Tea for the Tillerman
It's the morning after and a lot's been said already about McCain calling Obama "that one". It was disrespectful, sounded racist, and made McCain look like a crabby old man who'd forgotten someone's name at the dinner table at a family get-together; and it was an awkward turn of phrase on top of that.
I think that these "how they said it" moments play an important part in how people interpret these public performances. Maybe more important since there wasn't all that much new of any substance last night (except for McCain's willingness to kill Social Security and Medicare).
Here's a quick observation on a very little moment in the debate last night:
Am I the only one who found McCain's line referring to himself as being a "cool hand on the tiller" a little creepy?
On camera last night McCain seemed to be the very personification of his well-documented hot temper, a little man in a tight suit who was about to explode. Wandering around stage, gripping his microphone like he wanted to strangle it, he made rude comments to Obama and Brokaw (who seemed to be bending over backwards trying to relate to the Skipper while scolding Obama for talking too much), and was condescending to the audience.
Hot head does not equal cool hand.
When McCain suggested that he had a "cool hand" there was a little bit of the undead in it. Plus, it reinforced the impression of him being old. Older people do have circulatory problems and often complain about their extremities being cold. So for an angry old guy to say he had a cool hand suggests the kind of thermal disequalibrium that old people have when their days on this planet are winding down.
Then, for those old enough, there's "Cool Hand Luke", a movie about a petty criminal on a Florida chain gang. Since no one is going to confuse McCain with a young, virile Paul Newman, you're more likely to connect McCain with the brutal prison guards and the oppression visited upon Luke. Not a good linkage.
The image of "cool hand" is entirely the wrong thing for McCain to be using. For a "hot head" to be talking about his "cool hand" suggests a disconnection between thought and action, an almost psychopathic state.
"Tiller" is also problematic. The word is archaic. I doubt many people ever use that word anymore or even know its meaning. By using it McCain reemphasized that he is older, living in another time. "Tiller" has several uses, but McCain meant "tiller" as the lever that controls a rudder on a boat. I guess it was a folksy attempt to link his history in the Navy with how he'd be as President. McCain doesn't need folksy now. Never mind that in the Navy he had a problem with crashing jets. And they don't have tillers on the back of jets.
Really, have you ever used the word tiller when referring to the lever that controls a rudder? When was the last time you used it? If you have you probably have a boat with a rudder or, more likely, your grandad did.
But "tiller" has another problem. "Tiller" as someone who plows land, tills the soil, is a somewhat more familiar use, but still archaic. The last time that I remember a variation of it being used was when Cat Stevens titled an album in the early seventies "Tea For The Tillerman". Republicans don't want to link themselves to Cat Stevens these days. Those who know "tiller" as meaning "farmer" would probably find McCain's usage peculiar and confusing. McCain doesn't get excited when he's behind a plow? Who does? He doesn't get excited when he puts his cold hand on the old man behind the plow? Why is John McCain touching a farmer? When looking at last night's events the phrase seems to link, and not so so positively, McCain putting his creepy hand on the shoulder of that questioner in the audience.
So add inappropriate touching to the problems with this turn of phrase.
Which leads me to yet another problem. Another old word, "till", at least has a little more circulation. A "till" is a cash drawer, and these days the term is almost exclusively used (when it's ever used) when talking about petty theft, as in someone being "caught with his hand in the till". The problem with having a "cool hand on the tiller" is that the definitions of similar words tend give a totally different and unflattering meaning to McCain's intended point. A "hand in the till" is not very far from a "cool hand on the tiller".
It came out sounding like McCain is a ghoul robbing a cash register.