Brow Beat

The “Real” McCain

David Foster Wallace’s essay didn’t reveal the true John McCain. It revealed the limits of the writer’s worldview.

David Foster Wallace and John McCain.
David Foster Wallace and John McCain. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Steve Rhodes/Wikipedia and Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images.

A few hours after John McCain’s death was announced, the links began appearing in my social media feeds to David Foster Wallace’s 2000 Rolling Stone feature about the week he spent following McCain’s campaign bus around. Friends quoted from it admiringly. Vox and no less a personage than former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who covered McCain’s involvement in a late-1980s corruption scandal for the Wall Street Journal, assured readers that Wallace’s piece provides a glimpse of “the real John McCain.”

This is a curious claim, because to judge from the 25,000 words Wallace wrote about the experience, he never spoke to or otherwise interacted with McCain during his week on “the Trail.” (Abramson, by contrast, spent seven days with McCain while he recovered from damage to his reputation that he found “more painful in many ways than his time in Vietnam.”) The enthusiasm for Wallace’s “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub” (titled after nicknames given by Trail veterans to a piece of sound gear, the top-shelf print reporters permitted to ride on McCain’s bus, and George W. Bush) as a tribute to McCain mostly seems a response to the first tenth or so of the piece. In a handful of paragraphs, Wallace describes in detail McCain’s ordeal as a POW after his plane was shot down over Vietnam (“Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you”) and urges his readers to put themselves in the young pilot’s place.

McCain’s refusal to accept early release from the camp because other prisoners with less prominent connections had priority was an act of self-sacrifice and honor few of us, including Wallace, can imagine living up to. Wallace saw this decision and its immediate aftermath as the core of McCain’s being, and despite “the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain’s ‘greater than self-interest’ line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore.” But as even “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub” acknowledges, this also makes McCain impenetrable; his finest hour took place in the unthinkable privacy of a small dark “punishment cell” in another land and another time. If you read past the first 2,000 words or so of the Rolling Stone piece (which, granted, is a lot to ask these days), what you’ll find is only tangentially about what sort of man can do the things McCain did. The piece’s true subject is how David Foster Wallace felt about that sort of man. It’s not about McCain, but about Wallace himself.

This might sound like a criticism. It’s not. Wallace’s great theme was the torture of self-consciousness and his own struggle to feel genuine. After his suicide in 2008, a collectively authored hagiography assembled around Wallace’s memory, transforming him into a sort of lay saint who dispensed inspirational homilies to the brainy and confused. But the Wallace who narrates his nonfiction works is always, frankly, a fucked-up guy who knows that his intelligence is his own worst enemy. In his final, harrowing collection, Oblivion, the short story “Good Old Neon” is narrated by a man driven to kill himself by his conviction that “all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.”

In 2000, the source of McCain’s appeal was that, unlike every other national politician, he did not seem to be constantly engineering a synthetic public image. He was renowned for his plain speaking and openness, both of which earned him the respect and affection of the press. (Not many politicians then or now would grant so much access to a reporter like Abramson during one of the darkest periods of his political career.) Assigning Wallace to write about such a person was a stroke of genius. The word cynicism, a word Wallace himself used, doesn’t do full justice to how the writer approached the campaign. A cynic sees falsity everywhere but does not doubt that he knows what the truth is. For Wallace, the interplay of the true and fake was far more vertiginous. The fear of pretending until you can no longer tell the difference lurks behind all of his work.

How quaint that anxiety seems now, as does a lot of “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub”! The piece describes a vanished political world, one in which tiny variations in a banal, scripted rhetoric provided the only newsworthy source of conflict for journalists covering the campaign. The big event during the week Wallace joined the tour was the decision—made by McCain’s senior strategist, a guy renowned for his combativeness—to run an ad comparing McCain’s opponent, George W. Bush, to Bill Clinton. This caution surrounding such “fighting words” turned campaigns into highly stylized exchanges of statements whose actual significance wasn’t readily apparent to the average citizen. It led to candidates who seemed all pretty much the same. This, in turn, made electoral politics fairly boring to the uninitiated, surely a major cause of the apathy that Wallace deplores in “Young Voters” at the beginning and end of his piece.

That’s not all that’s changed. A couple of years ago, after listening to a friend describe how her teenage sister takes money from clothing companies to wear their products in her Instagram feed, I made some mild remark about how this would have been considered selling out when I was her age. “That’s the most Gen X thing I’ve ever heard you say,” she laughed. No doubt she’d have the same response to Wallace’s long exegesis in “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub” on the differences between a great leader and a great salesman. “Younger Americans” (including those he assumes to be the readers of Rolling Stone), Wallace insists, are acutely wary of attempts to sell them anything, from a product to a candidate to a hot young novelist. They can “smell a marketer a mile away.” They understand themselves to be the targets of sophisticated advertising campaigns designed by corporations to get around their defenses, and they keep those defenses armed at all times.

For Wallace, this suspicion reaches its apogee when a “soccer mom” stands up at a town hall meeting to tell McCain about her young son’s upsetting conversation with a push pollster. (Push polling suggests negative ideas about a candidate under the pretense of collecting respondents’ opinions.) This incident provides the opportunity for exactly the maneuver McCain’s campaign needs to make to get out of an impasse with the other side, and McCain responds perfectly. For Wallace, it precipitates a spiral of doubt: “Is it possible that McCain—maybe not even consciously—played up his reaction to Mrs. Duren’s story and framed his distress in order to give himself a plausible, good-looking excuse to get out of the Negative spiral that’s been hurting him so badly in the polls,” and so on. He even considers the possibility that Mrs. Duren is an actor paid to provide this fortuitous bit of political theater. Then he walks himself back from the rim of the abyss, because “maybe even considering whether it was even possible would be so painful that it’d make it impossible to go on.” And so he ends, as Wallace often ended such pieces, with a rousing yet not entirely convincing call to his readers to abandon their jaded detachment and embrace “sincerity” as an existential good. Whether or not it’s justified, he implies, we need to behave as if it can be, or we’ll plummet even further into despair.

One of the peculiarities of “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub” is how little attention Wallace pays to McCain’s policy positions, which can be best described as classic “rock-ribbed” Republicanism. When he does note them, they alarm him, but his concerns about this fade fast. It’s a bizarre irony that, in a piece so preoccupied with distinguishing style from substance, Wallace pays much closer attention to how McCain conducts his political life than to what he intended to do with it. To be sincere, authentic, genuine—that is, to beat back the corporate forces of marketing and pollsters by speaking your mind—is almost sufficient as an end in itself. And perhaps it was for Wallace, who found this to be the central quandary in his life. Just how dangerous it is as a criterion in judging any politician should be abundantly clear by now.

Read more from Slate on John McCain.

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