Meta-Cain

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McCain gave the second of six speeches in his “Service to America” tour here at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA. The content was familiar to anyone who’s paid even mild attention to the candidate, which means it was probably totally new to the audience he gave it to: the current students of EHS. Apparently, the guy believes in service to the country, honor, patriotism, service, honor, honor, service, patriotism and honor. And also, here at EHS? He learned about honor. From the honor code. There was a little policy thrown in — merit pay and school choice — but mostly, it was the honor.

Which made it hard to believe that pretty much the only subject they touched upon during the town hall afterwards were along the lines of, “Is honor important to you?” and “What did you learn about honor here?” and “So, how has honor helped you?”

So, notebooks were being closed and cameras put away when McCain took the last question, from Katelin Halldorson, a junior, henceforth to be known as That Girl Who Actually Asked McCain a Question:

“I think judging by the amount of press representatives here and also by the integration of your previous political endorsements in your earlier personal narrative, we can see that this isn’t completely absent – er political motivation isn’t completely absent yet we were told that this isn’t a political event. So what exactly is your purpose in being here, not that I don’t appreciate the opportunity but I’d just like some clarification.”

This produced what’s known as an awkward moment.

McCain gamely tried to answer:

I knew I should have cut this thing off. This meeting is over. This is an opportunity and part of a series of visits that I’m playing – paying. It started in Mississippi where my family’s roots are back to the middle of the 19th century to here. We’re going from here to Pensacola, FL and to Jacksonville, FL and a couple of other places where – we’re going to Annapolis where I obviously attended the Naval Academy.

He eventually produced the sort of meta-narrative that so often turns up in a campaign that is so transparently about the campaign:

And it’s sort of a tour where we try to not only emphasize the values and principles that guided me and I think a lot of this country in the past, but also portray a vision of how I think we need to address the challenges of the future.

That was also the kind of “peak behind the scenespeek [I'm going to have to come up with a mnemonic for that]” moment that Neal Gabler used to argue that McCain is a “consummate ironist,” because he reveals the way the campaign works to those who cover the campaign — but not to voters. Gabler should probably tend more McCain events. [UPDATE: Sorry forgot the link for Gabler... here.]

When he finally got to the end of his answer, he seemed not just self-conscious about the events’ purpose, but also ready to offer their money back. Or their time. Or something:

I hope that attendance here was not compulsory. If it was than you – I apologize for if you were, if you were unwillingly in attendance here… And with that I would like to say thank you.

Afterwards, reporters talked about why McCain, usually so ready to get into it with those that challenge him in town halls (he always calls on the people who’ve to protest first; [insert the inevitable accusation about why reporters don't challenge him here]). My thought, for what it’s worth: after a lively discussion about honor, Katelin reminded McCain what he was really there for: politics — a pursuit that’s quite distinct, to say the least, from honor.