Another paradox: it is just about 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 hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time—as in e.g. “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 cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and 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. Think about it. 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 non-cliché 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 just 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 supervisor in a 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 real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.
In other words—and you have to suck it up and just ignore the clichés here for a second, because these aren’t just words, and there’s important stuff in back of them—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 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 de Gaulle, and certainly Marshall and maybe Eisenhower. (Of course Hitler was a real leader too, a very powerful one, so you have to watch out; all it is is a weird kind of power.)
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 weird 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 good job or owning nice stuff or finding the best parties; and the 60s were, by most accounts, a generally cleaner and happier time than now.
It’s worth considering why. It’s worth thinking 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 totally inspired the way they did with Kennedy. True, JFK’s audience was more “innocent” than we are: Vietnam hadn’t happened yet, or Watergate, or the S&L scandal, 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 extra-close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. Of course there are also similarities. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable and can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) we might not on our own, and sometimes to feel truly good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are decent guys with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. 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 really is in your interest (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 enough great salesmen and salespitches 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 really a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.
Some people believed that Ronald W. Reagan (1981–88) was our last real leader. But not many of them were 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, of course, was the idea of himself as a leader. And if you’re under, say, 40, this is what pretty much every U.S. 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 The 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 their deepest, most elemental motives were selfish, there was no chance of them ever inspiring us to transcend our own selfishness. Instead, they 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 salespitches, exactly the same way “Anti-Tartar” and “Fresher Breath” and “Four Out of Five Dentists Surveyed Recommend” 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 often tells the truth—sometimes the toothpaste really is better. That’s not the point. The point, leader-wise, is the difference between believing somebody and believing in him.
Yes, this is 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 ’00, to tell whether John McCain is a real leader or merely a very talented political salesman, just another entrepreneur who’s seen a new market-niche and devised a way to fill it.
Because here’s another paradox: Spring 2000—mid-morning 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 commodity. 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 some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate’s rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? It’s sure confusing. Suppose, let’s say, you’ve got a candidate who says polls are bullshit and that he 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 even turning “polls are bullshit” into a campaign slogan and being Message-Disciplined about repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus, etc. 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’s trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit? What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?
Non-simple enough for you now? Because if you’re a true-blue, market-savvy Young Voter, the only certainty you’re going to feel about John McCain’s campaign is that it produces a modern and very American sort of confusion, a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit, that’s there’s nothing left anywhere but salesmen. At the times your cynicism’s winning, you’ll find it’s possible to see even McCain’s most attractive qualities as just clever marketing. 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 just be McCain’s canny way of preempting criticism by criticizing himself before anyone else gets the chance. The humble way 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 McCain’s clever way of appearing both heroic and humble. You can run this weird sort of two-way interpretation on almost everything about him . . . even the incredible daily stamina he shows on the Trail—this could be a function of McCain’s native energy and enjoyment of people, or it could be ambition, a hunger for election so great that it drives him past sane human limits. Because holy shit. The good old Shrub stays at luxury hotels like the Charleston Inn and travels with his own personal pillow and likes to sleep til nine; 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 S.T. 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 pastry. (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 huge monitors composed of nine identical screens arrayed 3 x 3, and the monitor on the left has nine identical McCain faces talking but the one on the right has just one big McCain face cut into nine separate squares, and every ft22of the nauseous lobby is occupied by wildly supportive South Carolinians, and it’s 95º at least, 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 that 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 slightly twisted way. He tends to look a little sunken in his suit. His voice is a thin second tenor and not hypnotic or stirring per se. But onstage, taking questions and pacing like something caged, his body seems to tumesce, 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 narrow glare McCain’s 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 crowds’ love or an insatiable hunger to become the most powerful white male on earth. Or all three.
The point, to put it as simply and dully as possible, is that there’s a very real 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 for the most part is your only access to him, and which itself is composed of individual people, voters, some of them Young—sees this tension, feels it, especially the 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 so let you see McCain) will depend way less on political ideology than on each reporter’s own interior wars 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 says “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 whispering “People should never underestimate [McCain’s] shrewdness. His positions, in many instances, are very calculated in terms of media appeal.”
Well no duh. 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]). Recall 10 Feburary’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 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.” Now 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 sound or no sound?
The answer is modern and American and shrewd and pretty much right out of Marketing 101. The campaign wants to publicize McCain keeping his promise and calling a traumatized kid, but also 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 cut-off, which cut-off will of course require networks that run the film to explain why there’s no sound after the initial Hello, which of course will make McCain look doubly good, both caring and nonpolitical. Does the shrewd calculation of appeal here imply that McCain doesn’t really care about Chris, 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 who give to charity and then try to reap PR benefits by hyping their altruism in their ads. Does stuff like this mean the gifts and phone call aren’t “good”? The answer depends on how gray-area-tolerant you are about sincerity vs. marketing, or sincerity + marketing, or leadership + the packaging and selling of same.
