The Contenders: A Great American Novelist Dissects John McCain’s Campaign

The Contenders: A Great American Novelist Dissects John McCain’s Campaign

U.S. Senator John McCain and his wife, Cindy, aboard the Straight Talk Express, 16 years ago.

SourcePaul Richards/Getty

Why you should care

A political outsider can be useful when it comes to reporting from the campaign trail as well.

When Rolling Stone sent 37-year-old English professor and novelist David Foster Wallace to the back roads of South Carolina in February 2000, the editors were undoubtedly hoping to concoct magazine magic. What would happen when the acclaimed author of Infinite Jest, and its indictment of a fictional American dystopia, turned his gaze on the real-life dysfunction of a hotly contested U.S. presidential primary?

As luck and the gods of long form would have it, Wallace arrived in the Palmetto State to trail maverick Arizona Senator John McCain’s Straight Talk Express bus tour just in time for one of the most memorable weeks in U.S. campaign history. As chronicled in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, airing every Tuesday this fall at 8pm EST on PBS, the 2000 GOP primary face-off between McCain and Texas Governor George W. Bush got ugly, devolving into a cage match between the forces of hope and cynicism in American politics. And Wallace’s take on the events that February remain as relevant as ever as we attempt to decipher and detox from yet another bloody South Carolina battle.

Learn more about the showdown in South Carolina between John McCain and George W. Bush by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY on PBS that starts Tuesday at 8pm EST and celebrates the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on earth.

Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, is one in an esteemed lineup of literary phenoms turned political observers, from Norman Mailer who covered JFK for Esquire in 1960 to Hunter S. Thompson who issued entertaining dispatches for Rolling Stone during the 1972 campaign. Shy and relentlessly self-critical, Wallace was not your typically assertive political reporter. Not that it mattered, since, as Wallace soon discovered, it was only the dozen or so reporters from the top U.S. publications — nicknamed the Twelve Monkeys by everyone else on the trail — who routinely had a front-row seat aboard the Straight Talk Express. According to Wallace’s classic article “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub,” the rest of the press, staff and technicians had to follow aboard a second bus affectionately referred to as “Bullshit 1.”

Before Obama, before Bernie Sanders, John McCain had scored an upset victory in New Hampshire over Bush, the GOP establishment’s anointed candidate, by energizing the young and the disenchanted. In the wake of the Lewinsky scandal and the American electorate’s growing distrust of politicians, McCain had positioned himself not just as an outsider, but as a true anti-candidate occupying a no-spin zone. And it was such a refreshing change that, as Wallace quipped, “the grateful press on the Trail transmit … McCain’s humanity to their huge audience,” one that “seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being.”

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David Foster Wallace in 2002.

Source Keith Bedford/Getty

And the crowds in Charleston, as they had in New Hampshire, went wild for McCain’s closing line on the stump, his pledge that “I will always. Tell you. The truth.” Why should voters become so aroused by, as Wallace put it, “a simple promise not to lie”? Part of it was voter frustration with the dissembling Bill Clinton, but there was also a real sense that this politician was different, that he might really keep his word. Why? Because he had acted honorably before, including at great personal cost, by turning down an early release offer as a POW in Vietnam. “Can you hear it?” Wallace asks of McCain’s decision, which meant five more years of torture. “What would be happening inside your head? Would you have refused the offer?”

And then it got ugly — robo-calls spreading rumors that McCain’s wife was a junkie and that McCain, who had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh, had an “illegitimate black child” — and the anti-candidate was suddenly confronted with an existential crisis. Team Bush’s decision to go negative in South Carolina was “politically near-brilliant,” Wallace writes, and left McCain a Hobson’s choice: Take the high road and look weak or retaliate and risk “looking like just another ambitious, win-at-any-cost politician.”

Is it possible to “sell someone’s refusal to be sold”?

McCain tried to do both, returning fire before pulling his own negative advertisements in an attempt to reclaim the high road. But McCain’s sparkling candidacy had been sullied, and Bush would win South Carolina by 9 points, raising the question of whether McCain was a true anti-candidate put in a tough position or, as Wallace wondered, “merely a very talented political salesman … trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit.”

In the end, is it possible to “sell someone’s refusal to be sold”? Wallace asks. “What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?” In the wake of another election cycle dominated by outsider candidates from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders who claim, like McCain, to be unbought and unbossed, these are still important questions. Are these candidates truly strangers to politics as usual or just more accomplished practitioners of it? Does it matter?

Wallace had simple words of advice for readers and young voters facing similar choices in 2000: “Try to stay awake.”

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