Top ten things John McCain should really stop doing in public speaking

"My friends..."

John McCain is back in town today -- he speaks at the National Western Arena at 10 a.m. as part of something he’s trying to call his "Road to Victory" tour without seeming desperate or hypocritical. But maybe we should be used to that by now, what with the mangled sort of hairball-logic coming out of his "Straight Talk Express."

Anyway, this is the last leg of the race. The presidential debates are over and the Democrats seem to have won them all -- or maybe it was that the Republicans lost them. This is meant to take nothing away from the Obama victories at the podium, but that same podium is obviously no friend to John McCain (no matter how many friends he seems to think he has there in the audience).

There’s a reason why public speaking is generally feared more than death -- because when it goes badly, death sometimes seems preferable. So in the interest of saving John McCain from further embarrassment while he’s visiting our fair state, here are ten things that the esteemed Senator from Arizona really needs to stop doing while he’s up in front of a crowd.

Stop licking your lips. You’re supposed to be the inspiring war-hero presidential nominee for the GOP, not Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Try to remember your potential constituents’ names. First there was the African-American member of the Town Hall Audience. Then it was getting your buddy Joe the Plumber’s last name wrong. I mean, if you’re going to invoke Joe the Plumber in every answer ("Listen, Joe, let me talk about that abortion that this one over here wants you and every American to have…"), at least get the guy’s last name right. And no, it’s not Sixpack.

Smile less (or at least less creepily). You’ve learned in these past campaigns that you’re supposed to smile when you’re running for America’s highest office. But let’s face it, Senator: This isn’t your strong suit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re a serious guy. We get that. And not smiling would be a lot less damaging to you than that fake grin you seem to recall that you’re supposed to plaster on every once in a while. And this isn’t even including those times when you think you’re making a joke, but no one has any idea what you’re talking about. And speaking of jokes…

Don't make jokes. Sometimes you can be a funny guy, Senator. Like when you’re tightly scripted (and under no pressure) at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner last week. Or when you’re just jawing with David Letterman or Jon Stewart, you can be witty. But sir, get you up in front of a crowd that’s not chanting "Obama’s a terrorist" and you are a spectacularly unfunny guy. When you make a joke to a mixed crowd not already completely in your jacket pocket, it usually comes across as sort of mean, or snide, or at best incomprehensible. When we understand your joke, like the one about how you needed more hair in the Town Hall meeting, we at least recognized that oh, that was a joke, even if we didn’t laugh. But other times, you seem to be making a joke, and then it seems that it’s not a joke anymore about halfway through, and then you’re done, and you’re grinning like you’re expecting us to laugh, and that’s just damn uncomfortable, really. Here’s the thing: Presidents do a lot of speech-making, and often to crowds that don’t universally love them. And who wants four more years of wait, was that a joke?

Not everyone is your friend. You’ve got to stop calling everyone your friend. It makes you look like you’re trying to sell us medicines out of an old covered wagon. And besides, according to polling data just yesterday from NBC and the Wall Street Journal, only 42 percent of the audience might be your friend. And who knows what portion of that percentage is only pretending to be your friend for now because Obama is a terrorist/Arab/Muslim/black dude?

Stop blinking so much. Body language experts tell us that rapid blinking is a sign of stress, agitation and even a lack of confidence. Some go so far as to say that it reveals that the person doing the excessive blinking doesn’t believe what he's saying. Whether any of that is true or not, it’s distracting. And if you have any doubts that this is bugging your potential voters, consider the fact that Google shows 860,000 searches for "McCain blinking." And then get yourself some Visine.

Loosen up a little. Both in demeanor and gestures, you come across as too stiff. Granted, you have physical limitations due to your time in military service (for which, by the way, America is pretty much united in thanking you) that prevent some specific motions. But work with that, not against it. You have a habit of trying to make gestures with your arms and hands that are awkward-looking because of your range of motion. For a guy trying to work against the charge that he’s too old, it really makes you look too old. And while we’re on the subject, even in the Town Hall setting? Stop shuffling around like my grandpa in his bathrobe looking for the morning paper.

Be less angry. You know, a few years ago, your tendency to rip someone a new orifice was actually a strength; David Letterman (even after your apology, pointedly not a fan of your current campaign) used to praise you for being the kind of guy not afraid to mix it up a little, to throw a punch. That worked for you when it was there, sort of simmering on the back burner -- something you could go to if needed. But now it’s seemed to move to the front burner, and to exhaust the metaphor, it’s in a tea-kettle that’s sort of whistling all the time. You even come across as angry when you’re making a joke or smiling (see above), which is probably why those things don’t work very well, either.

Stop pointing out Obama's eloquence. Do you not get the idea that the country is coming off eight long years of almost purposeful non-eloquence? And that a little bit of smooth is going a long way for your distinguished opponent from Illinois? You did this twice in the last debate, and it’s clear that you’re trying that Rovian tactic of portraying the other side’s strength as a weakness. But wow, is that not working. Spectacularly not working.

Connect to your own message. Often, when you’re talking about an issue, it seems like you’re reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" from memory in fifth-grade English. You’re saying the words, but you’re not thinking about them; you’re not in the moment. But that’s understandable, sir. What with the way your campaign is going, this moment is understandably one you don’t really want to be in right now. -- Teague Bohlen

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts