McCain's Promise

Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope


By David Foster Wallace

Foreword by Jacob Weisberg

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Is John McCain “For Real?”

That’s the question David Foster Wallace set out to explore when he first climbed aboard Senator McCain’s campaign caravan in February 2000. It was a moment when Mccain was increasingly perceived as a harbinger of change, the anticandidate whose goal was “to inspire young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest.” And many young Americans were beginning to take notice.

To get at “something riveting and unspinnable and true” about John Mccain, Wallace finds he must pierce the smoke screen of spin doctors and media manipulators. And he succeeds-in a characteristically potent blast of journalistic brio that not only captures the lunatic rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign but also delivers a compelling inquiry into John McCain himself: the senator, the POW, the campaign finance reformer, the candidate, the man.


Copyright © 2006 by David Foster Wallace

Foreword copyright © 2008 by Jacob Weisberg

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: June 2008

McCain's Promise was originally published in December 2005 under the title "Up, Simba" in David Foster Wallace's nonfiction collection Consider the Lobster, and was published in a heavily edited form in Rolling Stone in April 2000.

ISBN: 978-0-316-04094-5


McCain's Promise

"Wallace's longing for the apparently rare virtues of frankness and sincerity in public life makes him admire John McCain, despite the senator's 'scary' right-wing views. . . . Wallace manages to show just how political spin-doctoring has evolved since 1972, when Timothy Crouse (in The Boys on the Bus) and Hunter Thompson (in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail) covered the clumsy attempts at it by the Nixon and McGovern campaign staffs. He is bracingly insightful, too, about the equally cynical process whereby representatives of major TV networks and the mainstream press 'select' their news. . . . Much of McCain's Promise really works out the tension between Wallace the postmodernist obsessed with 'packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin,' and Wallace the moralist seeking evidence of a rooted and authentic self. It is as though Wallace cannot stop expecting McCain to somehow transcend the deceptions and distortions of the spin doctors and the media and remain true to himself: to the McCain who refused to leave prison in Vietnam, and whose moral character has survived an even longer confinement inside the Beltway."

—Pankaj Mishra, New York Times Book Review

"Watching Wallace play his outrage meter is a little like watching John McEnroe complain about a line call. It's not always the accuracy of the claim that keeps you caring, but the hysterics with which it's expressed."

—John Freeman, Boston Globe

"Dispatched by Rolling Stone to cover the doomed 2000 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, Wallace conveys a genuine disillusionment at the sham of the whole arrangement: the endless political posturing, the robotic news coverage. He figures out pretty quickly that the buzz around McCain emanates mostly from the campaign media, who celebrate his 'piss-and-vinegar candor' while failing to note 'the sometimes extremely scary right-wing stuff this candor drives him to say.' . . . Wallace is actually writing about something more fundamental here, 'a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief . . . that there's nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen.'"

—Steve Almond, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Compelling. . . . 'My own résumé happens to have "NOT A POLITICAL JOURNALIST" right there at the very top,' writes Wallace, and it's that lack of expertise and accompanying jadedness that lends the piece an element of genial curiosity—sort of like a very bright tour guide who's still learning the ropes . . . . More interesting than terminology is Wallace's patient and thoughtful meditation on what McCain's military past—specifically, his five-plus years as a prisoner of war—means about his moral fiber."

—Kevin Canfield, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Wallace's inexperience as a campaign reporter is an advantage here, leading to unvarnished insights into media hierarchies and the use of negative advertising to depress turnout, an anti-democratic practice that benefits extremist candidates with fanatical supporters. 'In reality,' Wallace scolds apathetic citizens, 'there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.'

—Ariel Gonzalez, Miami Herald











In August 2007, John McCain came through New York to promote his latest book, Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them. McCain's editor, Jonathan Karp, was kind enough to offer me one of the hour-long slots set aside for back-to-back interviews in his office. The new book, written with (all right, by) McCain's literary alter ego, Mark Salter, was evidently meant to serve as a kind of Profiles in Courage for the Arizona Republican's presidential campaign. It recounted moments in which wise leaders made brave choices: Lincoln's issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Branch Rickey's hiring Jackie Robinson to break baseball's color barrier, etc. I sampled a few of these vignettes just before our meeting and found them characteristically well done.

