Wednesday, November 11, 2009

DFW on Leadership, Marketing and Cynicism

Excerpt from David Foster Wallace's essay "Up, Simba," which discusses John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and related issues:
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 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 [...]

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. [...]

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 a salesman and really ultimately doesn't give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

Things I thought about after reading this today:

  • Mad Men! The '60s as the beginning of the era of spin and marketing. The Season One MM story about the Nixon/Kennedy election and the associated advertising campaigns. How, when we "lost our innocence" in the '60s, it wasn't only due to things like Vietnam and assassinations, but, much more sneakily, the encroaching consumerist advertising mentality... All the same, is Wallace right to say that things were cleaner and happier, in that decade?
  • How really tragic it is that Wallace didn't live to see Barack Obama elected--though he at least lived long enough to see how Obama energized the Young Voters that he spends so much of this essay being concerned about.
  • This essay is from 2000, when McCain was competing against Bush in the primaries and positioning himself as the "anti-candidate," "straight-talk express," etc. Wallace is truly impressed by how honest, human, and forthright McCain seems--and he wants to believe that McCain is genuinely like that, but he's so mistrustful after so many years of being marketed to that he wonders if it's not just another, really skillful and really insidious, marketing technique. Now, McCain also campaigned as a "maverick" in 2008, and he said that picking Sarah Palin as veep proved his maverick-y bona fides. But really, the Palin pick can be seen as McCain's most cynical, politically calculated decision of all--picking an underprepared candidate just because she was a woman and would get attention. It's the sort of thing that, I imagine, would have disheartened Wallace (and when he heard how Palin mangles the English language, he'd be positively apoplectic). The day that Wallace killed himself--September 12, 2008--was right after the Republican Convention, and McCain was up in the polls, and Palin wasn't yet a national joke. I've read the excellent New Yorker and Rolling Stone DFW postmortems, and I recognize that he was a deeply troubled man, who was in great pain for several months before his death. But I wonder--if the national political mood had been just a little more encouraging on September 12...if McCain hadn't betrayed Wallace's prior faith in him (tentative and cautious though that faith was)...?
Foolish, really, to speculate on what could have saved Wallace; and even crasser for me to be doing it, since I never read any of his work when he was alive (despite ample encouragement to do so). But let's face it: anyone who comes to his work now is going to know the conclusion, as it were--it's impossible to forget. And so now, if you discover and love his writing, there's nothing else you can do, at first, but be sad. Appreciative, too; but the sadness comes first.

No comments: