Here's Hoping—Review: McCain's Promise by David Foster Wallace

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his current campaign lacks the spontaneity and access of his first bid for the White House, and “Straight Talk” has been replaced by on-message scripts written by political marketers.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.”

Here’s hoping.

3 replies »

  1. Excellent review.

    I was thinking today…. Is John McCain the first politician to throw himself under the bus? I’ve always held a fair amount of respect for McCain the politician…which is not the same as agreeing with him. During the primaries, i considered the fact that were he to win the presidency we might see some real maverickism. He’s too old to be thinking about eight years, so he wouldn’t be held hostage by political considerations. And i could very well see him charting his own course…damn the political consequences.

    I wasn’t even very disturbed by his hard tacking to the right to win the nomination, as it was obvious that he would need to do so. All of my previous feelings may still turn out to be true, but now i wonder.

    The nomination of Palin; the change in the tone of his campaign (obviously brought about by giving power to Republican heavy weights); and the further hard tacking to the right make me question everything i once thought of Sen McCain.

    And you know it’s bad when The Economist does a cover that cries, “Bring Back the Real McCain.” They loved him: fiscally conservative, socially liberal enough, etc.

    So my question is: did the real McCain get thrown under the Straight Talk Express for political expediency or is this the real McCain? Either way, i don’t like it…but for some reason, the details are important to me.

  2. Those are great questions. Like you, I once upon a time respected McCain, and I’d have even been willing to give him a second look as a voter, depending on who he’d picked as VP. His choice of Palin seemed like such a baldface pander that I lost any respect I had for McCain as a politician. Of course he should be in it to win, but I don’t think he should be reckless about the way he goes about it.

  3. It seems that his choice of Palin is beginning to take its toll. Obama is now 7 points up in CO; apparently, this is because independents are turned off by Palin. That’s no surprise, and my guess is that the trend will get worse.

    The new “No Talk Express” is pretty amazing too. I’ve noted that the old McCain’s relationship with the media has tanked since Schmidt really took over. Now it’s getting worse because they have to protect Palin from exposing her own ignorance.