The Media in the Desert

If there’s a great appetite for politicos to know how the sausage is made there is also a taste to know how the sausage is made to know how the sausage is made. The modern television era of electioneering had a created the professional press pool. The reporters that follow the candidates around the country, the columnist who gives odds for the horse races, and the big-time writer who swoops in to write a cover story before disappearing into the night have all shaped the American scene in a way de Tocqueville could predict. The professional outsider publication Rolling Stone has given looks at both the press and candidates in their coverage. There’s the understanding how the mainstream media is as much as part of the establishment as the candidates they’re covering. And only something like Rolling Stone, on the edge of it, can both point it out and still be able to interview those involved. But the movement of coverage found in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus to David Foster Wallace coverage of the McCain 2000 campaign does not show changes in how the media works as much as Rolling Stone’s changing position in the media hierarchy.

Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus is the best of the lot so far in my campaign reading. Well-written if not as vivid as Thompson’s writing, Crouse insight into the news biz is still pertinent to today’s world and far more understandable than Making’s proto-McLuhan babble. Crouse’s state of the media is still the most apt description of the industry even at the dawn of twitter. The same problems the press face now are well recognized by Crouse’s interview subjects. As Brit Hume of all people in 1972 points out, “What they pass off as objectivity is just a mindless kind of neutrality.” A complaint commonly echoed against today’s media for equivocating Democrats with Tea-Partiers. Hell, Crouse quotes a New Yorker article that describes David Foster Wallace, “…the reporter’s basic question- what is the story what the point- was resolved autobiographically: story and point were whatever happened to impinge on the author’s sensibility.”  Wallace unsurprisingly shares more in common with Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer writing on the trail than Thompson or Crouse.

The most callous line of the American President, otherwise an insipid look of the Presidency until Aaron Sorkin turned it in a TV show, comes after idealistic presidential aide Michael J. Fox says of the public, “they want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”  President Michael Douglas (These characters might have names. You can look it up.) channeling Gordon Greco once more replies, “They drink the sand because they don’t know any better.”  In “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shurb” David Foster Wallace drinks enough sand to cry glass.

Wallace, a touchstone in the modern literary world, well recognized as a genius, comes off like the guy who can’t name both candidates in a Presidential campaign. Just look at how McCain dealing with a man with schizophrenia impresses the author:

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.

The problem here is that Wallace apparently never seen a politician deal with a voter in his life. Newt Gingrich, well recognized to be one the meanest asshole to ever walk the Republican Presidency trail, handles people screaming in his face with grace and charm. When a politician makes it to the level of presidential politics they know how to talk to a voter. No matter how crazy the candidate might seem on policy or nasty during a debate, he will not mock an actual insane man when they come face-to-face. Anyone that tone deaf is weeded out long before they have enough of a base to take a shot for the big prize. If a candidate starts to sniping voters it means the man is fully cooked and is about make an exit, that’s how Thompson knew Muskie was about to take a wash in 1972.

For another example, Wallace might not have written his experiences with the camera crew if he had a firmer grip on how the media works. The idea that the blue collars secretly know the inner-workings of the system better than the stuffed shirts might hit the ear of a writer or longtime viewer of Upstairs, Downstairs but comes off as counterfeit in real life. It is an example of Wallace’s inexperience that he is unable to make those statements in his own voice. The writers wandering with McCain may have understood this well enough but Wallace defines his time on the campaign trail by separating himself from the rest of the crowd.

When Wallace goes on about leadership, he points out that Kennedy was the last “true” leader of President.  “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.” Except that’s bullshit. Of course someone rolled their eyes, someone made a snarky line. Kennedy barely won the Presidency and a lot thought his daddy bought the election for him. Even those on the left might have giggled. To split statesmen from salesmen is more an allowance of time as we forget the negative traits of the salesmen. Don’t forget what Noah Cross said in Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” And that’s what Wallace really lacked compared to Crouse or Thompson- a sense of the political scene. Rolling Stone didn’t care. They got a big-time novelist write a fluid piece on a campaign.  Maybe even thought they were following the “tradition” of in-your-face political coverage they’re known for. But they have nothing new to add. They’re have no tricks, nothing more to say after 30 years.  A magazine, a newspaper, a news show have to go on even if they have nothing to add. And that’s the problem. That’s why all the trash gets published That’s why the media is hell. There’s no water so they must drink the sand.

P.S. Recent accusations that Wallace played fast and loose with the facts makes his article all the more odder. The Rolling Stone is willing to put the literary over the factual but for a purpose. When Thompson throws a sharp elbow, it serves a goal. Muskie is out of the election. McGovern is selling out. Wallace does it for atmosphere. He really doesn’t have much to say about or to the men he meets on the bus. They’re props for the larger doings going on in his mind. Wallace doesn’t do this in other non-fictional writings; just look at “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.” But there’s something about the campaign trail if you can’t follow the action you start talking about yourself.

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