There were two key moments in last night’s debate. The first when Obama spoke about the chance missed by Bush to rally the nation to service after 9/11, and the second when McCain in his closing words talked about his unique qualifications of toughness in tough times —but in doing so, essentially said farewell. The moments, an hour apart, were linked by the powerful emotional undertow of an election that has little to do with the war of manufactured “gaffes,” factual distortions and outright lies that both sides have been propagating in their desperate desire to win.
As always on TV, the moments were enhanced by the cruel physicality of the screen. The received wisdom so far has been that Town Halls are better for McCain because he can loosen up and relax and make direct contact with what are nowadays called "real people.” But a Town Hall also meant the public saw a tall lithe young senator primed for the terrors of the future, against a stiff, hunched old guy hobbling around the stage in a body held together by an act of will.
Whatever compromises with the truth Obama has made on his chilly rise to the top, he understands the central zeitgeist of the moment.
During the campaign McCain has aged dramatically. Like Dorian Gray, the bargains he has made with his conscience are reflected in the mirror. He has developed a strange Jimmy Cagney rasp and new verbal eccentricities that seem to have fused the speaking styles of Bob Dole and Ross Perot. Critics have already pounced on the explosive contempt of his jab, “You know who voted for [the energy bill]? ... THAT ONE.” The younger man watched him from his Frank Sinatra stool with the look of a family visitor marveling at the antics of the household’s resident crazy uncle. This is all horrible to those of us who once fell in love with McCain's flinty heroism and independence. It's as if he when he made the decision that fateful day on August 10th, 2004 in Pensacola, Florida to grit his teeth and bear hug Bush, he contracted a political virus that ate away at the nobility of his soul. The most telling moment in the campaign was on Monday when in Albuquerque, New Mexico, McCain shouted at the crowd, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” and an audience member yelled back, “A terrorist!” And there was a panicked look on his face that said, “My God, what have I done?” Whatever compromises with the truth Obama has made on his chilly rise to the top, he understands the central zeitgeist of the moment. Raising 9/11 at the debate as a psychic event rather than one of national security was a masterstroke that won the day.
“You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11 and where you were on that day,” he told the small studio audience, “and, you know, how all of the country was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not only safer, but to make us a better country and a more unified country. And President Bush did some smart things at the outset, but one of the opportunities that was missed was, when he spoke to the American people, he said, 'Go out and shop.' That wasn't the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for. And so it's important to understand that the —I think the American people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle these problems not just in government, but outside of government.”
Right now Americans feel they are experiencing another 9/11 as the brand-name financial institutions stagger and suddenly collapse before their eyes like the World Trade Center. Obama knows that the last dark years under Bush have been about the long postponed millennium. We all knew the shopping spree Bush sent us on had to end. It has taken eight years for the unravel, but now we are there watching the structure of the past melt away. Last night a former key player at Goldman Sachs told me at a dinner party the vast infusion of capital we need can only come from China. They have trillions of our dollars. But China won't come forward unless invited with a specific request by the president. And then they will, indeed, step in. “This is coming," he said. “And it will accelerate the twenty-first century.”