But the book, at that moment, seemed rather beside the point. While Salter was hard at work on Hard Call, McCain's presidential campaign had fallen apart. Instead of breaking away from the Republican pack, McCain was loping after it from a considerable distance. At that point, McCain was trailing Rancorous Rudy, Mutable Mitt, and possibly even droopy-eyed Fred Thompson in the polls. McCain had raised a pitiful amount of money and quickly run through it. He'd just fired his longtime campaign manager and laid off three quarters of his feuding and divided staff. Esquire reported that he was personally scrutinizing the campaign's daily donut order as a cost center. Unlike his first book, Faith of My Fathers, the Salter-abetted autobiography that had launched his 2000 bid, Hard Call was looking like a tough sell.

I hadn't seen much of McCain since his famous insurgency in the Republican primaries that year, which I covered for Slate. Like most other reporters who spent time trailing his campaign, I retained fond memories—of the candidate's unprecedented candor, his gleeful mischief-making, and the sheer fun of hanging around with him. In the intervening years, however, the spirited maverick had seemed to turn into a weary dray. Preparing his presidential bid, he had mended fences—albeit with evident insincerity—with Christian evangelicals, corporate lobbyists, and anti-tax ideologues who composed his party's power base. Worst of all, McCain was making nice to his 2000 nemesis George W. Bush. With a few exceptions, his idiosyncratic conservatism had turned ordinary.

Yet I held out hope that McCain might have not changed really, and that proximity to defeat might put him in the subversive frame of mind I remembered so fondly. So when we sat down, I prodded the Senator politely, but as obnoxiously as I could. I was just back from a book-writing leave myself, I told him, and hadn't been following the Republican primaries very closely (which was true). But from a distance, his campaign sure as hell looked like a train wreck.

"Jacob," he answered with a sigh, "you don't know the half of it." Where another politician would have been spinning madly to disabuse me of the erroneous assumption that he was somehow not on the verge of victory, McCain launched into his own epic kvetch about how screwed up his campaign was. He hadn't been able to raise the money that his aides said would pour in, he'd been wildly overspending, he'd been too inaccessible, and he wasn't connecting with voters. He sounded like he was criticizing his opponent. I don't think Mark Salter, who was sitting in a corner of the room, disagreed with anything McCain said. But he was beginning to look a bit queasy.

I apologized that I'd only had a chance to read a little of his book in preparation for the interview.

"I don't expect you to read every part of it," McCain replied, with a gesture that suggested he might not have gotten all the way through this one himself. And here Salter, who was no longer drawing a salary from the insolvent campaign and derives the bulk of his income from McCain book royalties, began to look more seriously dismayed.

The conversation continued in that vein for a spell. I'd riffled enough pages of Hard Call to recognize that McCain was trying to bolster his tenuous credentials as an executive by associating himself with heroic figures like Churchill, Reagan, and Truman. Some of the leaders he considered in the book cast a spell through charisma, others through domineering energy, still others through a broad vision of change. But McCain himself didn't seem like any of those leaders, I pointed out. He wasn't charismatic, had little vision of the future, and was more satirist than autocrat. No argument from the author here either. "Whether I'm a leader in the category of people I was just talking about I think is doubtful," he said.

At this point, I glanced over at Salter, whose face was now buried in his hands.

Off, off message, McCain merrily went. What, I asked, did he think about his new best friend George W. Bush as a leader? Why wasn't he in the book? "I think that the very significant failing was to not question the course of the war in Iraq for too long," he said. "I'm told that the president would say to the generals on the teleconference, 'Do you have everything you need?' 'Yes sir!' End of conversation! I think General Eisenhower would have said, well, what about the casualties in Anbar Province? What about the suicide bombers? He'd go down the list of challenges we were facing. How's it going with the de-Ba'athification? What's happening with the oil revenues?"

