If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. 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.
— David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace took his own life on Sept. 12, 2008 — two months shy of Barack Obama’s victory over Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, and three months after the release of “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope,” the last publication of his lifetime.
On Election Day eight years later, this extended version of Wallace’s Rolling Stone article about his time on the 2000 campaign trail, “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and The Shrub: Seven Days in the Life of the Late, Great John McCain” (later published unabridged under the title ‘‘Up, Simba” in Wallace’s second collection of nonfiction, “Consider the Lobster”), remains just as uncanny and topical as it was in ’08.
Wallace’s narrative, with its focus on McCain’s anti-candidate candidacy, and the media appeal thereof, asks readers to contemplate the “yin-and-yang paradox” of contemporary politics:
Can human genuineness and political professionalism coexist at a time of “unprecedented cynicism and disgust with national politics, a moment when blunt, I don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-elect-me honesty becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality?”
“Suppose, let’s say, you’ve got a candidate who says polls are bullshit 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-bullshit 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 bullshit and that he won’t use them to decide what to say, maybe turning “Polls are bullshit” into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus.”
There’s never been a more germane time to revisit a narrative that frames the relationship between a candidate’s shrewd, calculated appeal and its effect on a politically cynical public. (Pay close attention to how Wallace unpacks the slippery relationship between the McCain2000 staff and its convoy of “press and staff and techs and stringers and field producers and photographers and heads and pencils and political columnists and hosts of political radio shows and local media,” and the impact that relationship has on how voters vote — or whether they’ll show up to the booths at all.)
What makes this piece So Damn Good is how Wallace goes outside the journalistic garland of framing pros and cons (the “profile” piece) of candidates’ positions to sincerely question what it might mean to be a thinking, heart-beating, breath-grasping human being in the face of the aforementioned “yin-and-yang paradox”:
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 bullshit 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-bullshit 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 bullshit and that he won’t use them to decide what to say, maybe turning “Polls are bullshit” into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus….Is he a hypocrite? Is it hypocritical that one of McCain’s ads’ lines South Carolina is “Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically,” which of course since it’s an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefits? What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?
I suppose the biggest difference now is that the current deployment of political promise — if one could call it that—seems empty, falling upon not only cynical ears but also unbearably circumspect hearts. We are forced to confront another paradoxical question: If an anti-candidate becomes a real candidate, is he still an anti-candidate? “Can you sell someone’s refusal to be for sale?”
With today’s election, and overall cultural whirlwind of a political climate, Wallace’s words for the Gen-Xers of 2000 resonate:
It’s painful to believe that the would-be “public servants” you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot. So who wouldn’t yawn and turn away, trade apathy and cynicism for the hurt of getting treated with contempt?
There’s a redemptive quality to the piece, as there is with most of Wallace’s writing. It culminates at the intersection of an author fearing his own cynicism almost as much as his own credulity and a readership confronting its own interior battles between cynicism and idealism, apathy and naïveté. In the end, “McCain’s Promise” asks readers to accept the possibility of a political view that might be something otherwise than the hip-cynicism and political distrust that Rolling Stone readers were (and likely remain) imbued with.
When asked in late 2003 to comment on the upcoming 2004 presidential election, Wallace said: “My own plan for the coming fourteen months is to knock on doors and stuff envelopes. Maybe even to wear a button. To try to accrete with others into a demographically significant mass. To try extra hard to exercise patience, politeness, and imagination on those with whom I disagree. Also to floss more.”
Wallace’s stories, both fiction and non, “don’t simply investigate character,” as Zadie Smith writes. “They don’t intend to. Instead, they’re turned outward, toward us. It’s our character that’s being investigated.” And “McCain’s Promise” is no exception; it teems with a sincerity that’ll keep you up at night —a haunting anti-lullaby careening within as the election ballots filter in: “Try to stay awake.”