Friday update: Well, 38.9 million viewers disagreed with me. That's how many checked out McCain's speech in the 10 p.m. hour, marking a 500,000 viewer gain over Dem nominee Barack Obama's speech last week.
I guess it is a generational thing.
Sarah Palin was MTV in her widely viewed veep nomination acceptance speech -- fast-paced and full of cuts and jabs, zingers and flash. For tonight's main event at the Republican National Convention, John McCain was a Hallmark Channel movie -- well-produced but utterly predictable, sticking with a formula that plays well the target aud.
For a guy who's billing himself as a "maverick," McCain TV didn't seem to veer far from the traditional GOP campaign themes of recent elections: national security, taming big government, tax cuts, school choice, Washington insiders (bad), love of this great country (good), and protecting the health care system from a bogeyman in the guise of "a bureaucrat standing between you and your doctor."
In fairness, McCain's long speech was notably free of culture-vulture saber-rattling and hammering on some other wedge issues. But even the theme of the night, as plastered all over the St. Paul convention hall, "Country First," served as a constant reminder that watch out -- the other guys are putting something other than their Love of Country first in this campaign.
"I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need," McCain said toward the end of his nearly 50-minute address. "My country saved me."
McCain has never been accused of being a great public speaker. His delivery is a halting and he's got a habit of pausing a little too long before flashing a toothy smile to punctuate his applause lines. He used a bunch of them during the overly long Candidate's Cut of his speech.
By the time he got to his "stand up and fight with me" closing, he frankly sounded more winded than fiery. (My husband gave up long before, and went into another room to catch Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" special on Fox.)
But I can't help it -- I have long had a soft spot for John McCain. It was much softer during the 2000 campaign, when it felt like he was actually trying to challenge his party's orthodoxy, than it is today. Still, there's no denying that his story as a war hero and Hanoi Hilton survivor is admirable and inspirational. He is a Great American, imbued with the honor, courage, dignity and patriotism that the other convention speakers lauded him for.
But does he still qualify as a maverick? By his demeanor and delivery, it felt like he was sticking to the script for the most part on Thursday.
Even his assertion that Republicans in Washington have lost their way ethically (McCain's acceptance speech came the same day former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to four years in prison in a corruption case that ensnared GOP stalwarts), seemed mostly politically expedient -- a way to distance himself from an unpopular White House, even though he gave a shout out to President Bush at the top of his speech.
"We're going to recover the people's trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics," he insisted, but without the earnestness of a Gary Cooper or another old Warner Bros. contract player who went pretty far in politics. (Earlier in the evening, Cindy McCain's assertion that "the hand we feel on our shoulder belongs to Abraham Lincoln" was just weird.)
It was telling that the most natural-sounding lines of McCain's speech were, of course, his description of the personal transformation he underwent as a result of being held prisoner and tortured in Vietnam. He had a feisty flash of the Straight Talk Express circa 2000 charm in the unscripted moment when a female protester, who had been incognito in a standard young-Republican disguise, briefly disrupted the speech by hollering and trying to unfurl a banner and her pink negligee with "Stop the War" written on it in what appeared to be marking pen.
"My friends...please don't diverted by the ground noise and the static," McCain ad-libbed as the women was muscled out of the hall. "Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, OK?"
Nonetheless, it was freaky (1968 all over again freaky) to hear McCain go on about the war in Iraq and his support for the unpopular troop surge last year amid reports that Twin Cities cops in riot gear were holding back a horde of anti-war protesters from marching on the convention hall.
But perhaps the most striking moment, to me, of Thursday's McCain TV installment came after he finished, as the red, white and blue confetti fluttered down and McCain's family and Palin and her brood joined him on the runway-style stage.
As the running mates waved and mugged for the cheering crowd, TV cameras zoomed in on a shot of McCain and Palin on the edge of the platform. A few feet behind them was Cindy McCain, waving and gazing adoringly at her candidate and looking every bit like a prospective first lady. Next to her was Palin's husband, Todd. He was not waving much because his arms were filled with their infant son, whose tiny head rested on Dad's shoulder. It was quite the 21st-century America tableau.