“Try to Stay Awake”: David Foster Wallace, the Political Media, and John McCain

Written by Mark Bresnan

As the world reacted to the death of John McCain last weekend, David Foster Wallace’s 2000 profile of the senator was occasionally invoked— both in encomiums to McCain and in criticism of the seeming political naïveté that animates much of Wallace’s piece. One of the first posts I saw on my Twitter timeline was a retweet of journalist Peter Hamby, who asked his followers to “Please read David Foster Wallace, writing in 2000 better than most of us hacks, on what John McCain stirred in so many. Especially those who never served.” Hamby took photos of the paragraphs that conclude Wallace’s re-telling of McCain’s capture, torture, and refusal to accept release from his North Vietnamese captors before his fellow prisoners were granted the same. As he does throughout his work (perhaps most famously in the AA meeting scenes of Infinite Jest), Wallace admits that McCain’s story has been told so frequently that it has become a trite cliché, but then demands that we re-examine it— not to find hidden layers of complication in the cliché, but instead to feel its fundamental truth: “Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain this year. It’s overexposed, true. Still, though, take a second or two to do some creative visualization and imagine the moment between John McCain’s first getting offered early release and his turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would cry out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer” (165).

As in several other essays in Consider the Lobster, where the McCain profile was reprinted in expanded form, Wallace wants to call our attention to those things we would rather ignore: a live lobster boiling to death on the stove; a right-wing radio host who traffics in racism and xenophobia; the banality of a former tennis star’s autobiography. Mere attention, though, is not sufficient— Wallace wants us to confront these moments and feel them: “Try for a moment to feel this,” he writes in his narration of McCain’s ordeal; “Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real: a man without teeth refusing release” (164).

Of course, the political question is— so what? How should we account for McCain’s incredible sacrifice and suffering in making political decisions, especially if, as Wallace asks repeatedly, McCain’s views on the death penalty, on taxation, or on criminal justice are diametrically opposed to our own? Wallace partially answers this question in the paragraphs tweeted by Hamby: McCain’s heroic sacrifice as a prisoner of war “gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them” (166). Or, as he puts it later in the essay:

Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to? That John S. McCain III opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday in Arizona, or that he thinks clear-cut logging is good for America, or that he feels our present gun laws are not clinically insane— this stuff counts for nothing with these Town hall crowds, all on their feet, cheering their own ability to finally really fucking cheer. (189-90)

This is the essay’s key interpretive hinge, and a point that Wallace scholars have pointed to as evidence of his political naïveté. As contemporary American literature scholar (and co-editor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace) Lee Konstantinou wrote on Twitter, “I get that the piece conceives of itself as addressing the prejudices of its Rolling Stone readers, but it never really considers the possibilities that its prejudices might have a valid foundation that need to be taken seriously. Like, perhaps the reason many RS readers are cynical about politics isn’t because we can’t know the hearts of our politicians, but because those with power do Very Bad Things.” Or, to take the opposite angle: perhaps Wallace should acknowledge the fact that McCain’s opposition to Martin Luther King Day wasn’t something that town hall crowds in South Carolina needed to look past to embrace his straight talking sincerity, but instead the very sort of thing that made him a viable candidate for the Republican nomination in the first place. Konstantinou offers a fair assessment of the political analysis Wallace expresses in this essay, in which Bill Clinton’s lies about his affair with Monica Lewinsky are treated as the root cause of voter cynicism rather than, say, Clinton’s embrace of racially discriminatory “welfare reform” or his deregulation of the telecommunication and financial industries.

Clearly, “Up, Simba” is not a policy-driven essay, although Wallace does repeatedly mention how opposed McCain’s policies are to his own. Instead, it is an essay about political psychology— specifically the psychologies of the electorate and of the embedded political media. It is, I think, an essay about cynicism— but a particular kind of cynicism rooted in boredom, a topic Wallace was already exploring at the time in his drafts for The Pale King. And it is hard not to read it, in 2018, as an essay about Donald Trump and the way that certain candidates are able to exploit the media’s boredom in order to break through the noisy cultural landscape and exert control over their own identity— even when that identity is contradicted by all available evidence. Let’s stipulate, then, that Wallace is right to point out that McCain’s appeal transcended and often contradicted his policy beliefs, and set aside for the moment the question of whether or not Wallace endorses that way of reading and understanding McCain. 

