Back in the year 2000, Rolling Stone sent David Foster Wallace on assignment to cover John McCain’s long-shot effort to be the Republican candidate for president. Remember John McCain? Well yeah, but do you remember him from the year 2000? When he actually seemed like a maverick and rode around the country on the Straight Talk Express, being vulnerable and open with voters, and making people feel like they’d held up Diogenes’ lantern and seen the one honest man in politics?
Remember that feeling? There is no candidate in 2016 that has accomplished anything like that feeling*. Obama channeled it (and other forces) in the maelstrom of 2008 to, ironically, beat McCain. But today, “authentic” populism has taken the form of unvarnished monstrousness coming out of the RNC in Cleveland, where reality TV personalities, the candidate’s rich heirs, celebrities and the occasional actual public official try to explain how to fix America. Forget the RNC, close Twitter, and sit down with Wallace’s essay “Up, Simba,” which appears in its full length (which I suppose other people might describe as “unvarnished monstrousness”) as a Kindle Single and in Consider the Lobster. You can also, I believe, read it in its entirety as the stand-alone book McCain’s Promise.
There are other reasons to read it aside from nostalgia. Wallace chronicles the first meaningful populist uprising in a mainstream party in the modern political era. McCain is described as an “anticandidate,” which you may have noticed, is an idea that has endured. You will hear the sentiments that propelled energizing figures like Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders, as well as demoralizing and corrosive ones like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. You will also hear a great, if at times quaint**, dissection of political communications, and what may be the most persuasive modern argument for voter participation (and against protest votes) that has ever been written. Last but not least, it’s funny as hell.
As with most things Wallace wrote, it’s long. Don’t waste any more time reading me when you could be reading “Up, Simba.” This is one of the most dismal campaign seasons in history. Achieve a momentary, yet relevant, escape through one of the best pieces of campaign coverage ever. America, this is serious, and “Up, Simba” is worth a read.
Read more in our election year series “America This is Quite Serious.”
*No, Bernie Sanders did not. Giving the same speech you’ve been giving for 40 years about how billionaires are bad does not rate as a frank and honest assessment of our current realities. It may be more than what most politicians want to say, and credit to Sanders for that, but it still falls into the category of telling people pretty much exactly what they want to hear. I can’t recall ever hearing Bernie telling his supporters to question their assumptions or confront a tough truth. He told them that the rich, the elites and the establishment stand in the way of “the revolution.” That does not count as staking out a brave political position.
** “…this guy [McCain] also sometimes says things that are manifestly true but which no other mainstream candidate will say. Such as that special-interest money, billions of dollars of it, controls Washington…”