David Foster Wallace, “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub,” April 13, 2000
Wallace’s famous 2000 dispatch from the Straight Talk Express is, unsurprisingly, very good. It’s also a welcome break from the dreck that has so far marked McCain’s passing: from the far left (and far right) a steady stream of cruel Twitter one-upmanship, from most everyone else uncritical blurbs that dwell little on the man and even less on the legislator, focusing instead on the time he cracked a joke in a Capitol corridor or remembered a reporter’s name. Wallace’s work is also, however, 25,000 words long. I’ve condensed down to what I found especially stirring.
On “Service” and Vietnam:
[W]hen Senator John McCain also says – constantly, thumping it at the start and end of every speech and THM – that his goal as president will be “to inspire young Americans to devote them- selves to causes greater than their own self-interest,” it’s hard not to hear it as just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become the most powerful, important and talked-about human being on earth, which is of course their real “cause,” to which they appear to be so deeply devoted that they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble – sounding bullshit and convince even themselves that they mean it. Cynical as that may sound, polls show it’s how most of us feel. And it’s beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don’t even hear it, dismiss it at the same deep level where we also block out billboards and Muzak.
But there’s something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain’s military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the – charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line easier to hear.
You probably already know what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused, The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? It so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches in early February you can feel like maybe it isn’t just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: the guy does – did – want your vote, after all.
But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68 – right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him – that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code. This 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. Literally: “moral authority,” that old cliche, much like so many other cliche’s – “service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism” – that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though – arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings – something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. About whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?
On the Media’s Selective Hearing:
Cynical observation: The fact that John McCain in this morning’s speech several times invoked a “moral poverty” in America, a “loss of shame” that he blamed on “the ceaseless assault of violence-driven entertainment that has lost its moral compass to greed” (McCain’s metaphors tend to mix a bit when he gets excited), and made noises that sounded rather a lot like proposing possible federal regulation of all US entertainment, which would have dicey constitutional implications to say the least—this holds no immediate interest for CNN. Nor are they hunting for the hair-raising place in the speech where McCain declared that our next president should be considered “Commander in Chief of the war on drugs” and granted the authority to send both money and (it sounded like) troops, if necessary, into “nations that seem to need assistance controlling their exports of poisons that threaten our children.” When you consider that state control of the media is one of the big evils we point to to distinguish liberal democracies from repressive regimes, and that sending troops to “assist” in the internal affairs of sovereign nations has gotten the US into some of its worst messes of the last half century, these parts of McCain’s speech seem like the real “fighting words” that a mature democratic electorate might care to hear the news talk about. But we don’t care, evidently, and so neither do the networks. In fact, it’s possible to argue that a big reason why so many young Independents and Democrats are excited about McCain is that the campaign media focus so much attention on McCain’s piss-and-vinegar candor and so little attention on the sometimes extremelyscary right-wing stuff this candor drives him to say … but no matter, because what’s really riveting here at BS1’s starboard table right now is what happens to McCain’s face on the Sony SX’s screen as they fast-forward through the speech’s dull specifics. McCain has white hair (premature, from Hoa Lo), and dark eyebrows, and a pink scalp under something that isn’t quite a comb-over, and kind of chubby cheeks, and in a regular analog fast-forward you’d expect his face to look silly, the way everybody on film looks spastic and silly when they’re FF’d. But CNN’s tape and editing equipment are digital, so what happens on FF is that the shoulders-up view of McCain against eight of the big flag’s stripes doesn’t speed up and get silly but rather just kind of explodes into myriad little digital boxes and squares, and these pieces jumble wildly around and bulge and recede and collapse and whirl and rearrange themselves at a furious FF pace, and the resultant image is like something out of the very worst drug experience of all time, a physiognomic Rubik’s Cube’s constituent squares and boxes flying around and changing shape and sometimes seeming right on the verge of becoming a human face but never quite resolving into a face, on the high-speed screen.
On the Media’s Need to Love Him:
It’s hard to get good answers to why Young Voters are so uninterested in politics. This is probably because it’s next to impossible to get someone to think hard about why he’s not interested in something. The boredom itself preempts inquiry; the fact of the feeling’s enough. Surely one reason, though, is that politics is not cool. Or say rather that cool, interesting, alive people do not seem to be the ones who are drawn to the political process. Think back to the sort of kids in high school who were into running for student office: dweeby, overgroomed, obsequious to authority, ambitious in a sad way. Eager to play the Game. The kind of kids other kids would want to beat up if it didn’t seem so pointless and dull. And now consider some of 2000’s adult versions of these very same kids: 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.” Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit. You probably don’t want to hear about all this, even.
