The Senator Who Could Actually Be President was campaigning at a New Hampshire high school when a kid in the audience asked an impertinent question. McCain is awfully old, the kid said. Did he worry about dying in office, or getting Alzheimer's, "or some other disease that might affect your judgment?"
McCain answered the question with the ease of a guy who's been in the public eye for decades — with age comes experience, I'm a hard worker, I'll outwork my rivals — and he tacked on a coda. "Thanks for the question, you little jerk," he said, his eyes twinkling.
Can you imagine the straight-as-a-tie-pin Mitt Romney pulling off that one? But McCain can play the lovable rogue like nobody's business, and the audience roared.
Last week, Hillary Clinton had her own little quintessential moment. Her eyes actually got all moist when a sympathetic audience member asked how she managed to look so great and keep her composure in the face of such nasty attacks. Compared with the question McCain got stuck with, this was a total softball. And yet Clinton used the moment to feel sorry for herself.
All sensitive self-pity, she said it was hard, really hard. She did it only because "I've had so many opportunities from this country . . ." — soft sigh — "I just don't want see us fall backwards."
So, if we don't listen to Hillary, civilization collapses?
I watched that YouTube clip about a dozen times, and even though it exasperates me, I can see why it proved effective. Clinton is usually so shrill, and self-righteously partisan, that she comes off as a parody of herself, an American Spectator caricature (barely) come to life. Her little sigh of sadness was at least recognizably human, and the pundits who say it helped Clinton to victory in New Hampshire are probably right.
But still. Blech.
Rush Limbaugh has said that men won't vote for Hillary Clinton because she reminds them of their first wives, but I'm sure Clinton has already written off that type of male voter. The bigger problem may be that women my age aren't going to vote for Clinton because she reminds us of our mothers.
Older women might see Clinton sighing and getting misty and think about how she's under attack by a vicious press corps and her male competitors. We twenty- and thirtysomethings instead think about the quaver in our mothers' voices when we tell them we may not make it home for Christmas.
"Well, I understand," she'd say. "It's just that everybody else will be so disappointed, and" — soft sigh — "do you really want to let Grandpa down when he might not live to see another Christmas?"
So, if we don't listen to Mom, the family falls apart?
We're supposed to feel sorry for her, and we do, but we also feel resentment and annoyance and a fervent desire to deal with someone who doesn't play games.
John McCain, anyone?
Last week, I changed my voter registration so that I could vote for John McCain. When I moved to town, I didn't realize that you have to be a registered member of one party or another to vote in the primaries. As of last Monday, my days of Independence are officially over: I'm a Republican.
The decision was a homecoming. I'd been an enthusiastic conservative my entire life. (Undoubtedly, I'm the only columnist in this paper's history who once ran a chapter of the College Republicans.) Long before I ever considered living in his home state, I voted for McCain in the 2000 GOP primary.
But after eight years of Bush, I wasn't sure I was ready to stick with the whole Republican Party thing, much less support my former hero. Not to take my cues from a high school kid, but McCain seemed . . . old. And in the darkest days of the war, I have to admit to feeling sheer irritation every time I heard him defending our involvement. Why did he have to keep pushing for more troops? Never mind that I'd once backed the invasion; when times got hard, I wanted to forget the whole thing.
So this year, I mentally auditioned a half-dozen candidates: Bill Richardson? Barack Obama? Okay, then, how about Fred Thompson? Please, tell me Chuck Hagel is going to throw his hat in the ring! I was surprised as anyone to find myself right back where I started in 2000.
McCain isn't a popular guy in Arizona these days. He may have a good shot at the Republican nomination this fall, but he could actually have a hard time winning this state. And I don't mean just the primary, but the general election. He's angered all the lefties with his unflagging support for the war, and he's angered the increasingly shrill closed-borders faction of the GOP with his amnesty plan for illegal immigrants. He's not the dream candidate of any major constituency.