SUCK IT UP
Another paradox: It is all but impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are difficult to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time—as in “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc.—and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t boring at all; in fact he’s the opposite of boring.
Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and noncliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a boss in some summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.
In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. Lincoln was, by all available evidence, a real leader, and Churchill, and Gandhi, and King. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and probably de Gaulle, and certainly Marshall, and maybe Eisenhower. (Although of course Hitler was a real leader too, a very potent one, so you have to watch out; all it is is a weird kind of personal power.)
Probably the last real leader we had as US 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.
Some people believe that President Ronald W. Reagan (1981-89) was our last real leader. But not many of them are Young Voters. Even in the 80s, most younger Americans, who could smell a marketer a mile away, knew that what Reagan really was was a great salesman. What he was selling was the idea of himself as a leader. And if you’re under, say, 35, this is what pretty much every US president you’ve grown up with has been: a very talented salesman, surrounded by smart, expensive political strategists and media consultants and spinmasters who manage his “campaign” (as in also “advertising campaign”) and help him sell us on the idea that it’s in our interests to vote for him. But the real interests that drove these guys were their own. They wanted, above all, To Be President, wanted the mind-bending power and prominence, the historical immortality—you could smell it on them. (Young Voters tend to have an especially good sense of smell for this sort of thing.) And this is why these guys weren’t real leaders: because it was obvious that their deepest, most elemental motives were selfish, there was no chance of them ever inspiring us to transcend our own selfishness. Instead, they usually helped reinforce our market-conditioned belief that everybody’s ultimately out for himself and that life is about selling and profit and that words and phrases like “service” and “justice” and “community” and “patriotism” and “duty” and “Give government back to the people” and “I feel your pain” and “Compassionate Conservatism” are just the politics industry’s proven sales pitches, exactly the same way “Anti-Tartar” and “Fresher Breath” are the toothpaste industry’s pitches. We may vote for them, the same way we may go buy toothpaste. But we’re not inspired. They’re not the real thing.
It’s not just a matter of lying or not lying, either. Everyone knows that the best marketing uses the truth—i.e., sometimes a brand of toothpaste really is better. That’s not the point. The point, leader-wise, is the difference between merely believing somebody and believing in him.
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 -Avails 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.
You can run the same kind of either/or analysis on almost everything about this candidate. Even the incredible daily stamina he shows on the Trail—this could be a function of McCain’s natural energy and enjoyment of people, or it could be gross ambition, a hunger for election so great that it drives him past sane human limits. The operative word here is “sane”: the Shrub stays at luxury hotels like the Charleston Inn and travels with his own personal pillow and likes to sleep till nine, whereas McCain crashes at hellish chain places and drinks pop out of cans and moves like only methedrine can make a normal person move. Last night the Straight Talk caravan didn’t get back to the Embassy Suites until 2340, and McCain was reportedly up with Murphy and Weaver planning ways to respond to Bush2’s response to the Negative ad McCain’s running in response to Bush2’s new Negative ad for three hours after that, and you know getting up and showering and shaving and putting on a nice suit has to take some time if you’re a guy who can’t raise his arms past his shoulders, plus he had to eat breakfast, and the ST Express hauled out this morning at 0738h, and now here McCain is at 0822 almost running back and forth on the raised stage in a Carolina Ice Palace lobby so off-the-charts hideous that the press all pass up the free crullers. (The lobby’s lined with red and blue rubber—yes, rubber—and 20 feet up a green iron spiral staircase is an open mezzanine with fencing of mustard-colored pipe from which hang long purple banners for the Lowcountry Youth Hockey Association, and you can hear the rink’s organ someplace inside and a symphony of twitters and boings from an enormous video arcade just down the bright-orange hall, and on either side of the THM stage are giant monitors composed of nine identical screens arrayed 3 ¥ 3, and the monitor on the left has nine identical McCain faces talking while the one on the right has just one big McCain face cut into nine separate squares, and every square foot of the nauseous lobby is occupied by wildly supportive South Carolinians, and it’s at least 95 degrees, and the whole thing is so sensuously assaultive that all the media except Jim C. and the techs turn around and listen facing away, most drinking more than one cup of coffee at once.) And even on four hours’ sleep at the very outside now McCain on the stage is undergoing the same metamorphosis that happens whenever the crowd is responsive and laughs at his jokes and puts down coffee and kids to applaud when he says he’ll beat Al Gore like a drum. In person, McCain is not a sleek gorgeous telegenic presence like Rep. Mark Sanford or the Shrub. McCain is short and slight and stiff in a bit of a twisted way. He tends to look a little sunken in his suit. His voice is a thin tenor and not hypnotic or stirring per se. But onstage, taking questions and pacing like something caged, his body seems to dilate and his voice takes on a resonance, and unlike the Shrub he is bodyguardless and the stage wide open and the questions unscreened and he answers them well, and the best Town Meetings’ crowds’ eyes brighten, and unlike Gore’s dead bird’s eyes or the Shrub’s smug glare McCain’s own eyes are wide and candid and full of a very attractive inspiring light that’s either devotion to causes beyond him or a demagogue’s love of the crowd’s love or an insatiable hunger to become the most powerful white male on earth. Or all three.