Wallace’s detailed rendering of McCain’s imprisonment is almost always prominently featured in any analysis of “Up, Simba.” However, the two sections that immediately follow that passage: “GLOSSARY OF RELEVANT CAMPAIGN TRAIL VOCAB, MOSTLY COURTESY OF JIM C. AND THE NETWORK NEWS TECHS” and “SUBSTANTIALLY FARTHER BEHIND THE SCENES THAN YOU’RE APT TO WANT TO BE” are less frequently discussed, and almost certainly not the passages that leap to your mind even if you’re intensely familiar with the essay. Even the title is frequently ignored— or, more accurately, the titles, which tell us a lot about how Wallace wanted to piece to be read, how his publisher wanted the piece to be marketed, and the gap between those two ideas. In Rolling Stone, the article was titled “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and The Shrub”— an interesting choice, as none of those epithets actually refer to McCain himself. As defined in Wallace’s glossary, “weasel” refers to “The weird gray fuzzy thing that sound techs put over their sticks’ mikes at scrums to keep annoying wind-noise off the audio” (170); the “Twelve Monkeys” are the group of elite print journalists who get exclusive access to McCain aboard the Straight Talk Express while the rest of the press crew is confined to two trailing buses (Bullshit 1 and Bullshit 2); “The Shrub” is of course George W. Bush, whose nomination had been essentially clinched before Rolling Stone was even able to print Wallace’s article. In Consider the Lobster, the essay is titled “Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate.” This title is explained only in a brief aside to Wallace’s narration of a dispute over negative commercials in the lead-in to the South Carolina primary. As he explains it, the most exciting part of watching the tech crew prepare for a scrum is when “the cameramen haul their heavy $40,000 rigs to their shoulders like rocket launchers … It is Jim C’s custom always to say ‘Up, Simba’ in a fake-deep bwana voice as he helps 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” (208). Only when Little, Brown reissued the essay as a standalone print book during the 2008 presidential campaign did the title, McCain’s Promise, focus on the candidate himself rather than on the media that covered him. 

So what is life like for the media members covering John McCain— not just the elite Twelve Monkeys, but the entire media apparatus, from on-screen talent to field producer to boom mike operator? As we might expect, Wallace renders the experience in voluminous— but also banal— detail. We learn about the bathroom door on Bullshit 1 and its tendency to open accidentally “while you’re right there with business under way, and with the consequences of suddenly whirling to try to stab at the button to reclose the door while you’re in media res being too obviously horrid to detail” (180). We learn about the answering services and the cell phone ring tones various media members employ, and we see how the tech crew uses a $32,000 portable editor to splice together parts of McCain’s most recent speech for the evening news. Mostly, though, we learn about the debilitating boredom of the trail. Here is the view from the bus windows: “Everything looks dead and not happy about it. Birds fly in circles with no place to go” (181). Here is the tech crew, waiting in the back of another anonymous hotel ballroom for journalists to file their stories: “Nobody reads. Pulse rates are about 40. The ABC cameraman lets his eyes almost close and naps in an unrestful way” (193). Here are the camera operators’ responses to Wallace’s lengthy exegesis on the conceptual paradoxes of chain hotels: “Jim shrugs; Frank says you get used to it, that it’s better not to dwell” (197).

We might assume that these moments of downtime are punctuated by the excitement of the campaign events themselves, but at this stage of the campaign most of those events have become rote. As Wallace explains in the glossary, the media refers to McCain’s opening remarks as the “22.5”: “which remarks are always the same and always take exactly 22 ½ minutes” (167). Boring stump speeches are a long-standing trope of political journalism, and Wallace cites a litany of boring politicians: “Al Gore, best described by CNN sound tech Mark A. as ‘amazingly lifelike’; Steve Forbes, with his wet forehead and loony giggle; G.W. Bush’s patrician smirk and mangled cant; even Clinton himself, with his big red fake-friendly face and ‘I feel your pain’” (187). Feel free to add your own favorites of the past eighteen years; I fondly recall Dick Gephardt, who seemed to think that repeating the words “Bush” and “disaster” in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties would make him seem fiery instead of heavily medicated. And who will soon forget Marco Rubio’s inability to stop repeating the same canned attack lines even when he was called out for exactly that on a New Hampshire debate state (an embarrassment he followed with an even more pathetic attempt to cosplay as Donald Trump for a week or two.) Even Barack Obama remained fairly scripted on the campaign trail, especially as his victory seemed more and more secure. No one wants to be the next Howard Dean.

