CINCINNATI—If any candidate for president ever demonstrated that he had guts, it was John McCain when he dared to appear before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
It's unlikely that the Arizona senator has faced a crowd so skeptical since he confronted his torturers in the Hanoi Hilton POW camp during the Vietnam War. Though the NAACP is a nonpartisan group that is forbidden to endorse candidates, the convention center where it is holding its 99th annual convention looks like a rally for McCain's opponent, Barack Obama.
To get into the cavernous hall where McCain spoke, delegates—many decked out in Obama T-shirts and caps—had to walk past huge screens blaring the Democratic nominee's triumphant speech to the group only two days earlier. A front-page story in The New York Times on Wednesday reported that only 2 percent of black voters support McCain versus 89 percent for Obama.
"It took courage to come before a body like the NAACP and ask for support," conceded Nimrod Chapel Jr., vice president of the NAACP chapter in Jefferson City, Mo., with an appreciative nod at the fact that McCain had even subjected himself to a few unscripted questions from the audience.
Did McCain's speech change anyone's mind?
Chapel looked at me like I was crazy. The fact is that McCain's appearance here has nothing to do with winning black votes since McCain knows that is impossible. His intent, described perceptively by Denton Watson, the biographer of NAACP legend Clarence Mitchell, "is to show that he is a candidate who will talk to all sorts of Americans and not exclude anyone."
In other words, it's to show white swing voters who don't want to vote for a bigot that he's not one—and to distance himself from the reviled Bush administration, whose name alone is sufficient to send NAACP members into a frenzy.
McCain conceded all that near the end of his speech by saying "whether or not I get your support I need your good will and your council."
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Up until then, McCain's speech was a carefully crafted attempt to make his maverick breed of Republican conservatism palatable to folks who have little appetite for it. He began with a compliment to Obama, whose historic nomination, McCain declared, shows that America is "still a work in progress and always improving." Even if Obama doesn't win in November, said McCain, he "has achieved a great thing for himself and his country."
The meat of McCain's appeal was an impassioned attack on the shortcomings of public schools. "Nowhere are the limitations of conventional thinking any more apparent than in education policy," McCain said. "For all the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the worst problems of our public school system are often found in black communities. Black and Latino students are among the most likely to drop out of high school. African Americans are also among the least likely to go on to college."
The solution to this mess, McCain suggests, is greater school choice, including private school vouchers—a suggestion that went over in the hall like a lead balloon. Many NAACP members also belong to teachers' unions that are dead set against such payments, even though they have substantial support from black parents. Obama got loud applause on Monday when he predicted that McCain's education proposals would amount to "the same tired rhetoric about vouchers."
But the heart of McCain's talk was an evocative recounting of how he, as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, first learned about Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder. It deserves to be quoted at some length:
"I remember first learning what had happened in Memphis on the fourth of April, 1968, feeling just as everyone else did back home, only perhaps even more uncertain and alarmed for my country in the darkness that was then enclosed around me and my fellow captives. In our circumstances at the time, good news from America was hard to come by. But the bad news was a different matter, and each new report of violence, rioting and other tribulations in America was delivered without delay. The enemy had correctly calculated that the news of Dr. King's death would deeply wound morale, and leave us worried and afraid for our country."
"Doubtless it boosted our captors' morale, confirming their belief that America was a lost cause and that the future belonged to them. Yet, how differently it all turned out. And if they had been the more reflective kind, our enemies would have understood that the cause of Dr. King was bigger than any one man and could not be stopped by force of violence. Struggle is rewarded in God's own time. Wrongs are set right, and evil is overcome. We know this to be true because it is the story of your cause and the story of our country."
As McCain spoke, some in the audience were visibly moved. A few even had tears in their eyes.
They like McCain. They admire his guts and his patriotism.
But, they won't vote for him.
Jack White teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.