I may end up writing about a lot of the essays in David Foster Wallace’s collection Consider the Lobster; at the very least, I’ve come across another fabulous essay I want to tell you about. It’s called “Up, Simba” and is about John McCain’s run for the Republican nomination for president in 2000. It’s an interesting essay in and of itself, but it takes on a new significance after what happened in this year’s campaign. Knowing what’s in store for McCain in the future makes reading this essay from 2000 a complicated experience.
Wallace covers a week of McCain’s 2000 campaign, from February 7 – 13, which is the week right after he won the New Hampshire primary and just before he lost South Carolina. McCain and Bush had promised each other they wouldn’t go negative, but during this week those promises get shot to hell — Bush makes the first negative move, McCain retaliates with something harsher, Bush accuses him of breaking his promise, and pretty soon the campaigns are negative through and through.
Wallace gets to follow along and watch all this happen close up; while McCain and his team ride around in the Straight Talk Express, members of the press travel in buses called Bullshit I and Bullshit 2, and it’s here that Wallace observes the reporters and tech people as they file their reports and keep the press machinery running. It’s a great story he tells, a fun inside look at just how horrid the campaign trail is, with its repetitiveness, its frequent dullness, and its awful food and few opportunities to sleep.
It was Rolling Stone who asked Wallace to write about the campaign, so Wallace shapes the essay for young people, wondering as he writes why young people are so disengaged from politics. He argues that it has to do with their anger and sadness at being lied to, compounded by the fact that not only are they lied to by politicians, but are also lied to by the media on a constant basis, and so they see no reason to believe anybody about anything. There are also no real leaders, people who can inspire them in a genuine way to care about anything beyond their own lives.
The basis of the essay is Wallace’s question about whether McCain might possibly be such an inspirational leader himself. This question isn’t answered — it’s more of a puzzle Wallace works at through the entire piece and doesn’t quite solve — but it seems like a possibility to him, given McCain’s reputation for forthrightness, and also given his heroic actions in Vietnam, which Wallace recounts in chilling detail. It’s seems just possible that McCain might be the kind of candidate who can also be an anti-candidate, someone who runs for office but insists on doing it in his own unconventional way and who challenges the basis on which most campaigns are run. Wallace is tempted to believe in McCain … but he has niggling doubts too, doubts about whether actions that seem honest and even impulsive aren’t really calculating and cold.
So, knowing what we now know about how McCain ran his campaign this time around, you can see how this essay has morphed into an entirely different thing. Instead of being an essay about possibility (however briefly held — McCain’s 2000 campaign was just about over when Wallace wrote the essay), it becomes something much sadder. Whatever it was that made McCain decide to run such a nasty campaign this past fall, that campaign seems like a betrayal of the earlier version of McCain who at least could possibly have been an inspirational and transformative figure (I’m setting party politics aside here — obviously he’s not going to be inspiring if you don’t agree with his policies). It’s hard to imagine the 2008 version of McCain making anybody even a little less cynical about politics. But maybe after all the 2000 version of McCain was just as capable of running a nasty campaign as he was this past fall, and maybe he tried to take the high road back then for tactical reasons rather than out of conviction. It’s impossible to tell.
If anybody these days seems capable of taking some of the cynicism out of politics, of course, that would be Obama. It remains to be seen how Obama’s presidency will work out, but I can’t help but hope that he really will be — will continue to be — the kind of inspirational figure Wallace was looking for. It makes me wish Wallace had had the chance to follow Obama and write brilliantly about him too.