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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Where McCain is free to be McCain

On late-night TV he relaxes into himself, in contrast to personas of the campaigner.

November 11, 2008|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Sen. John McCain is scheduled to make his first postelection television appearance tonight on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" -- bookending his loss, as it were, with visits to NBC late night. The weekend before the election found him back on "Saturday Night Live," a show with which he has had a long and friendly relationship and whose renewed fortunes owe him much. (Specifically, they owe much to his choice of a running mate.)

He participated in two fairly funny sketches. The first was a QVC-style infomercial for his campaign, with Tina Fey as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; it leaned heavily on silly puns ("Sarah Palin's William Ayres Freshener," a collection of "McCain Fine Gold" jewelry). In the second, he outlined a few "radical last-minute strategies," including "The Double Maverick" ("That's where I go totally berserker and just freak everybody out") and "The Sad Grandpa" ("That's where I get on TV and go, 'C'mon, Obama's gonna have plenty of chances to be president. It's my turn!") On Monday, in a bit surely taped earlier, he introduced "Saturday Night Live Presidential Bash 2008," a clip show mostly of recent sketches from the long electoral season.

Although the McCain camp often painted Sen. Barack Obama as an inscrutable man of mystery, he struck me as an open book compared with his Republican opponent, who, over the course of the campaign presented himself -- intentionally, it seemed at times, and helplessly at others -- in a variety of guises, from straight-talker to name-caller, from wise elder to sputtering senior.

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Dramatic character

Of course, I wouldn't presume to know what was actually going on in his head. But that it was hard even to guess made him the more fascinating candidate. Obama has in many ways the better life story, which sews exotic details onto a classic narrative of American self-realization, but McCain was the more dramatic character: Citizen McCain.

One view -- a view I tried to share, just as one human watching another -- was that somewhere beneath all these swirling personas, like a crab at the bottom of a roiling ocean, the real McCain, the go-his-own-way, no-bull guy of media legend, was waiting to reemerge. Politics is in no small part performance, after all, and every good performer adjusts his material to his audience, sees what works and repeats it. Yet McCain often seemed like a man in a cartoon with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other; or the ventriloquist in a horror movie who finds himself mouthing the words of his own dummy.

That something of the sort may have been true was only reinforced by his extracurricular appearances on "Saturday Night Live," the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner and the nonpolitical talk shows (excepting his uncomfortable makeup date with David Letterman), where he seemed to relax into himself, or at least a self otherwise missing from the campaign. The flubbed or sour notes he often hit during the debates or when unconvincingly painting his opponent as an extremist fell into tune. McCain looked happy on these occasions, and in his element: In a backstage interview posted on NBC's "SNL" website, asked whether he preferred hosting the show to merely guesting on it, he said, "I like to host. You get into more skits that way."

McCain didn't write his lines himself, of course, but one might say that he approved the messages. That might seem odd if you consider that he let himself be thought of as a "Sad Grandpa" in a sketch in which Fey-Palin also promoted herself as a candidate in 2012. (It was about this time that reports of bad blood between the running mates, denied by each, began to accelerate.) But cheerful self-mockery seems to be a comfortable fallback for him. There was a certain logic in wanting to be seen in that light.

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A campaign's end

Tuesday night -- after a final flurry of excited addresses on the theme "The Mac Is Back" -- he was back on TV again, giving his last speech of the race at the Arizona Biltmore. And in that moment the Mac did indeed seem to be back: no hunch in his shoulders, no tics or grimaces. It was as if demons had left his body. He linked himself with the man who beat him (noting "the country that we both love") and praised Obama for "inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president.

"I won't spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been," said McCain. He left the field a failed campaigner but a free man.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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