Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Barack Obama Candidate

I'd like for a moment to ignore the political struggle that's presently obsessing Washington (that being the imminent and already historic presidency of Barack Obama), and do one final (no promises there) post-mortem on the political struggle that was obsessing Washington until about three weeks ago-- that being, of course, the Historic Campaign of Barack Obama (which, at this point, I don't think can even be referred to without the adjoined modifier). I'm moved to write on this outmoded subject by an essay I've just read written by the recently-dead David Foster Wallace, in which he covers part of the 2000 presidential campaign (which part he covered will be revealed, consequentially, in a moment) for Rolling Stone magazine. In particular, I find myself moved to advance a thesis that I think you might find attractively counter-intuitive (because who wants to hear an intuitive argument?).

Here you are: Candidate Obama's true forbear was none other than John S. McCain III, circa 2000.

Now, this should all be read with the caveat and understanding that, in 2000, like a still-curled fern, I didn't know what the hell was going on. I recall having enough vague awareness to ask Mr. Crandall, my 8th grade Social Studies teacher, when we might be rid of this bothersome electoral college and, after hearing his assertion that such a day would surely arrive when a candidate won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, having the judgment to speculate that it would be entirely possible for George W. Bush to suffer such a fate that very November. (A flawed judgment, obviously, but in retrospect, I maintain that my prediction was a more likely outcome than the alternative we were forced to suffer)

As evidence, I'll just pull a few quotes from the opening of this Wallace essay, which he wrote around the time that John McCain became effectively obsolete in the 2000 election.
The next big vote is South Carolina, heart of the true knuckle-dragging Christian Right... and when McCain's chartered plane lands here at 0300h on the night of his New Hampshire win, a good 500 South Carolina college students are waiting to greet him, cheering and waving signs and dancing and holding a weird kind of GOP rave. Think about this -- 500 kids at 3:00 AM out of their minds with enthusiasm for . . . a politician.
To me, this sounds awfully familiar. There he was, a relatively obscure challenger, up against the party favorite, finding himself a sudden celebrity to a surprisingly diverse coalition-- one that skewed toward the young, the previously politically disengaged, and those yearning for someone who could bring Change to the White House.

He was also, evidently, the grandfather of Obama the Internet Candidate. Where Barack raised half a billion dollars and put together a social network two million strong over the internet in 2008, and Howard Dean rose from nowhere to prominence on the back of web-organized fundraisers and support from the nascent blogosphere in 2004, John McCain raised money on the internet in 2000. Not a lot of money, but enough that Wallace makes note of it as something unique about his candidacy. That may sound small, but it's not.

In 2000, I had only just gotten my first e-mail address, and the idea of ordering a book from still-unprofitable was pretty scary to most people ("But how do you know where your credit card number goes, once you click OK?!"). Wallace describes a fellow journalist this way:
A. Mitchell is trying to settle a credit card dispute on his distinctive cell phone, which is not a headset phone per se but consists of an earplug and a tiny hanging podular thing he holds to his mouth with two fingers to speak, a device that manages to make him look simultaneously deaf and schizophrenic.
Point being: 2000 was a very long time ago, and raising money on the internet back in that day was quite a feat. Without a doubt, he was the first candidate to use the web as a tool.

Ok, fine: Throughout the history of American presidential elections there have been reform candidates with broad popular appeal, some of whom even took advantage of new technology. And the Historic Campaign of Barack Obama was historic for other, bigger reasons than those it shares with McCain c2000, but I wanted to point out something that I hadn't read previously, that in the 2000 election, John McCain was the Barack Obama candidate.

Pardon my prolixity. Intrepid readers are rewarded with a picture:


Anonymous saidi said...

you fiiinally read it! isn't it great? i love when he descibes the political analysis from the cameramen.

i read the essay before the conclusion of the Historic Campaign of Barack Obama, and i laughed when i got to the "gee golly! hundreds of college kids waiting for mccain!" observation. being wide-eyed about hundreds of young people being excited by a politician is as laughably outdated as being wide-eyed about internet commerce.

i don't know if i agree with your thesis, though. as appealingly counter-intuitive as it is.

24/11/08 6:32 PM  

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