“He’s old.” That was among the underwhelmed reactions I got when asking people what they thought of John McCain’s speech to the Federalist Society yesterday. 

Well, the Arizona senator is 70 — but it speaks more to his presentation than his actual years on the planet. Like on Meet the Press this past Sunday, the 2008 explorer just seemed exhausted. And while happy to blame those in government for their losses last week, he…well he fell into reading Federalist Paper quotes familiar since grade-school Social Studies class. It was less than inspirational. ~Kathryn Jean Lopez

I once heard John McCain speak in person at my alma mater, Hampden-Sydney.  No one would have confused it with a riveting or inspiring experience.  That is probably just as well.  Should you ever start feeling inspired by politicians, you must smack yourself in the face hard to make sure that you don’t get sucked in to their particular line of hogwash.  When listening to a candidate speak you must say to yourself, “This man is a time-server and an opportunist.”  But nobody has to do that when they hear McCain speak, in my experience, because his speeches are never all that good and everyone already knows that he is an opportunist.  Thus he cuddles up with the “forces of intolerance” he once denounced and will presumably start wrapping himself in the Confederate battle flag come the South Carolina primary after having attacked it.  His bold “maverick” stands are the most opportunistic of all–it is simply triangulation by a different name.  When Clinton did it, he was being devious or perhaps clever, but when McCain does it he is a wild-eyed idealist yearning to blaze the trail of reform…or some such nonsense that people at The Washington Post write. 

But I can believe that he can bore his audience stiff.  He does not have the suave manner of an Obama or the telegenic star quality that Romney seems to possess (at least in the eyes of some); he doesn’t even have the bumbling, folksy act that Bush can turn on to extricate himself out of all situations.  He is an insufferably high-minded kind of “centrist,” or rather egocentrist, with a bad temper and the charisma of dried leather.  He is a Republican Joe Lieberman with worse hair (if such a thing were possible).  Did I mention that I don’t much care for him? 

Responding to his tired stump speech at my college in my op-ed in the college newspaper on Bush and McCain (what a pair!) the next week, I tended to focus on the more ludicrous parts of his presentation that I found particularly troubling–his obsession with the cause of Chechens being the most disturbing and the basic persistent Russophobia and encirclement mentality that I detected behind his interest in the plight of Chechnya.  This was a guy whose standard stump refrain on the military was that soldiers’ families should never be on food stamps, with which no one was going to disagree, but he is also the same person who would send them off to fight in any damn fool war he felt like sending them to in order to support our “values.”  But that is what one calls being “pro-military” in today’s politics. 

Writing anti-McCain op-eds for the rest of the primary season, I’m sure I made no friends in the college administration, but at the time it made perfect sense to prefer Bush’s supposed “humble”-cum-realist foreign policy to the rather strange views of The Weekly Standard‘s poster boy.  Of course, all of us who believed Bush’s foreign policy talk in 2000 were all wrong (I still didn’t vote for him, but I gave him more benefit of the doubt than I should have), but given the same bad choice I am not sure that I wouldn’t prefer Bush with his many, many flaws over the plainly dangerous McCain.  Fortunately, this dangerous man is apparently also not on his campaign game so far and isn’t building up any early momentum.  If he is already appearing exhausted he may not be able to campaign as vigorously or engagingly as he might need to in late ’07 and early ’08.