David Foster Wallace looked for truth on the campaign trail

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Los Angeles Times Book Critic

It’s tough to imagine a less likely inheritor of Norman Mailer’s mantle as political observer than David Foster Wallace; Mailer, after all, was one of the writers Wallace derided as “Great Male Narcissists” in the New York Observer 15 years ago.

Yet throughout Wallace’s “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope” — campaign reportage originally written for Rolling Stone and collected in “Consider the Lobster,” then published as a stand-alone during the 2008 election — Mailer keeps emerging as an animating spirit … at least, the Mailer of “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” the-novelist-as-reporter, a literary pose he more or less invented, and which Wallace here adapts as his own.

Like Mailer, Wallace tended to minimize his nonfiction, at least in comparison with that shaggy beast the Great American Novel, which he both aspired to write and understood was impossible, a literary Scylla and Charybdis on which more than one career had been dashed. And like Mailer, he found himself on the campaign trail in a divided America — in South Carolina at the very moment, in February 2000, when John McCain’s insurgent run for the presidency looked like it might be more than a quixotic windmill tilt.


The 2008 election altered our perception of McCain, rendering him as mercurial, reckless even, a politician who would risk everything on a pair of high-stakes gambles: the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate and the failed attempt, in the face of full-scale financial meltdown, to suspend his campaign.

In 2000, though, McCain was Barack Obama — the Barack Obama, that is, of four years ago, “the great populist hope of American politics,” less a candidate than a social force.

“Facts,” Wallace writes, establishing the context. “The 1996 presidential election had the lowest Young Voter turnout in US History. The 2000 GOP primary in New Hampshire had the highest. And the experts agree that McCain drew most of them. He drew first-time and never-before voters; he drew Democrats and Independents, Libertarians and soft socialists and college kids and soccer moms and weird furtive guys whose affiliations sounded more like cells than parties, and won by 18 points, and nearly wiped the smirk off Bush’s face.”

And yet, Wallace wants us to remember, this “anti-candidate” is also “a way-Right Republican senator from one of the most politically troglodytic states in the nation. A man who opposes Roe v. Wade, gun control, and funding for PBS, who supports the death penalty and defense buildups and constitutional amendments outlawing flag-burning and making school prayer OK. Who voted to convict at Clinton’s impeachment trial, twice.”

This dichotomy, between McCain the crossover populist and McCain the establishment conservative, makes for the central tension in “McCain’s Promise.” Less a piece of political reporting than an extended evocation of character, it offers an instructive look at contemporary politics as an expression of narrative.

Like Mailer before him, Wallace understands such a concept at the level of his DNA: It is a novelist’s way of seeing, in which character and story trump policy and voting records every time. For that, I think, we can thank John F. Kennedy, who as Mailer observed in his landmark 1960 piece “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” was the first true media culture candidate, although the roots of this stretch back to FDR.


McCain’s advantage, Wallace recognizes, is that his narrative isn’t a construction, at least not in the broadest sense. A Navy flyer during Vietnam, he spent six years as a POW, largely in solitary, and if this has become its own kind of trope, “easy to gloss over … partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s real life,” Wallace refuses to let us read it as a campaign sound byte.

McCain, he notes, showed unbelievable courage, turning down an early release because of the Code of Conduct for POWs, which stipulates that prisoners must be freed in the order they were taken. For his integrity, he was tortured, teeth knocked out, bones broken, injuries left untreated — and he survived.

“Can you hear it?” Wallace asks of McCain’s moment of truth. “What would be happening inside your head? Would you have refused the offer? Could you have? You cannot know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the levels of pain and fear and want in that moment, much less to know how we’d react. None of us can know.”

And then the kicker: “But see, we do know how this man reacted. … [T]he point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.”

What Wallace is getting at is character, of which McCain showed a lot in 2000 (much less in 2008). This, in turn, raises the question of what we want from our candidates, who can’t help but be compromised by running for office — even if, like McCain in 2000, they’re running as outsiders, against the whole idea of compromise.

“Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?” Wallace asks. “Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about the complicated: It hurts.”


He continues: “It’s painful to believe that the would-be ‘public servants’ you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot. … And who wouldn’t fall all over themselves for a top politician who actually seemed to talk to you like you were a person, an intelligent adult worthy of some respect?”

This is an essential question, especially in an election season such as this one, which seems increasingly defined by disingenuity: out-of-context quotes and blatant falsehoods, in which “fact-checker” has become a dirty word.

Just yesterday, Mitt Romney found himself deflecting comments made in May to a gathering of donors, in which he denigrated supporters of the president — 47% of the population, in his estimation — as “dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them.”

That this has come to be the level of the discourse is a tragedy, our collective tragedy, the degrading of the process to a con.

“Can you sell someone’s refusal to be for sale?” Wallace asks, wondering about the point at which authenticity blurs into artifice. “Salesman or leader or neither or both,” he warns, “the final paradox … is that whether he’s truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.”