In my lifetime, the best nomination speech delivered by a candidate was John McCain’s acceptance speech in 2008. There have been better speeches–notably Bill Clinton’s speech for Barack Obama in 2012–but the best one by an actual candidate was delivered by one who didn’t even win the general election.
Since I’m the one making the claim, let me put it into the perspective from which I watched his speech that night. Going into the convention, McCain’s chances at victory seemed minimal. The previous president, George W. Bush, was not even as popular as Donald Trump is now. I was one of those who had had their fill of George W. Bush, and as much as I admired John McCain, he offered no complaints about George Bush. For those of us in the “middle 10%,” meaning either candidate had a chance at our votes, that was going to be a deal breaker.
The Republicans had some good luck at their convention. The first night had promised to be a bit tense as President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were scheduled to talk. That wasn’t the image the Republicans wanted to send out.
A hurricane, though, interrupted the first night of the convention. While that was sad for the people in the hurricane, it did give McCain a chance to have the convention he wanted: one without the anchor of an unpopular president tugging at his apron strings.
The next night, McCain gave a great little speech that seems to have gotten lost over the years. It’s too bad, because it was a doozy.
McCain finished it with a touching remembrance of being tortured as a prisoner of war, which he deftly wove into a call for all Americans to fight as he once did:
I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your President…Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what’s right for our country. …Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.
Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.
By the end, I was standing up, ready to fight. Ready to make history. The next morning, I emailed a McCain fan: “This election is over. John McCain won the election last night.” As it turned out, I was wrong. Barack Obama won the election. Still, it wasn’t John McCain who lost it. It was George Bush.
Ryil Adamson is the author of “The Best-Looking One Always Wins,” which is the premiere book on presidential elections. You should read it.