McCain's appearance at NRA Annual Meetings as flat as his record of support for gun rights

"Is it possible that John McCain thinks you have too much freedom?" - NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, 2001

John McCain's closing speech at the "Celebration of American Values" conference at the NRA's 2008 Annual Meetings last Friday was a real clinker, and not just because he was boring, uninspired, unmotivated and talking out of both sides of his mouth.

No, I realized how much of a clinker his speech to the thousands of NRA members in attendance was as I stood at the back of the auditorium and listened to the turn-styles at the exits.

Clink, clink. Clink, clink. Clink, clink.

The NRA had announced earlier that morning that the event was sold out. I'm not sure how many tickets were sold, but the chairs that had been set up in the room for the "sold out" show was only about 75% full at the start. Several hundred of the best seats, saved right up front for Benefactor level members, sat empty for most of the speeches, delivered by Ollie North, John Bolton, Karl Rove, Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Mitch McConnell, as well as War On Terror veterans Marcus Luttrell and Greg Stube (more on those speeches shortly).

When it got close to McCain time, a couple of what appeared to be McCain campaign staffers came out and tried to shoe people into the empty seats, presumably not wanting the host of media cameras in the room to get a shot of McCain speaking to a bunch of empty seats. The attempt was only partially successful - there were still probably close to 100 empty seats in the first section, front and center, when McCain took the stage.

The lack of enthusiasm for McCain was also apparent in the speeches that occurred earlier in the day. Speaker after speaker bashed Obama - so much we heard his name countless hundreds of times more than the name McCain was uttered. Indeed, it seemed no one wanted to say the name of the person who was supposedly a pro-gun vote, even as they emplored NRA members to vote pro-gun. But few were actually willing to tell us for whom the supposedly pro-gun Presidential vote should go. Karl Rove even managed to quote McCain, but never uttered his name.

As we endured the spectacle, Buckeye Firearms Association Chairman Jim Irvine turned to me and observed, "Pitiful men compare themselves to even more wretched people to try to justify their inexcusable and deplorable actions. Great men compare themselves to other great men. They set the bar high and then set about exceeding the highest expectations." Indeed.

Speaking of pitiful men, Mike Huckabee's speech sounded good, up until he got distracted by a noise off-stage - one that was barely detectable from my fourth-row seat and undoubtedly went completely unnoticed by the vast majority of the crowd. To cover for his being distracted, Huckabee gestured toward the convention floor, where thousands upon thousands of guns were on display, and made a poor joke about how that was the sound of Obama hitting the floor because someone had aimed a gun at him. I gasped and cringed at the time, thinking "no, Mike, that was the sound of you giving the media the only sound-bite they'll report about the 2008 Annual Meetings." Indeed, by the time I returned to my hotel that evening, the video was linked up on the Drudge Report and the gun-hating media was already referring to it as "assassination language". Huckabee has since apologized to Obama - but the 60,000-plus law-abiding gun owners who were in attendance are still waiting on our apology.

The warm-up man for McCain was (snore) Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnel. In a second attempt to get the crowd warmed up before McCain came out, the NRA's big screens played a campaign video featuring decades-old photos and stressing McCain's history as a war hero. The campaign might want to rethink that video, because it felt a bit like watching Top Gun as a warm-up to a model airplane show. McCain received polite applause on entrance, but nothing like when Ollie North got a rock star welcome earlier in the day.

He received polite applause when he asked for recognition of earlier speakers, our service men & women, etc. etc., but he didn't ever get 'em hootin' & hollerin' for him. It would've been a plain old snoozer except you had to pay attention since you knew he was trying to pull one over on you.

McCain's angle on guns can be summarized like this: we're supposed to love him for all the stuff he did in ancient days, and be fooled into forgetting the war he has declared on us in recent years by lines like "I oppose efforts to require federal regulation of all private sales, such as a transfer between a father and a son." (I guess we're not supposed to realize that is actually McCain reiterating his support for legislation to close the non-existent "gun show loophole")

Before the speech, I had taken the opportunity to move to the back of the hall, so I had a great vantage point to notice as people began to trickle out. It became more and more steady. By the time McCain was half-way through his speech, people were streaming down the aisles, and there were literally lines at the exits.

I went outside the auditorium to try and take a photo to capture the moment - McCain's strained face on the big screen background, and hundreds of exiting NRA members in the foreground - but given the light conditions, my camera couldn't begin do it justice.

My fellow Buckeye Firearms Association companions and I guestimated upwards of 15-20% had left by the time we had did - and McCain still wasn't done talking.

The whole event was surreal, because at NRA Annual Meetings just a few short years ago, the name John McCain was synonymous with Ted Kennedy or Chuck Schumer. And for good reason.

In 2001, the NRA was righteously indignant about legislation called McCain-Feingold, which the grassroots Second Amendment group knew would effectively shut the NRA out of the political system by not allowing independent groups from buying TV or radio ads 60 days before a general election.

At the Annual Meetings that year in Kansas City, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre noted the fact that for decades McCain has been a supporter of the NRA. "But I gotta tell you, I don't know what's happening to John McCain," LaPierre observed.

As a story published at the time records, LaPierre took McCain to task for appearing in public service commercials for a radical anti-gun group called Americans for Gun Safety. That footage is now being used in television ads by anti-gun New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg:

The story notes McCain aroused even more anger from gun rights supporters during the 2001 Annual Meetings by co-sponsoring legislation that same week with Sen. Joe Lieberman that would ban private gun sales at gun shows unless a background check was completed.

From the story:

LaPierre wondered if McCain was becoming a point man for both an anti-First and Second amendment effort.

...LaPierre said: "Just think - eight weeks before a general election, the 4.3 million members of the NRA must shut up and step aside ... while Rather, and Couric and Gumbel and Rosie and Jennings and Hillary and Schumer hold court and won the airwaves without challenge."

In 2002, LaPierre delivered a speech to The Conservative Political Conference, in which he declared that that McCain's bill was "the dirtiest, stinkingest assault on freedom I've ever seen".

"We will not be silenced. If we have to, we’ll launch the Good Ship NRA and drop anchor in international waters just off the coast and broadcast the truth from our own TV towers. We’ll tie a radio antenna to a hot air balloon, let ‘er go a thousand feet straight up and we’ll broadcast the truth on our own Radio Free America. John McCain, we will not be silenced!"

I truly hope that is still the case.

The NRA's decision-makers would do well to take note that perhaps the biggest round of applause heard all weekend came in response to a refence by radio talk-show host Glenn Beck to all three Presidential candidates as "Larry, Curly and Mo".

Even as the NRA has refused to let McCain's success at passing his dirty, stinky assault on freedom silence them, having launched their own Radio Free America in the form of, it is my deep hope that the NRA will also not let the Republican party's nomination of McCain silence them in 2008.

I ask you, in Lincoln's words, "So that this nation may long endure," what you must to reveal, and then revere, truth...expect and accept the consequences of your actions and those of your nation...and every day, test what you see with what you know is right. And when it's dishonest, defy it." - Charleton Heston, April 16, 1999

Chad Baus is a proud member of the NRA, an elected Member of the Fulton County, OH Republican Central Committee and the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.


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