I noted Bush's curious quality of taking strenuous opposition as proof that he must be right. McCain concurred. "I really feel that to somehow be encouraged by opposition is not a productive exercise," McCain replied. "Because if you continue to have American public opinion opposed to our involvement in Iraq—no matter what I think the consequences of failure are—we're not going to be able to sustain it, period." When I got back to my office, there was a message from Salter saying he hoped I hadn't misconstrued any of those comments as, ahem, critical of the president.

As McCain and I chatted, I found myself transported back to January 2000 on the Straight Talk Express. This was the name given the campaign bus on which the candidate rode around New Hampshire and South Carolina, holding court in the conversation pit with a claque of reporters. More broadly, the Straight Talk Express was McCain's whole caffeinated road show, which lurched intermodally from town hall to fund-raiser to debate, nearly upsetting the front-runner George W. Bush, and threatening to overturn the entire Republican establishment.

To most of those who were aboard at any point, the Express remained a high-water mark in covering presidential politics. Part of it was of course the free-flowing access, which, if you'd chased after Bush, Gore, or most any other candidate, felt like nickel beer after Prohibition. Campaigns ration a candidate's unscripted availability in an effort to stay on message, control his image, and avoid gaffes. But the McCain team took the opposite approach, allowing the candidate to gab so carelessly that his slips ceased to be newsworthy. In the beige leather lounge area, the daily dialogue tended to begin with badinage, delve into political tactics, then dabble in policy, before collapsing into something resembling a conversation among humans about whatever anyone felt like talking about. When the bus stopped, McCain got out and did the same thing with voters at his town hall meetings, indulging in free associative humor and answering questions about everything with spontaneity and sympathy.

McCain's openness, his incredible life story, and his renegade persona bred a camaraderie and admiration that threatened to break out into the open. The shorthand for the affection the press developed for the candidate was The Swoon. McCain's combination of principled belief and subversive nature made him into an unexpected creature: the Republican dissident. A conservative patriot, he had no respect at all for authority, especially that of his party's moneyed establishment.

His struggle with conscience was fascinating to watch. McCain would behave like an ordinary politician and then flagellate himself mercilessly for having done so. The moment that encapsulates that best for me was McCain's apology for an especially egregious act of pandering, when he said that he saw the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse as a symbol of "heritage" rather than racism. After he'd lost the race, McCain went back to Columbia to address his failure. "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles," he said. Politicians rarely acknowledge as much on their way to prison.

It was in the midst of The Great Swoon, somewhere near Charleston, that I one day noticed David Foster Wallace standing alongside the campaign caravan, trying to talk his way aboard. I was aware that he was coming out on the trail, because his editor, who I knew a bit, had called to see if I could help get him a spot on the lead bus. For Rolling Stone, having writers cover the presidential campaign was a long tradition. But this assignment struck me as especially inspired. Scraggled, hypertexting author, meet incongruous American patriot. Something interesting was sure to come out of this, at least if the one ever got near the other.

I was no help at all. The most brilliant writer of my generation (I thought then, I think now) was dropping in for a visit, and the McCain people didn't have the slightest clue who he was. That the author wore a ponytail, shaved inconclusively, and was writing for a post–Super Tuesday deadline for a publication regarded as noninfluential on the GOP primary circuit didn't help much either. In such matters, the McCain campaign could be pretty conventional.

The visitor from Rolling Stone


On Sale
Jun 1, 2008
Page Count
144 pages
Back Bay Books

David Foster Wallace

About the Author

David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962 and raised in Illinois, where he was a regionally ranked junior tennis player. He received bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy and English from Amherst College and wrote what would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, as his senior English thesis. He received a masters of fine arts from University of Arizona in 1987 and briefly pursued graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. His second novel, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996. Wallace taught creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College, and published the story collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Whiting Writers’ Award, and was appointed to the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He died in 2008. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.

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