When David Foster Wallace climbed aboard John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” media caravan in the early days of the 2000 presidential primary season, he hoped to understand why McCain generated so much excitement, so much attention, so much hope. In fact, Wallace was amazed by “the enormous hopes and enthusiasm [McCain’s] generating in press and voters alike.”
Much has changed in the past eight years. McCain, the maverick “anticandidate” who peddled change and hope, who raged against the Washington establishment, now is the Washington establishment. As the 2008 republican nominees, his current campaign lacks the spontaneity and access of his first bid for the White House, and “Straight Talk” has been replaced by on-message scripts written by political marketers. The hope is gone.
And Wallace is dead, victim of an apparent suicide earlier this month.
Wallace spent a week on the Trail, watching McCain in the trenches “flesh-pressing, fund-raising, traveling, poll-taking, strategizing, grinding out eight-event days in Michigan and George and New York and SC.” His original story, titled “Up, Simba!” appeared in Rolling Stone, although the magazine’s editors abbreviated it. An on-line version soon appeared, and in 2007, Wallace also included the complete essay in his collection Consider the Lobster.
This year, the marketing gurus at Little, Brown, smelling money in the air with McCain’s latest rise to prominence, published the essay as a stand-alone book, McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.
Ironically, Wallace’s book expresses a nagging, sickening fear that marketing seems to be ruining America. It’s especially bad in politics, Wallace says, because “politicians’ statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability.”
In the case of McCain, his 2000 campaign spun his indifference to political gain into political gain. “[S]ome very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate’s rejection of shrewd, clever marketing,” Wallace notes.
Wallace’s introduction positions his pieces as neither pro- nor anti-McCain, although he admits he swooned over McCain the way other media did eight years ago. “[Y]ou get an overwhelming sense that this is a decent, honorable man trying to tell the truth to people,” Wallace writes. He seems especially impressed by the deep personal resolve and principle McCain showed as a POW in the Vietnam War. That experience is “hard to blow off” and it says something profound about McCain, Wallace says.
Wallace also found something equally disturbing in McCain’s “resoundingly scary” “right-wingish” speeches. “[W]hen you listen closely to these it’s as if some warm pleasant fog suddenly lifts and it strikes you that you’re not at all sure it’s John McCain you want choosing the head of the EPA or…new justices who’ll probably be coming onto the Supreme Court in the next term, and you start wondering all over again what makes the guy so attractive,” Wallace says.
But then “the doubts again dissolve” as McCain interacts so sincerely with voters and promises to always talk straight with them. “[Y]ou have to wonder,” Wallace asks. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?”
The media mostly ignored the substance of the campaign, looking instead for the fighting words that could trigger exchanges with then-candidate George W. Bush.
McCain’s Promise features Wallace’s usual brilliant writing, whether it be in the way he captures details—“coffee that tastes like hot water with a brown crayon in it”—or captures truth—“in reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”
The book’s foreword, written in April 2008 by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, contrasts the modern-McCain with the 2000 version, giving the book outstanding context. “The contradictions of John McCain are upon us once again,” Weisberg asks. He rightfully asks, “hypocrisy or paradox?”
While Wallace’s book provides a snapshot of McCain’s 2000 campaign that can give voters additional insight into the candidate even today, McCain’s Promise resonates on a far more important level. Wallace articulated his own interior battle “between cynicism and idealism and marketing and leadership” reflected in our larger American society.
The questions Wallace raised, and the insights he discovered, are lasting contributions to our ongoing political discussions and even our collective sense of political identity. The lasting impact, Wallace said, “now depends less on what is in [McCain’s] heart than on what might be in yours.”