No Comment — October 21, 2008, 12:50 pm

The Best of the ’08 Campaign I: Best Speech in a Comic Mode

We now are entering into the last fortnight of the 2008 Presidential Campaign. This period often marks the final descent into demagoguery, character assassination and hysteria as appeals are launched to the baser instincts of the populace in an effort to deflect reason. All who use such tactics are worthy of a firm rebuke and not worthy of a vote. But I would like instead to highlight some of the positive moments of the 2008 campaign in a series of posts in which I hope to highlight things done well.

My first award is for the best speech in a comic mode, and the winner is Senator John McCain. The speech was delivered on October 16 at the annual Al Smith Dinner, an event supporting Catholic charities hosted in New York. It is a white-tie affair, and by tradition, every four years both major party presidential candidates are invited to speak. The guidelines are clear. The speaker needs to finish in less than fifteen minutes and he needs to be funny. The speeches delivered at this year’s function were among the most entertaining ever (Obama proved himself very able), but the best performance was certainly McCain’s. Watch the presentation here:

Many observers have commented that the John McCain who appeared at the three presidential debates is not the John McCain they know. I belong to that group. The John McCain I know is this man: jovial, relaxed and having good fun as he takes good-natured jabs at his colleagues and himself. McCain’s problem in the debates has boiled down to one thing: the dynamics of the campaign put him in a position in which he had to be tough and on the attack, landing hard blows. It’s clear that this is not a role that McCain likes, and in fact he feels awkward trying to fulfill it. Looking back at this campaign over time, this is the McCain speech I want to remember.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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