Communication Currents

John McCain's Symbolic Rebirth: Saigon to St. Paul

October 1, 2008
Intercultural Communication, Political Communication

Senator John McCain's address, earlier this month in St. Paul, Minnesota, accepting the Republican party's nomination as their candidate for the nation's highest office drew a record audience of 38.9 million television viewers. Noting the need to “change the way government does almost everything,” McCain completed a symbolic definition of himself and his campaign. This message, consistent with his self-styled maverick brand, also strategically aimed to capture a central meaning from his opponent's campaign.

The address was the culmination of a 26 year political career of Arizona's senior Senator. McCain's odyssey for the Republican nomination began nearly 18 months earlier when he announced his intention to run for President. Counted out by political pundits and election watchers less than a year earlier, McCain's status as the Republican's presumptive nominee was all but formally ratified when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney addressed the Conservative Political Action Committee in February 2008. Noting that he disagreed with McCain on a number of issues, Romney offered a scathing critique of liberalism and described Senators' Clinton and Obama policies toward Iraq and the war on terror as “retreat and declare defeat” leaving the nation open to attack. The importance of McCain's military background and experiences, which influences his campaign's strategic and tactical choices, is influential to the point that it leads his opponents to invoke military terminology and terms in discussing the campaign and its issues.

Before securing his late-coming frontrunner status, McCain formally announced his intention to run for President of the United States on April 25, 2007 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He stated that: "I'm not running for President to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things not the easy and needless things." Critical of the costly price paid for strategic and tactical errors in the Iraq war, McCain focused on a theme of righting national wrongs and steering the nation on a better course. His oft repeated line “That's not good enough for America. And when I'm President, it won't be good enough for me” echoed as he worked through themes from health care, Social Security, tax reform, and trade. Having handily defeated his challenger in the last state wide race in Arizona, it is not surprising McCain used the small northeast city as a backdrop for his announcement, given its close connections to the U.S. Navy.

Though notions of home may be more fluid for McCain who grew up in a Navy family stationed around the world while growing up, his decision to announce his selection of a running mate in Dayton, Ohio can mostly be seen as an act of political expedience. At the front lines of the political battle ground of the 2000 and 2004 presidential election, Ohio is set to once again to be a prized electoral plum. Drawing from the words of a famous Ohio native--former Senator, military aviator and NASA astronaut John Glenn--Alaska Governor, and McCain's vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin noted, “That man [McCain] did things for this country that few people could go through; never forget that.” No small admission for Glenn, who hailed from the party opposite McCain, as well as serving in a rival branch of the armed services. The message of support and testament to character played well with the local crowd in the Buckeye State and was also a powerful reminder of McCain's military record and near death experience as a prisoner of war. can mostly be seen as an act of political expedience. 

McCain's biographical film, airing just before his acceptance speech at the convention, revealed some of the candidate's lighter side, as in his mother's characterization of her son as “a mamma's boy,” as well some detail of his painful history as a POW in North Vietnam. Telling the story of McCain's life and education in the military and career in public service, the film dwelt heavily on his service in the Vietnam conflict. Noting McCain's service on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal, where a tragic accident took the lives of 134 sailors, the narrator asked the powerful question, “John McCain's life was somehow spared. Perhaps, he had more to do?”

The answer to the narrator's question comes in the stark final 45 seconds of the film, where former Tennessee Senator and GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson narrates to a dark screen:

When you have lived in a box, you fear no man, you know no shame. You have known hate, you have known elation. You have longed, you have reached, you have dreamed. You have reached. You have forgiven. When you have lived in a box, the world becomes clear. No time for petty, no time for wrong. Just time for right....When you have lived in a box your life is about keeping others from having to endure that box. . . . You left long ago the shallow of self and put your people first, your country first. John McCain.

Thompson's political and media celebrity was showcased two days earlier in a prime time speech at the Republican National Convention, where the network television actor turned politician described in stark details McCain's treatment at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. The gravity of McCain's biography--in the film and as told by friends, family, and colleagues during the convention--sought to punctuate how his defining life experience credentialed him as a candidate and agent of change. As the film's narrator noted, “Change will come from strength from a man who found his strength in a tiny dank cell thousands of miles from home.”

While the Republican's convention in Minnesota served an important unity function for the party, it also was the most significant campaign focal point for John McCain to date. St. Paul was for McCain and his campaign a place of symbolic rebirth. From the spotlight that haloed his arrival on stage, to the redesigned platform dais allowing him to freely move readily into the crowd following his address, McCain's heretofore little discussed experience as a POW became not just an issue in the campaign, but was the defining issue. That experience, leaving permanent physical as well as psychological marks on the candidate, was cast as an experience that allowed him to change--to love his country, his family, and sense of duty more. This theme, tied to the campaign's catch phrase “Country First,” is the defining hallmark of the late stages of this campaign. McCain's experience of imprisonment and torture was utilized by the campaign as evidence for McCain's change-inspired leadership. His push for the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam was but one example used by the Arizona Senator's campaign to show how he bucked conventional wisdom, his peers, and political mentors. Ultimately, voters will decide whether they accept his symbolic transformation or not.