But if you, like poor old Rolling Stone ’s nonprofessional, have come to a point on the Trail where you’ve started fearing your own cynicism every bit as much as you fear your credulity and the salesmen who feed on it, you’re apt to 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 reprieve 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 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: impenetrable. Nobody gets in or out. That’s why, however many behind-the-scenes pencils get put on the case, be apprised that 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 cubes and squares and boxes that layer McCain—is that whether he’s “for real” depends now less on what’s in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.
People who need to be thanked for help with the foregoing include Marian Berelowitz, Karen Carlson, Susanna Einstein, Steven Geller, S.R. Gottlieb, David Malley, Michael Pietsch, Harry Thomas, and Mr. Tonelli.
1 Here I should point out that this RS editor, whose name was Mr. Tonelli, delivered the length-and-space verdict with sympathy and good humor, and that he was pretty much a mensch through the whole radically ablative editorial process that followed, which process was itself unusually rushed and stressful because right in the middle of it (the process) came Super Tuesday’s bloodbath, and McCain really did drop out—Mr. Tonelli was actually watching McCain’s announcement on his office TV while we were doing the first round of cuts on the telephone—and apparently Rolling Stone ’s top brass’s fear of looking dated came roaring back into their pre-frontal cortices and they told poor Mr. Tonelli that the article had to be all of a sudden crammed into the very next issue of RS even though that issue was scheduled to “Close” and go to the printer in less than 48 hours, which, if you know anything about magazines’ normally interminable editing and fact-checking and copyediting and typesetting and proofreading and retypesetting and layout and printing processes, you’ll understand why Mr. Tonelli’s good humor through the whole thing was noteworthy. (Though notice that we’re not talking about the state of yrs. truly’s own humor throughout all this frenzy, particularly when the RS brass changed the article’s title over ys.tly.’s strident and high-volume protest—probably the less said about all this the better.)
2 In particular I never got to talk to Mr. Mike Murphy, who if you read the document you’ll understand why he’d be the one McCain staffer you’d just about give a left nut to get three or four drinks into and then start probing. Despite sustained pestering and sleeve-tugging and pride-swallowing appeals to the Head Press Liaison for even just ten lousy minutes, though—and even after RS ’s Mr. Tonelli himself called McCain2000 HQ in Virginia to bitch and wheedle—Mike Murphy avoided this particular reporter to the point of actually starting to duck around corners whenever he saw me coming. The unending pursuit of this one interview (what eventually in my notebook got called ‘MurphyQuest 2000’) actually turned into one of the great personal subdramas of the whole week, and there’s a whole very lengthy and sordid story to tell here, including some embarrassing but probably in retrospect kind of funny attempts to corner the poor man in all sorts of awkward personal venues where I figured he’d have a hard time escaping nevertheless the crux here is that Murphy’s total inaccessibility to yrs. truly was not, I finally realized, anything personal, but rather a simple function of my being from Rolling Stone , a (let’s face it) politically featherweight organ whose readership was clearly not part of any GOP demographic that was going to help Mike Murphy’s candidate in SC or MI or any of the other upcoming sink-or-swim primaries. In fact, because the magazine was a biweekly with a long lead-time—the Lebanese-Australian lady from the Boston Globe (see document) pointed all this out to yrs. truly after we’d just watched Murphy more or less fake an epileptic seizure to get out of riding in an elevator with me—even a droolingly pro-McCain Rolling Stone article wouldn’t actually appear until after 7 March’s Super Tuesday, by which time, she predicted (correctly), the nomination battle would effectively be over.
3 THREATENED RETROSPECTIVE FN
People who followed the GOP race closely may recall that on 28 Feb. John S. McCain gave a speech in which he all of a sudden lashed out at the Christian Right, calling P. Robertson and J. Falwell “agents of intolerance” and comparing several anti-abortion leaders to Louis Farrakhan. McCain’s remarks hit the wire services immediately, of course. And since family-value Christians and Pro-Lifers form the absolute core of the GOP’s Diehard Right Wing, this one speech, delivered the day before the Virginia primary and a week before Super Tuesday, effectively alienated John McCain from half his own party—and the half that always votes. What possible sort of political judgment would lead McCain to do such a thing?
People who followed the GOP race extra-closely might now also recall reports in late February that some person or persons unknown had apparently gotten P. Robertson, J. Falwell, and several anti-abortion leaders to tape-record certain anti-McCain statements and were now disseminating them via automated phone call to thousands of voters in key primary states. These taped statements were so off-the-charts Negative, so mean and sanctimonious and full of outrageous distortions, that it’s hard to see anyone seriously intending them to sway voters. But then, as any tech could probably tell you, that was never the real intent at all.