LAST THURSDAY, A controversy erupted in the blogosphere. Like most controversies that start in the blogosphere and die there as opposed to gaining a second and more meaningful life in the mainstream media, the entire affair was a tempest in a virtual teapot. But this incident was a particularly pregnant one, as it revealed the difficulties the left will have in developing a coherent attack against John McCain. It also highlighted Barack Obama's most significant weakness in a match against Senator McCain.
In a campaign address to the Los Angeles World Council, McCain made a point of stressing his hatred for war:
I detest war. It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description. When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue. The lives of a nation's finest patriots are sacrificed.
Innocent people suffer and die. Commerce is disrupted; economies are damaged; strategic interests shielded by years of patient statecraft are endangered as the exigencies of war and diplomacy conflict. Not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly.
The statement is eloquent and powerful, but given the speaker, unremarkable. There are few people in America who can speak so personally to their dislike for war than a fellow who spent a half decade in the Hanoi Hilton. If there's anyone in this presidential race who has cause for hating war, it's obviously John McCain. Compared to McCain's personal experience, Barack Obama's exposure to war is a mere intellectual construct. Even Hillary Clinton, the Lioness of Tuzla, can't compete with McCain in this area.
For reasons that still mystify, men of the left decided that McCain's denunciation of war represented a soft spot. The bumbling gumshoes at the lefty website Think Progress got busy investigating McCain's speech and discovered that Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer had given a speech featuring remarkably similar language in 1996. "Plagiarism!" the left wing blogosphere cried, nearly in unison.
The American Prospect's Ezra Klein seemed the most excited by the "scandal," apparently thinking that with proper massaging, it could devastate McCain:
Some of you will remember that Joe Biden's 1988 bid for the presidency was felled when he plagiarized a major speech from British politician Neil Kinnock. Now, via Think Progress, McCain looks to be risking a similar fate. Turns out quite a bit of his foreign policy speech yesterday was stolen, without credit, from a speech Admiral Timothy Ziemer gave in 1996.
What's particularly telling is where the lifting happened--in the section where McCain explained his deep hatred of war. Turned out it wasn't quote his after all. If that section of the speech, which seemed so very personal, but was in fact anything but, than what can we really take away from the address? The point of the speech was that McCain's core beliefs militate powerfully against war. But that's not true for his policies, and we now learn, those aren't strictly his core beliefs. This seems like a big deal to me.
But the left's sloppy hackery here really isn't the point. Let's say for the sake of argument that John McCain did make a speech in which he borrowed a phrase or two to most clearly express his disdain for war. In Ezra Klein's analysis, that happenstance would beg the inference that McCain is a warmonger who does not truly dislike war.
If the Democrats and their house intellectuals decide to fight a campaign battle on this front, I imagine they'll delight the McCain campaign. John McCain doesn't have to rely on words to convey his disdain for war. His personal history speaks quite eloquently in that regard. For most reasonable people, that personal history will end any debate over whether John McCain is fond of war. If Obama supporters want to spend time trying to convince voters that a man who spent five and a half years as a POW getting tortured and maimed now bears a fondness for war, the McCain campaign will likely happily wish them luck as they tackle such a futile endeavor.
SO WHY DID CERTAIN Obama supporters make such a big deal about McCain's alleged "plagiarism?" After all, these are intelligent and savvy people most of the time. And yet they wanted to deliberately steer the conversation to McCain's valorous background. The answer is to be found in the kind of campaign Barack Obama is running and indeed must run.
In terms of personal accomplishments and service to country, Obama's cupboard is virtually bare next to McCain's. The same goes with political actions. You don't have to parse a John McCain speech to figure out where he stands. Heck, you don't even have to listen to McCain's speeches to know where he stands. From campaign finance to immigration to the Bush tax cuts to the Iraq War, McCain has been a man of action rather than words. Such men develop records and reputations. They become known quantities.
On the other end of the spectrum stands Barack Obama. Obama lacks a biography that tells you where he stands. He also has taken no defining or even noteworthy political action in his short time in public life.
And that's where the speeches come in. Obama's campaign is one purely of words. Verbiage matters for the Obama campaign, more than it has for any presidential campaign in memory. Verbiage matters for Obama in a way it couldn't possibly matter for McCain. The only way Obama can tell the country of his plans and of his basic nature is through speeches and other campaign set pieces. When Obama said "words matter" to rebut one of Hillary Clinton's attacks, he had it right. For his campaign, nothing matters more.
It's therefore understandable that Obama partisans would prefer the presidential race to hinge on the candidates' words and even on their words' provenance. That's Obama's home court. Obama is a remarkable speaker, and a gifted writer. McCain is neither.
But McCain is a man of action, one who has a 40 year history of being a man of action. And even in politics, actions speak louder than words.
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.