What to read about John McCain and the future of the GOP.

What Slate writers are reading.
Aug. 30 2008 6:38 AM

Grand Old Book Party

What to read about John McCain and the future of the GOP.

See Slate's complete Republican National Convention coverage.

By the time party conventions roll around, we're told, many Americans are just tuning in to the presidential race. If you're just gearing up for the GOP Convention, here's a rundown of the best literature on John McCain and the future of the Republican Party.

John McCain has written several autobiographical works with strategist Mark Salter over the years, which explains why we don't see that many other McCain biographies. But they do exist. Some are even worth reading.

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For juicy anecdotes about young McCain, see Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song, published in 1995 but since chopped and repackaged as John McCain: An American Odyssey. (Read the original; it's got Jim Webb.) Demerits, Brazilian model girlfriends, run-ins with cops—McCain was not, as Rudy Giuliani might say, an altar boy. At the Naval Academy, he dressed sloppily. "What do you think your grandfather would say?" an officer once asked him. "Frankly, Commander, I don't think he'd give a rat's ass," came the reply. Timberg, a vet himself, clearly adores the man.

And he's not the only one, according to Free Ride: McCain and the Media, by David Brock and Paul Waldman. The Media Matters duo set out to indict the MSM for its too-friendly coverage of McCain. But it often reads like an unintentional ode to the senator's press savvy. They're not wrong, though. Squarely in Camp McCain is Elizabeth Drew's well-intentioned snorer Citizen McCain, chronicling the senator's campaign finance crusade. Likewise, Paul Alexander's Man of the Peopleshould be sold with pompoms.

But McCain skepticism is alive and well. Take Matt Welch's McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, a meticulous upending of the candidate's public identity. Oddly enough, it mirrors McCain's latest line of attack against Obama, only it paints McCain as the lightweight celebrity snob. Welch argues that McCain "elevates his own self-interest over what's good for the country." He quotes a journalist confessing, "I'm falling for John McCain," and a former friend saying "John McCain was always much more of an elitist."

The authenticity conundrum also gets heavy treatment in a slim volume by David Foster Wallace, McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope. Elements of McCain's campaign, Wallace writes, "indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate's rejection of shrewd, clever marketing." Wallace would know: The piece first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, then as a download-only e-book, then in a collection of Wallace's work, and finally as its own paperback.

Wallace also has the best account of the most famous episode of McCain's life—his capture, his torture, his refusal of release "with all his basic primal human self-interest howling at him." Wallace retells the story with the pathos of someone relating it for the first time, unlike McCain himself, whose personal accounts, starting with his 1973 article in U.S. News & World Report, have tended toward the laconic. Wallace reminds the reader just how selfless—not to mention plain freaking crazy, by any pragmatic measure—McCain's actions were.

If you like your campaign propaganda undistilled, check out Michael Goldfarb's on-message blog, the McCain Report. His YouTube channel has all the speeches and ads you'll ever need. And if you want to see how much (or how little) has changed, watch this ad from McCain's 1982 congressional campaign.

So say McCain wins—what then? Some GOPers think they have just the plan. In Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, Ross Douthat and occasional Slate contributor Reihan Salam predict that the future of the party depends on its ability to win "Sam's Club voters"—working-class non-college-educated Americans. The authors' unorthodox prescription: government investment (yikes!) that fosters independence and upward mobility (phew!). They suggest a smorgasbord of pro-family tax tweaks, subsidizing the wages of low-income workers, and putting more cops on the street. Die-hard fiscal conservatives aren't likely to bite, but that's the point: Move over, Grover.

Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, has proposed nine steps of "real change" that the party must implement in order to avoid "real disaster." An anti-Obama campaign isn't enough. They must repeal the gas tax, open the national petroleum reserve, declare a yearlong earmark moratorium, cut the census budget, overhaul the air-traffic-control system, and make English the official national language, among other policy tweaks.

Neither plan has much to do with John McCain. He's too anomalous to represent the party's past and too old to represent its future. But with the GOP struggling in congressional and gubernatorial races nationwide, that might actually help him.

A version of this article appears in the Washington Post's "Outlook" section.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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