICE and CULTURE OF LIFE.

E.K.: The problem was that it wasn't a positive vision of the country, but a positive vision of John McCain.

E.K.: They make a big deal of how Barack Obama is the center of the Barack Obama campaign. But their argument is more like Obama is awesomely smart and has all these awesome policies and he will bring people together and do these awesome policies. McCain's argument is that being a prisoner of war made him an extremely good and grave man. It's as if the presidency is the medal of honor.

A.P.: "I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need." I am running for president because I was tortured. It's different.

E.K.: Right, I'm running for president because I was blessed with such hardship that history should reward me in the twilight of my life.

A.P.: I think a lot of people might be sympathetic to that view! Like, "Just give the guy the job already."

E.K.: I'd say approximately half the country is.

A.P.: Yes, exactly. The anti-that-punk-kid vote.

E.K.: It is interesting to watch the process of ideological self-persuasion, though. Take the Christian right.

A.P.: Well, yeah, they're already acting like Palin's on top of the ticket. And obviously people like me, who just enjoy the Palin story so much more than the McCain "story," are certainly helping.

E.K.: Here's a guy who publicly went to war with Falwell and Robertson, who is clearly personally uninterested in organized religion, who fairly obviously has a certain level of contempt for that part of the Republican coalition. ALL reporting suggests he desperately wanted Tom Ridge or Lieberman to be his V.P. but was convinced the Christian right would abandon him. So he picks Palin and suddenly they're involved. But he's going to be president! And all evidence is that he can't stand them! It's weird.

And on some level, I think they're making the right choice: McCain wants to be a great man of history, and that means doing what he's got to do on domestic policy such that he's the guy who gets to go to war with China. But still, it's weird.

A.P.: Did you see Obama on O'Reilly?

E.K.: Yeah, for a few minutes.

A.P.: It was not actually too exciting except that O'Reilly officially declared that Obama "looked me in the eyes, and he's not a wimp."

E.K.: I thought you had to give it to O'Reilly. Lots of journalists would fold under those circumstances, become polite and solicitous. O'Reilly stayed true to himself. He was a total jerk.

A.P.: I did admire his total commitment to interviewing Obama like he was any other loser.

E.K.: Exactly. Interrupting, bullying. I mean, O'Reilly knows who he is. It didn't even seem like an act.

A.P.: BUT would he do that to McCain?

E.K.: I doubt it. All men have their price, and all men have their heroes.

A.P.: It just seemed odd last night to have Obama speaking on Iran and Pakistan and McCain basically doing the old John Edwards "I met a struggling family working 100 jobs" routine. When McCain does that routine, there's an odd break where you wait for him to explain what they wanted John McCain to do about it.

E.K.: Yeah, with him it's empathy for empathy's sake. "My friends, I too have known hardship…" It's interesting, the theory of why people vote on character issues is that we don't have time to get deeper and we use people's personality traits to assume their policies and agendas and priorities. But McCain has a tendency to not even try and signal that. He signals some empathy, but no interest in even gesturing toward his compassionate or attentive response. It's sort of rare for a politician.

A.P.: Well, I'm sort of with Peggy Noonan uncensored when she bemoans that he doesn't do "the narrative bullshit" so well. Their campaign is entirely character-based because McCain is an extraordinary character! And I thought when [Steve] Schmidt said the stupid "this isn't about issues" thing, it was a simple statement of inarguable fact.

E.K.: Agreed. I just tend to wonder how McCain thinks about the office himself. When he quietly daydreams abut the presidency, are all the scenes international diplomacy? Is there any legislation really involved? Because you genuinely don't get the sense that this guy sits around musing about bringing health care to people. It's almost like he just wants to be Super Secretary of State.

A.P.: Yes! Well, who would his historical parallel be — who's his hero, besides Chuck Heston in Viva Zapata?

E.K.: President H.W. Bush.

A.P.: Oh man, it makes sad sense.

E.K.: Also a war hero, also a caretaker Republican after a radical and controversial administration.

A.P.: But in his fantasies, is he Woodrow Wilson??

E.K.: Possibly. Or Teddy, though Teddy did a lot of domestic stuff.

A.P.: Yeah, I don't see McCain running as a trust-buster.

E.K.: In any case, we may well find out soon enough. Any final thoughts?

A.P.: I'm grateful the conventions are fucking over and MSNBC is going live to a guy standing in the rain again.

Earlier: Tyler Cowen and Ezra Klein on Palin’s Speech and What Obama and McCain Would Each Accomplish — or Not — As President