Higher Ground

The presidential election was getting ugly. In recent weeks, John McCain depicted Barack Obama as an airheaded celebrity. Obama painted McCain as a forgetful fuddy-duddy. McCain called Obama a hypocritical opportunist. Obama went after McCain for his half-dozen houses.

After all that, the moral high ground was looking like a wasteland. But tonight, both candidates scampered back up from their respective ravines.

McCain had everyone expecting a mortar when he announced that he would be airing an ad during Obama’s speech. But the spot was respectful, if a little stilted: “Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to stop and say congratulations. How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day.” There’s a cynical reading, certainly—McCain wants to crash Obama’s party under the guise of congrats. But to viewers at home, I’m guessing it read as classy.

Obama, meanwhile, attacked McCain with gusto—he accused him of letting Bin Laden go, hyper-aggression against Russia, and general out-of-touchness. But he drew the line at hypocrisy. “What I will not do,” he said, “is suggest that the senator takes his positions for political purposes.” He also turned next week’s RNC theme, “Putting Country First,” on its head. Obama didn’t just say that he prioritizes the nation’s interests before his own. He gave McCain the same benefit of the doubt. “I’ve got news for you, John McCain,” he said.   “We all put our country first.”

Sure, both candidates left openings for more pyrotechnics. McCain promised that “tomorrow, we’ll be back at it.” Obama promised to set aside personal attacks but still said that McCain “doesn’t get it”—a phrase McCain fans might interpret as a veiled age reference. These lines preview the war to come. But at the very least, both candidates agree on one thing: They want to press the reset button. That is, as long as they come out looking like the magnanimous one.