10/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Down, Simba

During the 2000 Republican primaries, the late David Foster Wallace spent a week following John McCain's campaign. On the trail, Wallace was writing for Rolling Stone, and he was at pains to "project the kind of edgy, vaguely dangerous vibe I imagined an RS reporter ought to give off." Reflecting a way of thinking as unconventional as Wallace's attire, the essay, entitled "Up, Simba", was forthright in its politics without being overtly prejudicial. Wallace never saw himself as a political writer per se, and so he added a revealing "Optional Foreword" to the final version, published in 2006 (The essay was re-released earlier this year under the title "McCain's Promise"). In the Foreword, he explained that he didn't "see how my own politics are anybody's business" and "even though parts of [the essay] might appear to be pro-McCain [,] it's not, though it is neither anti-; it's just meant to be the truth as one person saw it."
Wallace traveled with the McCain2000 press corps during what he felt was "probably the most interesting and complicated week of the whole 2000 GOP race." Almost all of the assertions Wallace made in the essay were brilliant, and as we move into the crunch-time of 2008 it's well worth taking a close look at some of Wallace's key observations.
Wallace chronicles how the circa-2000 John McCain, "starting sometime last fall, has become the great populist hope of American politics." McCain, described by Wallace as "The Rocky of Politics," "wants your vote but won't whore himself to get it, and wants you to vote for him because he won't whore." Even today, this conception of politics is the core of McCain's persona. But more on that later.
In some respects, Wallace's 2000 McCain sounds a lot like 2008's Barack Obama. For example, much of McCain's funding came from "the Internet and from people who've never given to a campaign before." On the other hand, circa-2000 McCain looks just the same in 2008. As he was then, he's still talking about convincing, "'young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest'" and the POW narrative is still central. Wallace respects McCain for the time he spent as a prisoner. He places the whole Hanoi episode in terms made beautiful by their simplicity: "the fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of maybe the only kind Vietnam has to offer us, a hero because of not what he did but what he suffered - voluntarily, for a Code." This analysis underscores both the fairness of Wallace's way of thinking and the somber tenor of McCain's POW experience; in 2008, the latter demands serious reflection.
Yet for all his even-handedness, Wallace's best observation sheds light on a central strategic dilemma in McCain's campaign. It was (and still is) at once crucial and damning. He describes it as, "the great yin-and-yang paradox" of McCain's campaign; McCain's rhetoric and style seeks to reconcile, "human genuineness and political professionalism" but fails to do so due to a series of factors. For instance, there's, "McCain's piss-and-vinegar candor" and the, "sometimes extremely scary right-wing stuff this candor drives him to say." Along with his occasionally blood-curdling rhetoric is the fact that, tactically, "McCain cannot afford to have voters get turned off, since his whole strategy is based on exciting the people and inspiring them[.]"
According to Wallace though, the basic problem is that fundamentally McCain is no different from the presidential candidates that came before him, who "wanted, above-all, To Be President, wanted the mind-bending power and prominence, the historical immortality [.]" For Wallace, the 2000 McCain campaign is best summarized by an ad line that reads, "'Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically.'" Immediately after mentioning the ad, Wallace considers how to interpret the fact that "McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit [.]" McCain2000, Wallace decides, "wants to have it both ways [.]" McCain wants to act "somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act" while he grasps for "historical immortality." This is McCain's campaign strategy (and its major flaw) in a nutshell.
Reading "Up, Simba" retrospectively, one cannot but arrive at the conclusion that the life's blood of the McCain campaign in 2000 remains the quintessence of his campaign in 2008. I will not suggest how one ought to interpret this fact. Suffice it to say that Wallace's final injunction is as timely now as it was in 2000: "Try to stay awake."