What Would David Foster Wallace Make of McCain 2008?

A campaign blog.
Sept. 15 2008 8:53 AM

What Would David Foster Wallace Make of McCain 2008?

One of the many reasons I am mourning David Foster Wallace’s death (along with those cited here and here and here ) is that we never found out what he thought of John McCain’s 2008 campaign. His 2000 piece on John McCain is my favorite discussion of authenticity in politics. The driving question: When McCain tells you he seeks only to inspire Americans to serve a cause greater than their own self-interest—or, to update for 2008, when he says he’d rather "lose an election than lose a war"—is he speaking the truth or mere hooey? In other words, is John McCain "for real"?

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Wallace comes down on all sides all at once. On the one hand, McCain’s pledges of honesty and reform "indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate's rejection of shrewd, clever marketing." His brand of anti-politics came along at a convenient time, Wallace notes, just as cynicism in American politics was reaching its (apparent) zenith.

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But McCain has a trump card: his personal story, which Wallace calls "riveting and unspinnable and true." That story gives even a cynic like Wallace pause when he listens to McCain’s rhetoric about integrity. We’ve all heard the story of McCain’s capture in Vietnam told and retold. But Wallace tells it as if for the first time. He describes McCain’s refusal of release "with all his basic primal human self-interest howling at him," and then asks:

"Would you have refused the offer? Could you have? You can’t know for sure. None of us can. … But, see we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more year there, mostly in a dark box, alone, tapping messages on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know , for a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest."

Wallace never really decides whether McCain is categorically, irrefutably "for real." (He settles on the weak conclusion that the answer "depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.") But you can tell he really, really hopes he is.

Which is why I wondered what Wallace would make of McCain 2008. McCain 2000 railed against negativity on the campaign trail. (And rightly so—he was the victim of a scurrilous whisper campaign in South Carolina.) At one point, Wallace writes, McCain announces that he "ordered his staff to cease all Negativity and to pull all the McCain2000 response ads in South Carolina regardless of whether the Shrub [Bush] pulls his own Negative ads or not."

The Obama and McCain campaigns would surely dispute who first went negative this year. McCain’s people would probably point to Barack Obama repeatedly claiming that McCain wants to stay in Iraq for 100 years. (That’s not what McCain meant.) Obama’s people would cite McCain’s entire campaign apparatus since the "Celebrity" ad, from "Country First" (itself a tacit accusation) to tire gauges to dissing "community organizers to "lipstick" to Obama’s mythical plan to teach sex ed to kindergartners. Whoever "started it," McCain has embraced negativity and made it central to his pitch.

Wallace would probably pick apart the difference between the candidate and his campaign. A candidate will often delegate attacks to surrogates or staffers. This gives the candidate deniability; when confronted, they can gin up some boilerplate about how campaigns get ugly. In the "lipstick" episode, for example, some pundits thought McCain was doing just this. Chris Matthews said he doubted McCain would himself say, Barack Obama compared Sarah Palin to a pig . That would just be too absurd. But a day later, McCain did just that, first to Telemundo and then on The View .

Authenticity is hard enough to maintain when you’re asserting your own commitment to truth and fairness and integrity. When you’re actively undermining it on a daily basis—as McCain has been in recent weeks, with not just distortions but reckless repetitions thereof—upkeep of authenticity becomes all but impossible.

"[T]he likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics," Wallace writes, "is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit."

McCain offered an alternative to the cravenness. But for whatever reason, he changed. (Or, who knows: Maybe the "real McCain" is actually closer to the old, seemingly honest McCain than the new, seemingly dishonest one, but we just assume that the latter is more real because it’s more recent.) The trend toward dishonesty calls to mind another Wallace passage, this one from his famous essay about a cruise. He’s talking about the way people smile when they’re trying to sell you something:

"This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair."

The effect of politicians lying—not just lying, but repeating their lies and then lying about lying—is similar. When you feel like a candidate and his surrogates inhabit an alternate reality, it’s not just disappointing—it’s deeply saddening. It’s why so many people watching this campaign are inspired by the candidate’s declared commitment to "change," however nebulous, but horrified by the means of attaining it.

Update 1:49 p.m.: Wallace did, in fact, weigh in on the presidential campaign in a Wall Street Journal interview back in May. His assessment of McCain: "McCain himself has obviously changed; his flipperoos and weaselings on Roe v. Wade , campaign finance, the toxicity of lobbyists, Iraq timetables, etc. are just some of what make him a less interesting, more depressing political figure now—for me, at least. It's all understandable, of course—he's the GOP nominee now, not an insurgent maverick. Understandable, but depressing."

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.