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Had David Foster Wallace Lived to See Obama Win...

Would the brilliant ironist cling to his belief that politics is a hurtful lie?

By David Ravensbergen 7 Nov 2008 |

Vancouver writer David Ravensbergen's last piece for the Tyee was a profile of urban planning guru Richard Florida.

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Author Wallace took his life on Sept. 12.
  • McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope
  • David Foster Wallace
  • Back Bay Press (2006)

Well before John McCain's actual loss Tuesday to newly elected Democratic President Barack Obama, there were many clear reasons for the former maverick's demise. The choice of the terminally incompetent Sarah Palin as running mate. The Republican campaign's pandering to fundamentalists and hate-mongers at the expense of independent voters and fiscal conservatives. Countless cases of compromised idealism, like McCain's 180-degree reversal from opposing new offshore drilling to the asinine and wilfully ignorant chants of "drill, baby, drill!" at town hall meetings. Old age and impending death. Hideous facial contortions at the debates. The enduring Bush legacy of lies, corruption and economic catastrophe.

Regardless of what constellation of factors caused November's blue landslide, John McCain was lost in the fray long before the results came in. The Navy veteran, with a once-proud commitment to opposing corruption in Washington, was forced to publicly compromise his integrity in order to compete with the runaway stardom of President Obama. Looking back to his last shot at the White House in 2000, it has clearly been a long, slow downward spiral for the dejected senator from Arizona.

According to the late American author David Foster Wallace, McCain's run for the Republican candidacy back in 2000 was an abnormally acute investigation into "how millennial politics and all its packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin and general sepsis actually makes us U.S. voters feel, inside, and whether anyone running for anything can even be 'real' anymore." In McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope, Wallace describes his experience as a writer on the campaign trail, trying to understand the tension between our collective cynicism about electoral politics and our deep-seated need to believe in something.

On the 'truth' trail

Published as a stand-alone volume in 2008, McCain's Promise began as an article Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone. When the maximalist and notoriously prolix writer turned in a massive manuscript, his editor gently explained that "running the whole thing would take up most of Rolling Stone's text space and might even cut into the percentage of the magazine reserved for advertisements." It was a sharply truncated version that eventually made it between the glossy covers, but the full text was later published under the opaque title "Up, Simba" in Wallace's 2005 non-fiction essay collection Consider the Lobster. In its latest incarnation, Wallace's story is full of new relevance for the 2008 campaign.

As Slate editor Jacob Weisberg explains in the foreword, "It takes fresh eyes to observe the essential absurdity and the sheer redundancy of it all: the candidate who goes from place to place repeating the same jokes, the pack of reporters who witness precisely the same speech ("The 22.5"), the labour and expense of hauling gear and technicians in secure conditions, and the fact that 99.9 per cent of what happens is never reported at all." Through Wallace's outsider perspective, the Straight Talk Express comes off as more of a demented Magic School Bus than a vehicle promoting rational democracy.

The image of bookish Wallace on board the campaign bus is hilarious and incongruous. The Infinite Jest author, who can barely write a sentence without issuing some caveat, qualifier, footnote or disclaimer, in the midst of a slick media machine that functions to keep the "truth" straightforward and always on message. With his characteristic insight into the workings of unusual social phenomena -- halfway homes, tennis academies, cruise ships -- Wallace details a world inhabited by sycophantic journalists, surly technicians and the indomitable maverick, McCain himself.

A few hundred words in, the jargon becomes so impenetrable that a "glossary of relevant campaign terms" becomes necessary to orient the reader. Composed largely of information gleaned from the network techs, the terms sketch out the insular language of the political circus. The average day of a cameraman on the road is organized around any available "OTC" (Opportunity to Crash) and "OTS" (Opportunity to Smoke). "B-films" are short, silent clips of the candidate making nice with the public. The verb "to cabbage" describes the manner in which hungry journalists steal food from catered campaign events.

The pack: sick and blind

What emerges is a picture of a pack of very unhealthy men and women, subsisting on endless cups of shitty coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts, rarely disconnected from a Bluetooth headset or network uplink. Awake at hellishly early hours every morning, rushing from one identical speech to the next, these foot soldiers of the political process chase the sound bites and spin nuggets that compose our public discourse. There is humour and levity here, but also crushing tedium, and the roots of the bone-weary malaise that pervades the entire world of political media coverage.

But Wallace isn't content just to show us how weird and depressing it all is. He wants his readers to muster the strength to care, however briefly, and consider some of the great questions of politics: Can a candidate ever be truly honest? What does leadership actually mean? For a generation that has been marketed to and manipulated their entire lives, is it possible to really believe in anything that comes to us through the media? Do the men who run for president really want change, or are they all just a bunch of megalomaniacs in different guises?

There aren't any easy answers to these questions, but there is one thing about Senator John McCain that contains the unmistakable ring of something quite like truth.

McCain's tortured self

For David Foster Wallace, the inscrutable core of John S. McCain III resides in the five-plus year span of his life spent in a North Vietnamese prison. Wallace doesn't mean that we should always defer to war heroes in matters of public policy. Instead, he urges us to think about what really happened there, when a young pilot crashed deep in enemy territory, and was hauled off to a dark cell to be tortured and confined. With three broken limbs, and a bayonet wound to the groin. In pitch-black solitude. The nearly incomprehensible levels of pain and fear. But most importantly, the fact that, when offered his unconditional release, McCain overcame his aching desire for safety and comfort and medical attention and basic well being and said no.

McCain voluntarily chose to remain in prison because he believed in something greater than himself. Whatever code or creed it was that drove him to say no, the fact of the matter is that McCain has real, indisputable experience in devotion to something other than his own self-interest.

It is this incident that gives McCain all his "moral authority" (a cringe-worthy term, Wallace acknowledges), and what makes him more than just another blowhard talking about hope. But it is also at the core of what makes politics so tough to stomach. Even with this truly inspirational feat behind him, McCain's 2000 campaign eventually succumbed to negative campaigning, push-polls, smear tactics and outright falsehoods. He sacrificed his candour and frankness and everything that set him apart for a chance at power. As happened again in 2008, the machine of politics undermined anything potentially valuable the Republican candidate may have had to say.

'Modern politicians make us sad'

This mutation of integrity is at the heart of the question of the health of liberal democracies. "The likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics," Wallace explains, "is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about."

If David Foster Wallace had lived to see the election of Barack Obama, I can't help but wonder what he would have had to say. Would the author, so sensitive to fraudulence and hyper-aware of the struggle between appearances and reality, believe the new president's message of change?

Before the end, Wallace manages to give us a kernel of hope. The fact is, he says, that we can never know the truth about anyone, John McCain or Barack Obama or anyone else. But in a democratic country like the United States, where the president ostensibly exists to carry out the will of the people, what really matters, ideally, is not what's in the heart of any politician. It's what's in yours.

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