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David Foster Wallace on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

As I said recently in the newsletter and in my media diet post for March, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 collection of nonfiction. Each story I listen to is somehow been better than the last, and Wallace’s piece on John McCain’s failed run for the Republican nomination in 2000 was no exception. You can the as-published article in Rolling Stone, but it’s worth seeking out the much longer unabridged version in Consider the Lobster or stand-alone in McCain’s Promise.

While the piece is a time capsule of circa 2000 Republican politics — which politics seem totally quaint by today’s standards; for instance, Wallace describes McCain as one of the most right-wing members of Congress — what makes it so great and relevant is the timelessness of Wallace’s conclusions about politics, why politicians run, why people vote (and don’t vote), and why anyone should care about all of this in the first place.

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?

That’s just one of the many passages that reminded me of the 2016 election and the appeal to voters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (and also of a certain Barack Obama in 2008 & 2012) but also makes you think deeply about how and why millions of people decide to put their support and faith and trust into a single person to represent their interests and identity in our national government.

See also Why’s This So (Damn) Good (and Topical)? David Foster Wallace and “McCain’s Promise”.