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The Never-Ending Stories

The New York Times Magazine on McCain’s many campaign narratives.

New York Times Magazine, Oct. 26 The justly hyped cover story depicts John McCain’s faltering campaign as a series of failed narratives about the candidate. The current one pits “The Fighter” against “The Tax-and-Spend Liberal.” While that may seem like a winner, the author implies that the glut of prior narratives have diluted McCain’s brand and whittled down his credibility. The piece also provides juicy details on adviser Steve Schmidt’s ascendance, McCain’s newfound willingness to use his prisoner-of-war story, and, of course, his running mate pick, which McCain was hardly forced into. An interview with Christopher Buckley fleshes out his National Review contretemps (which Slate’s Timothy Noah covered here). The self-identified “small-government conservative” bemoans the Bush years and guesses his late father “would have been appalled by the Palin nomination.”

The Economist, Oct. 24 An editorial discusses “an issue of burning concern to one-eighth of the world’s people”: China’s new policy permitting peasants to trade land rights without the state serving as middleman. The reform is inadequate, the magazine says. But what’s really needed—the right to mortgages and the end to “collectivity”—smacks too much of private landownership for the Chinese to embrace it. Still, the piece ends hopefully: “In tiptoeing gingerly around one of the last Maoist shibboleths—collective landownership—the party may yet be sowing the seeds of the rural transformation it promises.” An article summarizes the campaign strategy that raised a thousand eyebrows: McCain’s doubling-down on Pennsylvania, which last voted Republican in 1988. A win would disrupt Barack Obama’s gains elsewhere. But Obama’s superior ground game, surrogates (Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey, Scranton native Joe Biden), resources, and reaction to the economy make a McCain win unlikely.

Time, Oct. 24
Noting that “the most successful democracy in human history has yet to figure out how to conduct a proper election,”this week’s cover package details “7 Things That Could Go Wrong on Election Day.” Even Joe the Plumber’s last name is misspelled in the Ohio voter database. (It’s Wurzelbacher, not Worzelbacher.) Registration fraud isn’t just a GOP talking point. (Although, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick argued, consequential voter fraud is quite rare.) And voting machines are a mess. In a write-up of an Obama interview, Joe Klein argues that the candidate’s transformation from inspirational figure with vague rhetoric to serene, pragmatic statesman is responsible for his current lead: “[A]t the crucial moment of the campaign—the astonishing onset of the financial crisis—it was Obama’s gut steadiness that won the public’s trust, and quite possibly the election.” If Obama is president, there will be a fine line to walk: He will need to invest in “the inspiration business” but also act like “a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.”

New York Review of Books, Nov. 6
Fourteen regular contributors discuss “What’s at Stake” in the upcoming election, and most favor Obama. Highlights include a warning of what will happen to the Constitution in the event of a McCain presidency, an examination of how religion shaped Sarah Palin, and a look at how race influenced the campaign. A review of Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded calls it “his best book” while observing that the author’s “slogan-coining twitch has never been more in evidence.” Friedman is dead right when he says we need a green revolution to lower our dependence on fossil fuels that degrade the environment and prop up petro-dictators. But the author argues that instead of focusing on making our current way of life more green, we should alter our way of life altogether toward less consumption.

Texas Monthly, November 2008 A touching story chronicles the movement to build a wildlife habitat for Jenny, an elephant at the Dallas Zoo. Jenny had long expressed signs of discontent, even before her companion, Keke, died. Now the zoo has vowed to construct a $10 million, four-acre facility to include at least two other elephants by 2010. But time is of the essence: Jenny is 32, and the life expectancy of elephants in captivity is 33. A column bemoans the kitsch—a Tomb Raider 3-D ride, a wax museum—that has sprouted up around the Alamo, the fort outside San Antonio where Davy Crockett and his men fought Santa Anna’s Mexican soldiers. The author proposes educating visitors about the history of the great battle, most of which took place outside the fort itself: “It is not too late to remember the Alamo.”

Must Read
The two scoop-filled dissections of the McCain campaign—the New Yorker’s piece on how Sarah Palin came to be picked and the New York Times Magazine’s analysis of the campaign’s multiple narratives—are essential to understanding why, a little over a week before Election Day, an Obama blowout looks more likely than a McCain victory.

Must Skip
Newsweek’s cover story on why the United States is inherently conservative fails to nail its central thesis down, except to make the junior-high-level observation that, yes, compared with the Western European democracies, the United States appears relatively right-wing.

Best Politics Piece
A New York column on the imminent—indeed, already-begun—conservative crackup finely lays out the movement’s fissures and identifies the “fundamentalists” and the reformists who are apt to spill rhetorical blood in the coming months over the future of the GOP.

Best Culture Piece
The New Yorker runs a knowledgeable, deeply felt examination of what drove Marlon Brando—”what was real about the realest actor of them all.”

Stockholm Syndrome?
Last month, New Yorker Editor David Remnick upbraided the head of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in literature, for dissing American authors. This week, his magazine publishes a short story by French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio—this year’s Nobel winner.