“The fact of the matter is that if you’re a true-blue, market-savvy Young Voter, the only thing you’re certain to feel about John McCain’s campaign is a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit, that there’s nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen.” —David Foster Wallace, “McCain’s Promise”
David Foster Wallace wrote “McCain’s Promise” in 2000, after he’d spent a week following the then-sorta- maverick-ish senator on the famed “Straight Talk Express” bus through campaign stops in the South. The week Wallace was there, it turned out, was also when the campaign of George W. Bush went apocalypto on McCain with a barrage of negative ads; actually, some were flat-out lies.
Wallace was not a journalist but a writer, the author of such works as “The Broom of the System” and “Infinite Jest,” his magnum opus. The piece he filed with Rolling Stone was more than 120 pages and contained no interviews with McCain or his chief strategist (NBC Republican analyst Mike Murphy). Instead, Wallace spent most of the time with the tech crews of the major TV networks, talking political strategy (he swore they knew better than anyone) and making fun of uptight mainstream reporters who moved in a single, absurd pack.
The bulk of the piece — released in book form (the RS piece was much shorter) earlier this year, in part to accentuate the striking difference between the Y2K McCain and the guy running for president now — is a meditation on what McCain’s unexpected popularity then said about Wallace’s generation (Wallace was 46 when he died Sept. 12; he hung himself).
As much of his work ultimately remarked, Wallace had identified an innate sadness, mistrust and lack of faith among Young Voters; it is the kind of cynicism that does not in fact reject the dirty politics practiced currently but takes a rather passive-aggressive approach; that is, we represent a kind of withdrawal.
“Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate — what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit.”
It was these characteristics, Wallace found, that Y2K McCain — or at least the prevailing image of his character — seemed to mute in so many of us, even those who are otherwise terrified of militaristic Republican warhawks who believe in capital punishment as a kind of gut reaction. It was a strong assessment of McCain’s conviction juxtaposed with perhaps the clearest sense of our own I’ve read in any modern political discourse, and what Wallace found was staggering: Young Voters so beaten down by lies and cynicism and hopelessness and the worldview that comes from direct advertising since birth that the resultant disregard for truth allows us to vote for someone with whom we disagree entirely on issues because, well, we’re awed by the Candidate-as-Human-Being.
Bush’s negative campaign prevailed over what appeared to be altruism on McCain’s part, when he decided in South Carolina to pull his negative ads. This left the opening for Bush to call McCain — a man who endured more than five years of torture as a POW while Bush fucked around stateside — spineless, which he did, and to which people (old people) responded by voting with their unresolved aggression toward things different than them.
Now, as McCain has relinquished his credibility in favor of a third-era Bush campaign, Obama has emerged as the human-being candidate, and look at that, he actually represents some values we’d like to replenish here, like peace, fiscal responsibility and a common sense of purpose. Wallace’s Young Voter, dormant for a spell, is again at attention.
“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day,” Wallace wrote. “By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”