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So long, spoiled children

McCain's jab at USC may prove to be a stroke of campaign genius.

July 10, 2008|Rob Long | Rob Long is a contributing editor to Opinion. His weekly commentary, "Martini Shot," airs on KCRW-FM (89.9).

Afew weeks ago, John McCain made a little joke at his wife's expense. Referring to her alma mater -- Cindy McCain is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she was a cheerleader and sorority sister -- he called it "USC, the University of Spoiled Children."

It's not an original joke, of course -- it's been around for ages, possibly even as long as John McCain himself -- but it said a lot about the man who wants to be president.

It says he's honest. He's a straight-talker. And he's willing to speak truth to ... well, not to power, exactly, but to healthy, fit young people in shorts and flip-flops. Which is more than his opponent can say.

The offhand comment caused what we'd call, back when I was going to college at workaday, no-nonsense Yale, a "dreadful kerfuffle." Apparently, there are kids at USC who don't appreciate being singled out as uniquely spoiled, who don't like it when a potential leader of the free world calls them out on the hacky-sack and Facebook and beer-pong life they lead, from the moment they rise, sleepy and bed-headed (at 11:47 a.m., if memory serves), until they crash, exhausted, at 4 in the afternoon for a short nap, only to wake again at the insistence of their roommates, who need someone to serve as the iPod DJ.

Back when I was in college -- during the McKinley administration, it sometimes feels like -- I was all business and hard work. I'd scurry across the icy quad with my Chaucer in hand and my Earl Grey splashing in my teacup, hurrying to my (only) Thursday class: "Dante and Chaucer: (Re)Presenting the Logos of Narrative and Structure in a (Post)Gender Context." Sometimes, my scarf would become unknotted and it would flutter about, causing me to appear ridiculous. Talk about stress! Some of the other chaps would make cutting remarks about it -- "Interesting cravat you've got there, Long," they'd say. "You look positively Mediterranean!" And I'd linger there, by the Old Fence, engaged in a bitter contest of witty comebacks, something like: "What say you, old horse? Isn't it true that your mother is a Catholic?" You know, clever stuff like that.

And, later, precariously balancing a small glass of port on my knee on a chilly afternoon at the Elizabethan Club, I and some of my chums would cluck sadly about the coddled, lazy group at USC, about their Frisbees and mountain bikes and hand-me-down BMWs. How sad that such a spoiled, pampered group of students would never know the bracing, character-building labor of a kick-ass-and-take-names Yale education. And we'd be quite depressed about it, until Granger, the club steward, rang the little bell that told us that cookies and little buttered sandwiches were available in the Folio Gallery.

See where I'm going with this? College kids are all awful: spoiled, lazy, swanning around with entitlement and privilege -- not to mention unblemished, agile and totally free of those tiny lines that appear around the eyes and mouth around the time you set up a 401(k) plan.

Visit any college classroom -- at the University of Spoiled Children, Harvard, Yale, Puget Sound, doesn't matter -- and you'll see row upon row of attractive young people tapping away on their MacBook Pros, secretly IMing each other and pretending to listen. And why listen? The class is almost assuredly pass/fail, and the requirements -- two short papers, one essay-based exam -- are pain- stakingly designed to move them in a sprightly, untroubled fashion to graduation, where they'll cheer themselves hoarse ("We did it!! We achieved our dreams!!") and pretend not to notice their threadbare, vitamin-deficient, nearly broke parents sweltering in the hot sun. "Is it over?" their parents will ask themselves. "Can we maybe stop buying food in the day-old section?"

McCain was probably just teasing his wife a bit with his "spoiled children" line, but as summer drags on and his campaign searches for a winning message, I think he may have hit on a powerful theme.

Look, he's 71, and for all his great qualities, I don't think he's really going to capture the messenger-bag-and-ironic-T-shirt set. It's pretty clear that his opponent -- young, sleek, slender, hip -- is going to carry New Haven, Cambridge, Berkeley and Ann Arbor.

So I say, go on the attack. Point out their expensive computers -- which they use for music and TV watching -- and their expensive blue jeans and their entitled, disease-free lives. Point out how creepily physically fit they are. Point it all out to the voters and turn this election from being about left versus right, or Democrat versus Republican, into a winnable one: young versus old.

John McCain -- tough guy, war hero, straight-talker -- is poised to give America's college kids what they richly deserve: an electoral swirly.

I'd vote for that.

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