by Frank James
There's evidently a lot of angst in Republicanville about the rhetorical skills, or more precisely, the lack of them, on the part of Sen. John McCain, the all-but-official Republican nominee. There should be.
McCain is going up against a world-class speechifier in Democrat Sen. Barack Obama, a man who channels Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in not just the inspirational lift of his speeches but in the cadences and speech maker's devices he uses.
So McCain has the great misfortune of having all of his defects as a speech giver show even more since he is being measured against an opponent who is the Michael Jordan of speech making.
The concern in Republican circles is captured in a piece today by Politico.com's Jonathan Martin.
NEW ORLEANS - As Democrats buzzed this week about their new de facto nominee, his historic candidacy and the unlikely political demise of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Republican circles were humming with another topic.
The topic: Is there a way John McCain can win the presidency without giving another speech?
That's overstated, of course, but the concern about McCain's wooden and stumbling address before a few hundred supporters here Tuesday night - the same evening as Barack Obama's soaring acceptance address before thousands of screaming fans - has sent something of a shudder through the party and left GOP operatives shaking their heads in dismay.
Why McCain should be so bad at giving speeches is fairly mystifying since he is actually a very good conversationalist, clearly at ease with reporters and the countless voters he's appeared before at town-hall meetings.
It seems like when he has to give a speech, some switch gets thrown inside him and he goes into his speech-making mode which, for him, appears to involve deep-sixing the real McCain and becoming Zombie McCain.
Zombie McCain is a man who gives a speech like it's the first time he's read it and doesn't seem to enjoy the experience. A man who seems to do all he can to squeeze his personality from the words he's uttering. A man who smiles, repeatedly and scarily, at inappropriate moments.
McCain knows what it's like to have someone smile or laugh inappropriately. I once interviewed him in a Senate Office Building hallway after 9/11 about an idea he and others were pushing at the time for a blue-ribbon panel to study how the U.S. failed to stop the terrorist attacks, an idea that became the 9/11 Commission.
Paraphrasing McCain, he said we should have a commission like the one we had after Pearl Harbor because that's what we Americans do, a tragedy happens, we create a commission.
That struck me as kind of funny, that out of tragedies we create commissions so I laughed. McCain looked at me like I was crazy. I struck the smile.
It's the same look a lot of people cast at McCain when he smiles at all the wrong moments during his speeches. What's that about? we ask. If he wants to improve his speechifying, that's something he definitely needs to rethink.
No one expects McCain to be able to deliver a speech like his hero President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was Reagan, a strapping, trained actor turned politician who, love him or not, just had a certain command presence when he spoke.
McCain should just be McCain, the conversational politician reporters and voters have seen on the stump or on Capitol Hill, who makes his points with passion and humor.
Indeed, if he can observably improve his speech making in the next few months, that could help him counter some of the resistance he's getting because of his age. It would show that he's teachable and flexible, not stuck in his ways.
He'll still have difficulty in comparisons to Obama. But at least he'll give Republicans something to really cheer about.