Jerry Lee Lewis didn't get his nickname, "The Killer," because he killed somebody. Mississippi's piano-rocker acquired his dangerous-sounding moniker because he frequently used the term as a generic nickname for friends and acquaintances. The Killer's verbal tic bounced back, establishing an appropriate brand name for rock's iconic wild man.
I mention all of this in prelude to a story about something weird that happened a little southeast of the Killer's ranch — last Friday, in the Grove at Ole Miss — where a huge crowd assembled to watch presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama duke it out via jumbotron. Fierce supporters of McCain and Obama threw a peaceful party there in honor of the Democratic process. At that party, both groups decided that — whether they liked it or not — the time for serious change had finally arrived.
When McCain called himself a "maverick" for the umpteenth time, he did himself no favors. Instead of branding himself, the 72-year-old politician transformed himself into the pimply geek who's trying to prove he's tough. And everybody in the Grove felt it.
The crowd at Ole Miss was thick with Republicans. Given the sheer number of cute teenage girls with McCain's name stitched across the ass of their Daisy Dukes, it's probably safe to assume that conservatives were a strong but conflicted majority, possibly unable to reconcile their politics with their politicians (let alone the cut of their daughters' britches). One blond coed felt comfortable enough to wear a button reading "I'm Pro-Gun" next to another button reading "I'm Anti-Obama." But for all this Republicanism, both candidates were cheered throughout the debate, with McCain receiving oohs and aahs for the tough shots he fired across the bow of an opponent he couldn't look in the eye. As a pugilistic spectator sport, it seemed clear that from this crowd's perspective, the grumpy disabled vet was going to emerge a battered but certain winner. And so it should have been.
No matter what you may think of his policies, Obama is a lousy debater. He stammers and parses like John Kerry doing a comic impression of a John Kerry impersonator. Nevertheless, Obama's biggest ideas — like delivering a tax cut to 95 percent of Americans — still seemed to make their way through to the consciousness of working-class voters and Republicans who've grown weary of trickle-down theories and extreme Reaganomics. His reminder that McCain once crooned "Bomb, bomb Iran," to the tune of an old Beach Boys song didn't have to be smoothly delivered.
When McCain reminded viewers about his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a bipartisan wave of disapproving moans rumbled through the crowd. There was no cheering countermeasure, no chants of "USA, USA." There was instead a palpable sense that even in the deep-red state of Mississippi, where chicks dig guns and detest Democrats, war is losing its luster.
In Denver and St. Paul during the political conventions, the streets were feverish with protest and disagreement. Oxford's debate crowd was, on the other hand, entirely civil. With the possible exception of one man who screamed "Hit 'em in the mouth" when moderator Jim Lehrer asked the candidates how they planned to handle Iran, McCain was easily the angriest person in Oxford.
Considering the debates of 2000 and 2004, there's nothing to suggest that reasonable answers win presidential debates. But even as a sign reading "Palin's a Fox" was toted from the Grove by some resolutely conservative church lady, the TV pundits were calling the debate a draw and giving a slight advantage to Obama. Flash polls showed that the Democrat won by especially large margins among independents.
There was no bragging among conservatives in the Ole Miss parking lots after the show. There was certainly nothing to rival the cocky displays in New York on the last night of the Republican National Convention in 2004, after Bush was recoronated at Madison Square Garden.
Southerners have a gift for masking their various hatreds beneath the thin but convincing veneer of civility. But something else happened in Oxford last week: A calm cross section of the American South came together to eat, dance, listen, and ultimately, to change.
Goodness gracious. Great balls of fire.
Chris Davis is a Flyer staff writer.