And yet. Wallace’s essay maps out a trail, blazed by McCain and since followed by others, for breaking through the noise to establish a Real Authentic Identity. As Wallace shows us, the political press corps is wracked with boredom: the media has heard McCain’s stump speech “so many times that they just can’t stand it anymore; and while they have to be at the [Town Hall Meetings] in case anything big or Negative happens, they’ll go anywhere and do just about anything to avoid having to listen to the 22.5 again” (214). So when McCain follows his stump speech— almost every time— with an hour of unscreened question-and-answer time, they are intrigued. Something could happen here. And near the end of Wallace’s week on the trail, something does. At a Spartanburg Town Hall meeting, Donna Durren, who Wallace describes as “a totally demographically average 30-something middle-class soccer mom,” tells McCain how upset she is that her son— “who had finally found a public hero he could believe in” (that hero being McCain)— had received a phone call from the Bush campaign that turned out to be a push poll, eviscerating McCain’s candidacy in order to test out possible attack lines (217-18). “And what McCain does, after staring down at the door for a few seconds is . . .  apologize. He doesn’t lash out at Bush2 or at push-polling or appear to try to capitalize politically in any way. He looks sad and compassionate and regretful and says that the only reason he got into the race in the first place was to try to help inspire young Americans to feel better about devoting themselves to something”— and this sentence continues at length, in the best Wallace fashion, to chart every emotional beat of McCain’s response, and the shifting levels of sincerity and performance and showmanship and sadness therein (219-220).

  Wallace describes this exchange as “hit[ting] the media like a syringe of epinephrine”; it becomes a Campaign Moment, complete with an impromptu press conference and a phone call from McCain to Durren’s son at which the press are invited to record video but not audio (213). Wallace expresses appropriate skepticism towards this moment even as he marvels at its power, noting how convenient Durren’s story is for rehabilitating McCain’s image as a positive candidate after a several back-and-forth rounds of negative ads, wondering why a campaign worker would waste time push-polling a 14-year old boy, and pointing out the “shrewd calculation of media appeal” inherent in letting the media film McCain’s call but to not broadcast the audio (233). We are now firmly in the realm of politics as pure theatrical kitsch.  Wallace is not arguing that responding to a politician based on his or her authenticity— or performance of authenticity— is the right way to politically engage. It is, however, an immensely powerful form of engagement. John McCain did not win the nomination in 2000, but he built an identity as a sincere maverick that brought him to the nomination in 2008, regardless of how detached it was from reality. McCain’s performance of sincerity was rooted in compassion and empathy, even if his politics did not reflect that empathy on a larger scale. Chris Christie realized that politicians could get credit for sincerity just by yelling at and insulting people in those same town hall settings— an activity that he clearly relished and leveraged into two terms as New Jersey governor and one vengeful shutdown of the George Washington Bridge. Donald Trump discovered that he didn’t even need an interlocutor to perform this sort of unscripted Authentic Straight Talk. Just riff about whatever comes to mind at each campaign stop, and a press corps bored of Bernie Sanders’ speeches on the 1%, Hilary Clinton’s message discipline, and Ted Cruz’s simulation of human emotion jump at the chance to cover something new. 

In Wallace’s metaphor, the Donna Durren incident is a hit of adrenaline after a fairly boring and dispiriting few days of the campaign. Ever since he announced his presidential candidacy, Trump has transformed that occasional injection into a steady intravenous drip. That adrenaline has proven addictive for too many of us— for Trump voters, it is transmitted through his rallies; for liberals like me, it comes with every breathlessly reported Washington Post story that seems to presage Trump’s downfall; for political journalists, every Tweet catalyzes a minor surge. That rush of adrenaline transcends Trump, of course; it can hit any time the unexpected, the inspiring, or the outrageous obscures the actual substantive reality of the political moment. Once the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest, we will surely see the opportunistic exploitation of many more Donna Durrens, Joe the Plumbers, and Ken Bones as candidates try to prove their Straight Talk bona fides. Can we take this political theater for what it is and maintain focus on the policy issues that dictate the welfare of millions of Americans? “Up, Simba” suggests that even the savviest among us are not as immune to political showmanship as we think we are. “Try to stay awake,” Wallace implores in the essay’s final line (234). Politics are not limited to the moment when McCain rebutted one of his supporter’s claims that Obama was an Arab, or to Beto O’Rourke’s viral oration on NFL protests and social justice. Politics are much more boring— and much more important— than that.

Works Cited

@lkonstan (Lee Konstantinou). Twitter. August 26, 2018.

@PeterHamby. Twitter. August 26, 2018.

Wallace, David Foster. “Up, Simba.” Consider the Lobster. Little, Brown, 2008, pp. 156-254.

Mark Bresnan is Instructor of English at Colorado State University. He has previously written about Wallace in Critique and in the forthcoming volume, MLA Approaches to Teaching David Foster Wallace; he has also published essays and articles on Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, and Ben Fountain. You can find him on Twitter @mark_bresnan.

 

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