The point, to put it as simply as possible, is that there’s a tension between what John McCain’s appeal is and the way that appeal must be structured and packaged in order to get him elected. To get you to buy. And the media—which is, after all, the box in which John McCain is brought to you, and is for the most part your only access to him, and is itself composed of individual people, voters, some of them Young Voters—the media see this tension, feel it, especially the buses’ McCain2000 corps. Don’t think they don’t. And don’t forget they’re human, or that the way they’re going to resolve this tension and decide how to see McCain (and thus how to let you see McCain) will depend way less on political ideology than on each reporter’s own little interior battles between cynicism and idealism and marketing and leadership. The far-Right National Review, for example, calls McCain “a crook and a showboat,” while the old-Left New York Review of Books feels that “McCain isn’t the anti-Clinton … McCain is more like the unClinton, in the way 7Up was the unCola: different flavor, same sugar content,” and the politically indifferent Vanity Fair quotes Washington insiders of unknown affiliation saying “People should never underestimate [McCain’s] shrewdness. His positions, in many instances, are very calculated in terms of media appeal.”
Well no shit. Here in SC, the single most depressing and cynical episode of the whole week involves shrewd, calculated appeal. (At least in certain moods it looks like it does [maybe].) Please recall 10 February’s Chris Duren Incident in Spartanburg and McCain’s enormous distress and his promise to phone and apologize personally to the disillusioned kid. So the next afternoon, at a pre-F&F Press-Avail back in North Charleston, the new, unilaterally non-Negative McCain informs the press corps that he’s going up to his hotel room right now to call Chris Duren. The phone call is to be “a private one between this young man and me,” McCain says. Then Todd the Press Liaison steps in looking very stern and announces that only network techs will be allowed in the room, and that while they can film the whole call, only the first ten seconds of audio will be permitted. “Ten seconds, then we kill the sound,” Todd says, looking hard at Frank C. and the other audio guys. “This is a private call, not a media event.” Let’s think about this. If it’s a “private call,” why let TV cameras film McCain making it? And why only ten seconds of sound? Why not either full sound or no sound at all?
The answer is modern and American and pretty much right out of Marketing 101. The campaign wants to publicize McCain’s keeping his promise and calling a traumatized kid, but also wants to publicize the fact that McCain is calling him “privately” and not just exploiting Chris Duren for crass political purposes. There’s no other possible reason for the ten-second audio cutoff, which cutoff will require networks that run the film to explain why there’s no sound after the initial Hello, which explanation will then of course make McCain look doubly good, both caring and nonpolitical. Does the shrewd calculation of media appeal here mean that McCain doesn’t really care about Chris Duren, doesn’t really want to buck him up and restore the kid’s faith in the political process? Not necessarily. But what it does mean is that McCain2000 wants to have it both ways, rather like big corporations that give to charity and then try to reap PR benefits by hyping their altruism in their ads. Does stuff like this mean that the gifts and phone call aren’t “good”? The answer depends on how gray-area-tolerant you are about sincerity vs. marketing, or sincerity plus marketing, or leadership plus the packaging and selling of same.
But if 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.