Monday, August 1, 2016

The Sweet Uses of Political Irrelevance: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

    Up, Simba originally appeared in Rolling Stone, and the expanded version is included in this anthology.  It describes a week in the McCain 2000 campaign, in between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and for the obvious reason it's the book's most topical essay now.  The essay Consider the Lobster, which originally appeared in Gourmet, is also useful if you doubted a lobster might really object to being boiled alive; and after reading The View from Mrs. Thompson's, you'll know for sure what 9/11/01 felt like in Bloomington, Illinois living rooms.  If you saw The End of the Tour, are drawn to literary cult figures, but are intimidated by DFW's 1,000 page post-modern masterpiece Infinite Jest — this anthology is an accessible DFW starting point.  There are some 200+ word sentences, replete with parenthetical clarifications, but I could always make my way to the ending period without getting lost.

    There are two threads running through Up, Simba.  Thread one is DFW's meditations on America's unrequited passion for a real leader, someone with personal authenticity, someone who somehow can "get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own." DFW wants to believe, but wonders if such leaders are still possible, when everything sounds like a sales pitch.  You might read and decide the dream is good, its time will surely come.  Or pace DFW, you may decide that from the perspective of this ominous 2016 electoral season, there's something to be said for cynical politics as usual.  Or maybe both, as first authenticity, and then cynicism, came to be embodied for DFW in the McCain 2000 campaign.

    Thread two is a week of life on the Trail (= the McCain campaign).  After McCain upset Bush₂ (DFW's also calls him the Shrub) in the New Hampshire primary, Rolling Stone greenlighted its project of having "serious" writers cover the election.  The campaign entourage included the McCain High Command; the savvy, heroic techs (wielders of burdensome mikes and cameras); and the "pencils" (=print journalists), including the 12M (=The 12 Monkeys, the elite pencils who write for prestige publications, and whom DFW despises).  DFW rode to "THMs" (=Town Hall Meetings) in "BS1" (as the entourage dubbed the bus, short of course for Bullshit 1), and the 12M rode in relative comfort in BS2. The week's political drama, such as it was, was occasioned by McCain's mistake in countering Bush₂'s attacks by going negative himself.  But McCain's campaign didn't recover after he went positive again, and he ended up folding his cards after a disappointing performance on Super Tuesday.

    Superficially, a study in political irrelevance, a dull week in the campaign of a loser.  But it's a treat to read because DFW makes the people and places come alive, making us understand that "…the network techs … are exponentially better to hang out with and listen to than anybody else on the Trail".  This description of the techs in action at a scrum (= ring of techs around McCain as the goes to and from THMs) explains the essay title:
…the single best part of every pre-scrum technical gear-up: watching the cameramen haul their heavy $40,000 rigs to their shoulders like rocket launchers and pull the safety strap tight under their opposite arm and ram the clips home with practiced ease, their postures canted under the camera’s weight. It is Jim C.’s custom always to say “Up, Simba” in a fake-deep bwana voice as he hefts the camera to his right shoulder, and he and Frank C. like to do a little pantomime of the way football players will bang their helmets together to get pumped for a big game, although obviously the techs do it carefully and make sure their equipment doesn’t touch or tangle cords.
    DFW lauds the techs for their incisive, nuanced appreciation of campaign tactics, far surpassing that of the 12M.  Why did Bush₂ go negative?  Couldn't have anything to do with raw emotion, he's too much a creature of his pricey advisors; most likely he was trying to get McCain angry, to throw him off his game.  Why should McCain's game be the high road?  Because negative campaigning drives voters from the polls in droves, and McCain is asking the bored, the disillusioned, the young, to get involved.  He's the candidate who spent four years of torment as a P.O.W., so he's credible when he talks to new voters about commitment to ideals.  When he ends his THMs with “But I will always. Tell you. The truth.", he is always rewarded with wild applause.

    But not even the techs will say that parts of McCain's Chris Duren moment seem staged.  Briefly stated, here's the story. McCain released a response ad saying Bush₂ "twists the truth like Clinton," and his poll numbers did drop like a stone, as the techs anticipated they would. McCain needed to get back on the high road without looking like a wimp, i.e., a Democrat.  He found, and/or manufactured, a usable route at a THM when Chris Duren's mom said that her son, who had found an outlet for his tender idealism in the McCain campaign, had been traumatized by a phone call, presumably from the Bush₂ campaign, that disparaged his candidate.  His mom wanted to know how to restore her son's faith in America.  McCain said he'd call the young man and do his best, which he subsequently did, in a clever way that maximized media exposure.  In deference to Chris Duren, and trusting young Americans everywhere, McCain announced that he'd unilaterally pull his response ads.  No wimp he, just a statesman taking the long view.  Campaign misstep corrected.

    And so McCain: indisputably authentic as a P.O.W., but as a candidate dubious, just like all the rest?  DFW's inclined to treat the problem as a logical conundrum: if a candidate says that he will tell the truth regardless of the polls, and that makes him wildly popular, wouldn't he quite naturally want to look at the polls and see if he's in any danger of actually being elected?  An insoluble problem it would seem, leaving us stuck with a political class DFW describes succinctly, from the standpoint of the Rolling Stone demographic: "Bush₂'s " … patrician smirk and mangled cant; even Clinton himself, with his big red fake-friendly face and "I feel your pain.” 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."

    DFW does mention, in passing, that McCain's scary right wing positions make him wonder, stuff like government censorship of entertainment, and invading Mexico to snuff out drug exporters.  But he doesn't go as far saying that an essential attribute of a good leader is that she (or he) wants to lead us to a good place.  Had DFW decided to live, would he now be inclined to foreground policy?

    In 2016, a real leader has emerged victorious from the Republican primary wars, after throwing away the cursed playbook, and always speaking his uncalculated personal truths.  Someone who inspires the disillusioned with the fresh enthusiasm that swept McCain to victory in New Hampshire 2000, but has never soiled himself with Chris Duren moments.  Someone who would make the 12M turn up their patrician nose, as at a foul smell.  On the downside, he wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico, says California's drought is a myth, and endorses torture.  Nobody's perfect.

    His opponent entered the national stage in 1969, when she gave a commencement address to her own graduating class at Wellesley College.  She talked about translating the ideals of the '60s into action, about making the impossible possible.  Her legions of detractors say her ambition shrank as her career flourished: the impossible became the ridiculous, and the possible became the status quo. But everyone agrees she's as good at the playbook as any guy.  That playbook says the same thing it did for Bush₂ in 2000: negative campaigning works against the insurgent candidate.  So expect Hillary to hammer Don for being a failed businessman.  And Don, clueless, will insinuate that Hillary is in league with terrorists, or somehow involved with the Kennedy assassination, any nonsense that comes to mind.  Think that's not a healthy democracy?  Then you must be a sexist, or a traitor who doen't want America to be great again.

    DFW would doubtless pass on the real leader this time, and invite us to pray for Hillary, in the same manner that he invited us to pray for Bush₂ in Mrs. Thompson's living room on 9/11/01: 
" … silently and fervently, that you’re wrong about the president, that your view of him is maybe distorted and he’s actually far smarter and more substantial than you believe, not just some soulless golem or nexus of corporate interests dressed up in a suit but a statesman of courage and probity … "
    Amen.  On November 9, let's hope the results show that there's life in the playbook yet, and that the President-elect remembers how the world looked when she gave her Wellesley commencement address.  If she doesn't, she will remain widely despised across the political spectrum, motivating millions more to flock to Trump.  Then what would happen to us in 2020?

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