But who can best learn to be the president? Seeking the forces that are driving the political process leading up to the election in 2008, I wanted to look at this process from the inside, from the point of view of those who’ve undergone it in the past or are undergoing it now. What does it do to a person to devote all his or her energies to something that can seem so ludicrous? Do you have to be a mannequin to survive a pageant? Does the process turn you into one? Exactly whom do you have to be?
McCain is sitting in the back of the Straight Talk Express, having a lively dispute with a reporter about what, precisely, Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, meant when he said the war was lost.
“He meant it couldn’t be won militarily,” the reporter says.
“Well, that’s the way wars are usually decided,” McCain replies, giving her a look of deadpan exasperation. “Generally speaking.” Then, gamely: “Though sometimes they are decided by a jousting match! Between two selectees! Of the opposing armies!”
For all of McCain’s attempts to recast himself as a mainstream character, he remains, at bottom, an insurgent, someone whose instincts are more rebellious than political. One senses it has something to do with the five and a half years he spent in a POW camp in Vietnam—after enduring the things he did, what does he care if he pisses off people or speaks his mind? (As the late Michael Kelly was fond of noting, veterans often make interesting political candidates for this reason.) But whatever the provenance of McCain’s candor, it’s been in full flower recently. In addition to the recent “fuck you” incident, he told bloggers he had little patience with Mitt Romney’s wifty positions on immigration: “Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard.” He also piquantly highlighted Obama’s failure, in a press release, to spell a word a president ought to know: “By the way, Senator Obama, it’s ‘flak’ jacket, not a ‘flack’ jacket.”
“I would much rather have a phony, competent person in the White House than an incompetent, authentic person. I’m not sure the two aren’t correlated: The greater competence you’ve got, the more you’ve got to be phony in order to get the job done.”
In the Straight Talk Express, McCain has found the vehicle, both literally and figuratively, that plays to his strengths. In the protected confines of a bus, he’s free to schmooze, argue, uncork in his loony-tunes way. The problem is that this discursive quality doesn’t translate well into the rigid formatting of televised debate—he looks tense, rattling through his talking points like an auctioneer—and his irreverence is positively jarring out of context. Think of the angry reaction to his “Bomb Iran” moment, or the moment on The Daily Show when he awkwardly joked he’d picked up an improvised explosive device at the Baghdad market. It’s worth pointing out that McCain sang “Bomb Iran” to a small VFW hall of veterans like himself (in response to a very specific question: “When do we send ’em an airmail package to Tehran?”), and two days after his appearance on The Daily Show, he twice referred to roadblocks to immigration reform as “IEDs,” rather than “obstacles.” Unless you follow McCain on the campaign trail, you’d never know how war metaphors suffuse his speech.
Zephyr Teachout, the Internet philosopher and director of online organizing for Howard Dean’s primary campaign in 2004, writes in an e-mail that she sees two possible directions political discourse could take in a YouTube age:
The first future, the gloomy one, is one in which constant surveillance turns our politicians into plastic people, and turns creative, thoughtful people—people who are willing to think out loud—off from pursuing public office. The second future is the one in which the current plasticness becomes so unsustainable that it goes the other way—we become much more comfortable with awkward phrasing.
Unfortunately, she concludes, the gloomy future strikes her as the more likely one. It has something to do with the way the media—writ large, new and old—teaches us all to be strategists, not citizens, and to think poorly of someone as a strategist, not a person, for saying something stupid.
The irony in this new, strange age of amateur surveillance is that the old media may also come to the rescue. The press at least mediates (it’s not called the media for nothing), providing context for remarks and maintaining confidentiality if certain things were said off the record or in jest. It’s yet another reason McCain may like the Straight Talk Express so much. On the bus, I ask him if YouTube is going to make him more neurotic about what he says in small settings.
“I can’t be any different,” he says. “This is a tough slog”—another war metaphor—“everybody knows that. You gotta be who you are. But will I make some mistakes? Absolutely. Stand by.”