One reason a lot of the media on the Trail like John McCain is simply that he’s a cool guy. Nondweeby. In school, Clinton was in student government and band, whereas McCain was a varsity jock and a hell-raiser whose talents for partying and getting laid are still spoken of with awe by former classmates, a guy who graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis and got in trouble for flying jets too low and cutting power lines and crashing all the time and generally being cool. At 63, he’s witty, and smart, and he’ll make fun of himself and his wife and staff and other pols and the Trail, and he’ll tease the press and give them shit in a way they don’t ever mind because it’s the sort of shit that makes you feel that here’s this very cool, important guy who’s noticing you and liking you enough to give you shit. Sometimes he’ll wink at you for no reason. If all that doesn’t sound like a big deal, you have to remember that these pro reporters have to spend a lot of time around politicians, and most politicians are painful to be around. As one national pencil told Rolling Stone and another nonpro, “If you saw more of how the other candidates conduct themselves, you’d be way more impressed with [McCain]. It’s that he acts somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act.” And the grateful press on the Trail transmit – maybe even exaggerate – McCain’s humanity to their huge audience, the electorate, which electorate in turn seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to “lead” and “inspire” them.
On McCain and “Truth”
There’s another thing John McCain always says. He makes sure he concludes every speech and THM with it, so the buses’ press hear it about 100 times this week. He always pauses a second for effect and then says: “I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.”
This is McCain’s closer, his last big reverb on the six-string as it were. And the frenzied standing-O it always gets from his audience is something to see. […] Who wouldn’t cheer, hearing stuff like this, especially from a guy we know chose to sit in a dark box for four years instead of violate a Code? 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.
On McCain’s Humanity
To be honest, all the national pencils would probably be out here in the lobby even if the theater weren’t full, because after a few days McCain’s opening THM 22.5 becomes wrist-slittingly dull and repetitive. Journalists who’ve covered McCain since Christmas report that Murphy et al. have worked hard on him to become more “message-disciplined,” which in politicalspeak means reducing everything as much as possible to brief, memory-friendly slogans and then punching those slogans over and over. The result is that the McCain corps’ pencils have now heard every message-disciplined bit of the 22.5—from McCain’s opening joke about getting mistaken for a grampa at his children’s school, to “It doesn’t take much talent to get shot down,” to “the Iron Triangle of money, lobbyists, and legislation,” to “Clinton’s feckless photo-op foreign policy,” to “As president, I won’t need any on-the-job training,” to “I’m going to beat Al Gore like a drum,” plus two or three dozen other lines that sound like crosses between a nightclub act and a motivational seminar—so many times that they just can’t stand it anymore; and while they have to be at the THMs 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, plus of course to the laughter and cheers and wild applause of a THM crowd that’s hearing it all for the first time, which is basically why the pencils are all now out here in the lobby ogling coeds and arguing about which silent-movie diva’s the poor local heads’ eyeshadow most resembles.
In fairness to McCain, he’s not an orator and doesn’t pretend to be. His real métier is conversation, a back-and-forth. This is because he’s bright in a fast, flexible way that most other candidates aren’t. He also genuinely seems to find people and questions and arguments energizing—the latter maybe because of all his years debating in Congress—which is why he favors Town Hall Q&As and constant chats with press in his rolling salon. So, while the media marvel at his accessibility because they’ve been trained to equate it with vulnerability, they don’t seem to realize they’re playing totally to McCain’s strength when they converse with him instead of listening to his speeches. In conversation he’s smart and alive and human and seems actually to listen and respond directly to you instead of to some demographic abstraction you might represent. It’s his speeches and 22.5s that are canned and stilted, and also sometimes scary and right-wingish, and when you listen closely to these it’s as if some warm pleasant fog suddenly lifts and it strikes you that you’re not at all sure it’s John McCain you want choosing the head of the EPA or the at least two new justices who’ll probably be coming onto the Supreme Court in the next term, and you start wondering all over again what makes the guy so attractive.
