Sen. John McCain waves to supporters on April 25, 2007 after arriving at Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the first stop on his Presidential announcement kick-off tour. (Rich Beauchesne photo / SMG)
Before the Wednesday kickoff of Sen. John McCain's announcement tour in Portsmouth, I chatted briefly with a McCain-leaning independent who told me he wasn't as enthused this time around as the 2000 presidential primary.
"The war is a drag," he said, and hoped McCain could distance himself from President Bush who has become dead political and credible weight for Republicans. (If you think I jest about Bush becoming the excommunicated president, consider how he is treated by Republican candidates; with the exception of Iraq, he is barely mentioned by name and I've yet to hear any speak of Bush with the same deified reverence that previous GOPers showed for Ronald Reagan. It's unlikely that any candidate will yearn to carry the Bush mantle and most will treat him as persona non grata.)
Prime example: Under cloudy skies in Prescott Park and using the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as a backdrop, McCain, the senior senator from Arizona who is making his second run for the Republican nomination eight years after winning here in 2000, unloaded an anti-Bush barrage as harsh as any top Democrat has done — and skillfully done because McCain did not mention by name the man he beat in 2000, but everyone knew what McCain meant when he frequently said, "It's not good enough for America."
The Portsmouth police said the crowd numbered an estimated 300, which I think was a disappointment for the McCain folks (one supporter asked me, "Where is everybody?"), but I suspect they knew early on this wasn't going to be a big four-figure draw — after all, the relatively small area in the park on the edge of the harbor was created first and foremost for the national media horde.
The speech, which received ho-hum reviews from the national media herd, gave me a sense of déjà vu as though he was attempting to recapture his 2000 maverick mojo to broaden his base. It was interesting to see after the speech a press gathering crunch that left McCain hemmed in, looking a little tired, his voice barely audible. The latest buzz in national media circles is akin to a vulture watch: the media favorite of 2000 now has to defy a demise narrative (no longer the front-runner, lackluster fund-raiser, supporter of unpopular war policy), while rallying a rudderless Republican Party.
The event music ranged from a brass band playing traditional standards to ear-shattering recordings of U2's "Beautiful Day." In the "free speech zone" at the event, there was an interesting collage of anti-war demonstrators and those supporting Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a presidential candidate who is best-known for his libertarian enthusiasms.
Amy Antonucci of Madbury, a member of Seacoast Peace Response, held a "New Hampshire says No to War" sign and told me, "We've created the chaos" and need to get out of Iraq now.
It's interesting that the McCain strategists picked Portsmouth to kick off their latest campaign relaunch because this area is the hottest of anti-war hotbeds in a state where disapproval of Bush's handling of the war is around 65 percent. Give them credit for at least not picking a safe place to preach to the converted.
When I asked Antonucci about McCain's contention that premature withdrawal from Iraq would lead to "chaos and genocide" and a "Wild West" sanctuary for terrorists, she said, "We are already supporting genocide by being there. Our leaders need to see that we must get out so (the Iraqis) can start working it out," a political compromise.
On the same day that McCain spoke in Portsmouth — and did not focus on the war or its consequences in his speech — the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, was in Washington, D.C., for what best can be described as a morale-boosting mission to sway a few congressional minds before Thursday's war-funding authorization vote in the House.
Petraeus' visit to sell the latest war policy was another case of déjà vu. I couldn't help but think of American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam who died a few days earlier in an automobile accident in California.
Halberstam was a journalist historian in the best sense, and it would be hard to overstate the importance of his book, "The Best and the Brightest," a detailed chronicling of the tragic path to war and escalation in Vietnam by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While Halberstam's overly modified style and emphasis on genius could be grating, his ability to focus like a laser beam on the mega-narrative essentials of a the story was second to none. In the "Best and Brightest," he showed how the path to the hell of Vietnam was paved with idealistic, anti-communist good intentions by the smartest people who were blinded by their own ideals (among the many relative lessons then as now — not understanding what you're fighting against, not realizing that escalation takes on a life of its own, not understanding what you're fighting for, and not realizing the limits of military power.)
Halberstam made his reputation on the ground in Vietnam during the war's early phases as a correspondent for The New York Times. He equally annoyed U.S. government and military officials in Saigon and Washington, D.C., and his editors in New York who didn't want to defy the official line about success in Vietnam. He was accused of everything from being unpatriotic to outright treason, but he and his band of brave journalists were, in the end, right in their reading of a historically complex situation that didn't fit neatly into the Cold War paradigm of Us vs. Them.
There was none of the Vietnam War-era nonsense of a "light at the end of the tunnel" coming from Gen. Petraeus. There has been one sign of improvement: Petraeus speaks soberly and realistically of the difficult times today and what's looming.
Like Vietnam in 1968, Iraq will be the omnipresent elephant in the room for Republicans and Democrats alike and for Americans of all stripes during the primary and national campaign seasons. McCain did his best Wednesday to avoid the beast by talking about a hypothetical future in which troops would be committed to war only when the country is "committed to success." The elephant barely stirred.