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The Politics of Personality Destruction

Through mind-numbing repetition and bizarre campaign-trail torture, our candidates can seem reduced to pale copies of themselves. But here’s the scariest part: The process works.

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Illustration by Andrea Koch  

Spend enough time on the campaign trail and you really do wonder how presidential candidates manage to stay sane. Twenty-four hours into John McCain’s announcement tour, the venues have already started to run together in a blur of streamers, hot-dog stands, and high-school bands playing “This Land Is Your Land” in the same trumpet squall. The senator has received all manner of pointless tchotchkes and doodads. (“Do you know how many baseball caps a candidate gets per day?” asks Michael Deaver, the old Reagan hand.) He has said I’m not the youngest candidate, but I am the most experienced at least six times. Twice, he’s had to smile—and act as if he found it so original—when his supporters gave him valedictory send-offs to the tune of “Barbara Ann,” a nod to the “Bomb Iran” wisecrack he made some weeks back. And somewhere between New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Arizona senator has gotten into a tense quarrel with the press corps, who cannot believe that a man who bills himself as a straight talker refused, just the day before, to answer their questions about Alberto Gonzales until they’d already filed their stories—at which point he told Larry King he thought the attorney general should resign.

“Well, the fact is, I wanted yesterday’s stories to be about the announcement of our campaign,” says McCain when confronted about the discrepancy at a press conference. “If your tender feelings are bruised, then I apologize.”

Given America’s unconcern with the Geneva Conventions and McCain’s own harrowing history as a prisoner of war, perhaps Mark McKinnon, an adviser to the senator, could find a more delicate metaphor when he compares the process of running for president to torture. But he’s certainly onto something. “Think about it,” he says. “There’s sleep deprivation. You don’t know when your next meal is. You have the same sensory stimuli over and over until it drives you crazy. People are asking you questions, trying to trap you. And you’re watched all the time. It’s designed to break you down.”

It’s also the last remaining freak show in the United States, which is hardly to everyone’s taste. Gary Bauer, a Republican Evangelical who made a quixotic primary bid in 2000, says he had a hard enough time coping with the “butter lady” at the Iowa State Fair. “Her claim to fame was that she always brought sculptures made completely out of butter,” he says. “They were displayed in a refrigerated case. And … well, you’re going to think I’m making this up, but guess what the sculpture was that year?”

A bust of his head?

“No,” he says. “That I probably could have dealt with. No, no. It was the famous painting of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper! It was humongous. The length of this room”—he points to the opposite wall of his Arlington, Virginia, office, maybe twelve feet away—“and pretty darn deep. I’m serious. The entire scene of Christ and all the disciples. And I don’t even know how you react to that.

When Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, he says, the journalists who followed him knew his stump speech so well they’d recite it on the plane. After two days of following McCain, I realize I could probably do the same. Already I can reel off his jokes, his favorite rhetorical questions, and, of course, his tagline: That’s not good enough for America. And when I’m president, it won’t be good enough for me!

Which raises a crucial question: If I’m already sick of McCain, how does McCain feel?

“I get tired of some of it,” he says, as we roll along on the Straight Talk Express. “But there’ll always be new issues, new aspects of whatever the issues are. They’re always changing, when you think about it.”

And this is a fine answer, a perfectly politic answer. Any man with serious presidential ambitions cannot say how anesthetizing, peculiar, or extravagantly nuts he finds certain aspects of the modern American presidential campaign. But his response was disappointing somehow, and it’s only later that I realized why: It was rote. Even this question—Golly, how can you stand it?—John McCain had probably been asked a dozen times before.

Authenticity has become a dominant meme of this campaign season. From the very beginning of the 2008 cycle, both parties—or large segments of them, anyway—seemed eager to find a presidential candidate who didn’t suffer from a phoniness problem. Admittedly, Democrats experienced this desire more urgently than Republicans, because the men their party ran in the past two elections looked as if they’d been specifically selected for their extra coatings of polyurethane. With Al Gore, voters at least sensed that there was another man rattling around in there somewhere—a funnier man, one who cared deeply about the environment and had a gift for explaining why we should, too—and An Inconvenient Truth showed this to be true. With John Kerry, the problem ran deeper: To this day, it’s not clear what he’s passionate about. (He was more like the random books one finds on the shelf at a summer share—palatable, but loved by no one.)


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