But then the doubts again dissolve when McCain starts taking questions at THMs, which by now is what’s under way in Spartanburg. McCain always starts this part by telling the crowd that he invites “questions, comments, and the occasional insult from any US Marines who might be here today” (which, again, gets radically less funny with repetition [apparently the Navy and Marines tend not to like each other]). The questions always run the great vox-populi gamut, from Talmudically bearded guys asking about Chechnya and tort reform to high-school kids reading questions off printed sheets their hands shake as they hold, from moms worried about their babies’ future SSI to ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain “Lieutenant” and want to trade salutes, plus the obligatory walleyed fundamentalists trying to pin him down on whether Christ really called homosexuality an abomination (w/ McCain, to his credit, pointing out that they don’t even have the right Testament), and arcane questions about index-fund regulation and postal privatization, and HMO horror stories, and Internet porn, and tobacco litigation, and people who believe the Second Amendment entitles them to own grenade launchers. The questions are random and unscreened, and the candidate fields them all, and he’s never better or more human than in these exchanges, especially when the questioner is angry or wacko—McCain will say “I respectfully disagree” or “We have a difference of opinion” and then detail his objections in lucid English with a gentleness that’s never condescending. For a man with a temper and a reputation for suffering fools ungladly, McCain is unbelievably patient and decent with people at THMs, especially when you consider that he’s 63, sleep-deprived, in chronic pain, and under enormous pressure not to gaffe or get himself in trouble. He doesn’t. No matter how stale and message-disciplined the 22.5 at the beginning, in the Town Hall Q&As you get an overwhelming sense that this is a decent, honorable man trying to tell the truth to people he really sees. You will not be alone in this impression.
Among the techs and non-simian pencils, the feeling is that McCain’s single finest human moment of the campaign so far was at the Warren MI Town Hall Meeting on Monday, in the Q&A, when a middle-aged man in a sportcoat and beret, a man who didn’t look in any way unusual but turned out to be insane—meaning literally, as in DSM IV-grade schizophrenic – came to the mike and said that the government of Michigan has a mind-control machine and influences brainwaves and that not even wrapping roll after roll of aluminum foil around your head with only the tiniest pinpricks for eyes and breathing stopped them from influencing brainwaves, and he says he wants to know whether if McCain is president he will use Michigan’s mind-control machine to catch the murderers and pardon the Congress and compensate him personally for 60 long years of government mind control, and can he get it in writing. The question is not funny; the room’s silence is the mortified kind. Think how easy it would have been for a candidate here to blanch or stumble, or to have hard-eyed aides remove the man, or (worst) to make fun of the guy in order to defuse everyone’s horror and embarrassment and try to score humor points with the crowd, at which most of the younger pencils would probably have fainted dead away from cynical disgust because the poor guy is still standing there at the mike and looking earnestly up at McCain, awaiting an answer. Which McCain, incredibly, sees – the man’s humanity, the seriousness of these issues to him – and says yes, he will, he’ll promise to look into it, and yes he’ll put this promise in writing, although he “believe[s] [they] have a difference of opinion about this mind-control machine,” and in sum he defuses the insane man and treats him respectfully without patronizing him or pretending to be schizophrenic too, and does it all so quickly and gracefully and with such basic decency that if it was some sort of act then McCain is the very devil himself. Which the techs, later, after the post-THM Press-Avail and scrum, degearing aboard the ghastly Pimpmobile, say McCain is not (the devil) and that they were, to a man, moved by the unfakable humanity of the exchange, and yet at the same time also impressed with McCain’s professionalism in disarming the guy, and Jim C. urges Rolling Stone not to be so cynical as to reject out of hand the possibility that the two can coexist—human genuineness and political professionalism—because it’s the great yin-and-yang paradox of the McCain2000 campaign, and is so much more interesting than the sort of robotic unhuman all-pro campaign he’s used to that Jim says he almost doesn’t mind the grind this time.
On Leadership, Candor, and Inscrutability
Probably the last real leader we had as U.S. President was JFK, 40 years ago. It’s not that Kennedy was a better human being than the seven presidents we’ve had since: We know he lied about his WWII record, and had spooky Mob ties, and screwed around more in the White House than poor old Clinton could ever dream of. But JFK had that special leader-type magic, and when he said things like “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” nobody rolled their eyes or saw it as just a clever line. Instead, a lot of them felt inspired. And the decade that followed, however fucked up it was in other ways, saw millions of Young Voters devote themselves to social and political causes that had nothing to do with getting a plum job or owning expensive stuff or finding the best parties; and the ’60s were, by most accounts, a generally cleaner and happier time than now.
It is worth considering why. 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 their 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 salesmen.
Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest – if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in yourinterests (and it really might be) – still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful … although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to great salesmen and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough – like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say – it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.
Granted, this is a bit simplistic. All politicians sell, always have. FDR and JFK and MLK and Gandhi were great salesmen. But that’s not all they were. People could smell it. That weird little extra something. It had to do with “character” (which, yes, is also a cliché – suck it up).
All of this is why watching John McCain hold press conferences and and Town Hall Meetings (we’re all at the North Charleston THM right now, 0820h on Wednesday, 9 Feb., in the horrible lobby of something called the Carolina Ice Palace) and be all conspicuously honest and open and informal and idealistic and no-bullshit and say “I run for president not to Be Somebody, but to Do Something” and “We’re on a national crusade to give government back to the people” in front of these cheering crowds just seems so much more goddamn complicated than watching old b/w clips of John Kennedy’s speeches. It feels impossible, in February 2000, to tell whether John McCain is a real leader or merely a very talented political salesman, an entrepreneur who’s seen a new market-niche and devised a way to fill it.
Because here’s yet another paradox. Spring 2000 – midmorning in America’s hangover from the whole Lewinsky-and-impeachment thing – represents a moment of almost unprecedented cynicism and disgust with national politics, a moment when blunt, I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-elect-me honesty becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality. A moment when an anticandidate can be a real candidate. But of course if he becomes a real candidate, is he still an anticandidate? Can you sell someone’s refusal to be for sale?
There are many elements of the McCain2000 campaign – naming the bus “Straight Talk,” the timely publication of Faith of My Fathers, the much-hyped “openness” and “spontaneity” of the Express’s media salon, the message-disciplined way McCain thumps “Always. Tell you. The truth” – that indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate’s rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? Or just confusing? Suppose, let’s say, you’ve got a candidate who says polls are bullshit and totally refuses to tailor his campaign style to polls, and suppose then that new polls start showing that people really like this candidate’s polls-are-bullshit stance and are thinking about voting for him because of it, and suppose the candidate reads these polls (who wouldn’t?) and then starts saying even more loudly and often that polls are bullshit and that he won’t use them to decide what to say, maybe turning “Polls are bullshit” into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus… Is he a hypocrite? Is it hypocritical that one of McCain’s ads’ lines in South Carolina is “Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically,” which of course since it’s an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit? What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox Unsimplistic enough for you now?
The fact of the matter is that if you’re a true-blue, market-savvy Young Voter, the only thing you’re certain to feel about John McCain’s campaign is a very modern and American type of ambivalence, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit, that there’s nothing left anywhere but sales and salesmen. At the times your cynicism’s winning, you’ll find that it’s possible to see even McCain’s most attractive qualities as just marketing angles. His famous habit of bringing up his own closet’s skeletons, for example – bad grades, messy divorce, indictment as one of the Keating Five – this could be real honesty and openness, or it could be McCain’s shrewd way of preempting criticism by criticizing himself before anyone else can do it. The modesty with which he talks about his heroism as a POW – “It doesn’t take much talent to get shot down”; “I wasn’t a hero, but I was fortunate enough to serve my time in the company of heroes” – this could be real humility, or it could be a clever way to make himself seem both heroic and humble.
[I]f you, like poor old Rolling Stone, have come to a point on the Trail where you’ve started fearing your own cynicism almost as much as you fear your own credulity and the salesmen who feed on it, you may find your thoughts returning again and again to a certain dark and box-sized cell in a certain Hilton half a world and three careers away, to the torture and fear and offer of release and a certain Young Voter named McCain’s refusal to violate a Code. There were no techs’ cameras in that box, no aides or consultants, no paradoxes or gray areas; nothing to sell. There was just one guy and whatever in his character sustained him. This is a huge deal. In your mind, that Hoa Lo box becomes sort of a special dressing room with a star on the door, the private place behind the stage where one imagines “the real John McCain” still lives. And but now the paradox here is that this box that makes McCain “real” is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable. Nobody gets in or out. This is huge, too; you should keep it in mind. It is why, however many behind-the-scenes pencils get put on the case, a “profile” of John McCain is going to be just that: one side, exterior, split and diffracted by so many lenses there’s way more than one man to see. Salesman or leader or neither or both, the final paradox — the really tiny central one, way down deep inside all the other campaign puzzles’ spinning boxes and squares that layer McCain — is that whether he’s truly “for real” now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.