Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wallace on McCain

I am in the middle of reading David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster," which is, like "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," some of the best non-fiction writing I've ever encountered. It's dizzyingly intelligent. This morning I finished reading "Up, Simba," his essay about being on the campaign with John McCain in 2000 the week after the New Hampshire primary. It's pretty fascinating, as you can imagine, to read in the context of the current election, especially because some of the stuff he writes in an essay about John McCain could easily be applied to, well, Barack Obama. I'm speaking specifically about a section titled "Suck it Up" which is about salesmen versus leaders, and how you can't decide which McCain is, but that young people are looking for leaders "who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own" (225).

I highly recommend picking up this book because there are more perfect, awesome nuggets in it than I have time to type into this blog, but it really does peel apart so many aspects of political campaigns -- the routine of the political campaign tour around the country, the role of the media, and especially the ambivalence you feel watching a candidate, knowing that some portion of what he/she does (man, it feels good to write "she" there and have a real example) is calculated and that some portion of it is genuine, but now knowing which part is greater -- that it's very much worth reading at this time in our country's history. Here's another part I really liked (it's long, but bear with me):

It's hard to get good answers to why Young Voters are so uninterested in politics. This is probably because it's next to impossible to get someone to think hard about why he's not interested in something. The boredom itself preempts inquiry; the fact of the feeling's enough. Surely one reason, though, is that politics is not cool. Or say rather that cool, interesting, alive people do not seem to be the ones who are drawn to the political process. Think back to the sort of kids in high school who were into running for student office: dweeby, overgroomed, obsequious to authority, ambitious in a sad way. Eager to play the Game. The kind of kids other kids would want to beat up if it didn't seem so pointless and dull. And now consider some of 2000's adult versions of these very same kids: Al Gore, best described by CNN sound tech Mark A. as "amazingly lifelike"; Steve Forbes, with his wet forehead and loony giggle; G. W. Bush's patrician smirk and mangled cant; even Clinton himself, with his big read fake-friendly face and "I feel your pain." Men who aren't enough like human beings even to hate -- what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics 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. You probably don't want to hear about all this, even.
As one national pencil told Rolling Stone and another nonpro, "If you saw more of how the other candidates conduct themselves, you'd be way more impressed with [McCain]. It's that he acts somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act." And the grateful press on the Trail transmit -- maybe even exaggerate -- McCain's humanity to their huge audience, the electorate, which electorate in turn seems to paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it just has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the mean who want to "lead" and "inspire" them.

...There's another thing John McCain always says. He makes sure he concludes every speech and THM with it, so the buses' press hear it about 100 times this week. He always pauses a second for effect and then says: "I'm going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don't agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth." This is McCain's closer, his last big reverb on the six-string as it were. And the frenzied standing-O it always gets from his audience is something to see. But you have to wonder. Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?

Well, it's obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They're cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain's resume and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters' pain but relief from it. Because we've been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It's ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts.

All of this really makes me wish DFW would go on the trail with Obama. I'd really like to see his take on that phenomenon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i just reread "consider the lobster" on my honeymoon, in a pretty big funk after his death, and was thinking many of the same things you point out