On Saturday came the sad news that author David Foster Wallace had died. Since I first came across his writing about ten years ago, he has been my favorite contemporary writer so I've been pretty bummed about his passing. Best known for his massive tome Infinite Jest, Wallace was also an exemplary essayist. My introduction to him came via A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a collection of non-fiction pieces on such subjects as David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and the hellishness of a cruise vacation. The latter two of these showcased his brilliance at taking events and situations and describing with incredible perception and humor the absurdity that underlies much of our (post)modern world. He was also an amazing sports writer, having written one of the best descriptions of the genius of high level athletics in his profile of Roger Federer.
So what does this have to do with politics? In 2000, Wallace was hired by Rolling Stone magazine to follow John McCain for a week and produce a story for a future issue. The result was typical Wallace, a 124 page deconstruction of the modern day campaign in which he grapples with our electoral process' competing dimensions of idealism vs. cynicism; showmanship vs. authenticity; boldness vs. caution--all with his unparalleled power of description. His portrait stands up, in my mind, with the best campaign commentary of recent years and is perhaps superlative in that he comes at his subject (as he does in many of his great essays) not as an insider, but from outside the bubble. The piece has since be published in his (now last) collection of essays Consider the Lobster. Here's a bit:
Because here's another paradox. Spring 2000--midmorning in America's hangover from the whole Lewinsky-and-impeachment thing--represents a moment of almost unprecedented cynicism and disgust with national politics, a moment when blunt, I-don't-give-a-s*%t (1)-if-you-elect-me honesty becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality. A moment when an anticandidate can be a real candidate. But of course if he becomes a real candidate, is he still an anticandidate? Can you sell someone's refusal to be for sale?
There are many elements of the McCain2000 campaign--naming the bus "Straight Talk," the timely publication of "Faith of My Fathers," the much hyped "openness" and "spontaneity" of the Express's media salon, the message-disciplined way McCain thumps "Always. Tell you. the truth"--that indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate's rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? Or just confusing? Suppose, let's say, you've got a candidate who says polls are bulls*%t and totally refuses to tailor his campaign style to polls, and suppose then that new polls start showing that people really like this candidate's polls-are-bulls*%t stance and are thinking about voting for him because of it, and suppose the candidate reads these polls (who wouldn't) and then starts saying even more loudly and often that polls are bulls*%t and that he won't use them to decide what to say, maybe turning "Polls are bulls*%t" into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bulls*%t on the side of his bus...Is he a hypocrite? Is it hypocritical that one of McCain's ads' lines in South Carolina is "Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically," which of course since its an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit? What's the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?
Unsimplistic enough for you now? The fact of the matter is that if you're a true-blue, market savvy Young Voter, the only thing you're certain to feel about John McCain's campaign is a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need is bulls*%t, that there's nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen. At the times your cynicism's winning, you'll find that it's possible to see even McCain's most attractive qualities as just marketing angles. His famous habit of bringing up his own closet's skeletons, for example--bad grades, messy divorce, indictment as one of the Keating Five--this could be real honesty and openness, or it could be McCain's shrewd way of preempting criticism by criticizing himself before anyone else can do it. The modesty with which he talks about his heroism as a POW--"It doesn't take much to get shot down"; "I wasn't a hero, but I was fortunate enough to serve my time in the company of heroes"--this could be real humility, or it could be a clever way to make himself seem both heroic and humble.
As our campaigns seem to digress further and further into bizarro world, Wallace's perspective is perhaps even more apt than it was eight years ago. For his thoughts on McCain's current campaign, see this interview he did with the Wall St. Journal a few months back. Also, here's an old interview he did with Charlie Rose and some links to a few of his essays. Finally, his much cited commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005.
1. Not to get too inside-jokey but I took the liberty of cleaning up the language. ElectionDissection.com is a family friendly repository of political analysis.