Wallace writes about John McCain's 2000 Presidential campaign, famously called "The Straight Talk Express." The title is a comment from a television news camera man, who says "Up, Simba" before hoisting his camera onto his shoulder. (originally published in Rolling Stone and as an e-book through Random House's iPublish imprint; later republished in the context of the 2008 presidential race as McCain's Promise.)
Perhaps the climactic moment of Wallace's exploration of McCain as an Anti-candidate comes when McCain makes a partially televised phone call to Chris Duren, a boy who had apparently been sent into a state of teary politico-existential disillusionment by a push-poller for Bush. McCain, made aware of the incident by Duren's mother at a Town Hall event, decided to call and personally apologize to the boy in an attempt restore his faith in American politics. Wallace notes however, that the appeal of McCain's anti-candidential image is born from Americans' lack of faith in the political process. McCain and his staff chose to televise the entire call, but only to allow networks to record the initial ten seconds of audio. At first, the decision not to air the principal contents of the call appears to be extra-political, an example of McCain having the decency not to use some poor kid despite the political utility of doing so. You don't need to be all that cynical however, to see that the campaign's decision to air only the first ten seconds of McCain's call was designed to force news networks to explain the absence of the rest of the call, to force coverage of these supposedly extra-political motivations. That McCain ended up using the Chris Duren situation to justify the (at this point necessary) abandonment of his ill-advised negative ad campaign against Bush complicates things further. The question for us viewers at home becomes whether there is a way to tell the difference between true sincerity and decency, and the same cultivated to appeal politically to an advertising-savvy electorate. And if there isn't any way to tell, what makes some people trusting and others cynical, and which, ultimately, is better?
In this essay, Wallace revisits his thoughts on cynicism in postmodern America, or in other words, what place politics has in today's world. Much like his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, Wallace questions effects of irony on the American political landscape. This theme can be seen particularly at the end of the essay in the section entitled "Suck it Up," where Wallace muses on the possibility of there ever being President who is also a great leader again. He in fact discusses how our generation, the MTV generation may not even be able to think about what the word "leader" means outside of the cynical, eye-rolling cliche. For a summary of Wallace's exact feelings on the paradox in believing in a political "leader," note the quote on page 226 that proceeds a claim that John F Kennedy was America's last leader:
- "It's worth thinking hard about why when John McCain says he wants to be president in order to inspire a generation of young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than the own self-interest (which means he's saying he wants to be a real leader), a great many of those young Americans will yawn or roll their eyes or make some ironic joke instead of feeling inspired the way they did with Kennedy. True, JFK's audience was in some ways more innocent than we are: Vietnam hadn't happened yet, or Watergate, or the S&L scandals, etc. But there's also something else. The science of sales and marketing was still in its drooling infancy in 1961 when Kennedy was saying "Ask not..." The young people he inspired had not been skillfully marketed to all their lives. They knew nothing of spin. They were not totally, terribly familiar with salesman." (Consider the Lobster 226).
In this quote, it becomes visible that Wallace believes that America is now too entrenched in the irony of the commercial America to ever really believe in anything again. That today's six-hours-of-television-per-day culture is too familiar with being sold to and with the media trying to pretend like they aren't trying to sell anything when the fact remains that their only motive is to sell, that the cynicism will always be there and, consequently, Americans can no longer believe in anything larger than their own self interests. The inspiring thing about Wallace's analysis of this truth about American culture is that he is not saying that the cynicism can't be silenced, he just simply encourages Americans to acknowledge this cynicism and to truly consider if what they want in their president is a true leader.
This essay also deals with Wallace's perspective on McCain's Appearance. The essay discusses how McCain has been packaged by his campaign leaders in order to be sold to the American public, and brings into question if the Republican Party's packaging of McCain makes him any less genuine.
We again have Wallace telling us of his time with McCain and the things he saw, a more journalistic type of Wallace.
This essay was also published separately under the title "McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope"