Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace, Dead at 46

David Foster Wallace was found dead last night, an apparent suicide by hanging. His was a great voice of experimentation and liveliness that continually challenged literary expectations. No matter his broad reputation as a writer, he once compared literary fame to the recognition of a small television media market weathercaster.

In the days to come some appreciation of his broader work will be eclipsed by the profile he wrote of John McCain for Rolling Stone while following McCain on the campaign trail in 2000.

He was asked about that by Christopher John Farley, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in a phone interview last spring. Here's an excerpt of what DFW had to say then:

Just Asking
David Foster Wallace
The novelist and essayist on his book about John McCain's 2000 campaign
May 31, 2008; Wall Street Journal; Page W2

David Foster Wallace, author of the novel "Infinite Jest," was asked by Rolling Stone magazine to cover John McCain's presidential campaign in 2000. That assignment became a chapter in his essay collection "Consider the Lobster" (2005); the essay has now been issued as a stand-alone book, "McCain's Promise." In a phone interview, Mr. Wallace said he came away from the experience marveling at "how unknowable and layered these candidates are." Mr. Wallace also answered questions via email about presidential hopefuls, the youth vote and smiley faces.

WSJ: So why would a novelist want to travel around on a campaign bus?

Mr. Wallace: What made the McCain idea interesting to me, was that I'd seen a tape of his appearance on Charlie Rose at some point the previous year, in which he spoke so candidly and bluntly about stuff like campaign finance and partisan ickiness, stuff I'd not heard any national-level politician say. There was also the fact that my own politics were about 179 degrees from his, so there was no worry that I'd somehow get seduced into writing an infomercial.

WSJ: Have you changed your mind about any of the points that you made in the book?

Mr. Wallace: In the best political tradition, I reject the premise of your question. The essay quite specifically concerns a couple weeks in February, 2000, and the situation of both McCain [and] national politics in those couple weeks. It is heavily context-dependent. And that context now seems a long, long, long time ago. McCain himself has obviously changed; his flipperoos and weaselings on Roe v. Wade, campaign finance, the toxicity of lobbyists, Iraq timetables, etc. are just some of what make him a less interesting, more depressing political figure now—for me, at least. It's all understandable, of course—he's the GOP nominee now, not an insurgent maverick. Understandable, but depressing. As part of the essay talks about, there's an enormous difference between running an insurgent Hail-Mary-type longshot campaign and being a viable candidate (it was right around New Hampshire in 2000 that McCain began to change from the former to the latter), and there are some deep, really rather troubling questions about whether serious honor and candor and principle remain possible for someone who wants to really maybe win. I wouldn't take back anything that got said in that essay, but I'd want a reader to keep the time and context very much in mind on every page.

WSJ: You write that John McCain, in 2000, had become "the great populist hope of American politics." What parallels do you see between McCain in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008?

Mr. Wallace: There are some similarities—the ability to attract new voters, Independents; the ability to raise serious money in a grassroots way via the Web. But there are also lots of differences, many too obvious to need pointing out. Obama is an orator, for one thing—a rhetorician of the old school. To me, that seems more classically populist than McCain, who's not a good speechmaker and whose great strengths are Q&As and small-group press confabs. But there's a bigger [reason]. The truth—as I see it—is that the previous seven years and four months of the Bush Administration have been such an unmitigated horror show of rapacity, hubris, incompetence, mendacity, corruption, cynicism and contempt for the electorate that it's very difficult to imagine how a self-identified Republican could try to position himself as a populist.

WSJ: In the book, you talk about why many young people are turned off by politics. What do you think could get young people to the voting booth this election?

Mr. Wallace: Well, it's a very different situation. If nothing else, the previous seven years and four months have helped make it clear that it actually matters a whole, whole lot who gets elected president. A whole lot. There's also the fact that there are now certain really urgent, galvanizing problems—price of oil, carbon emissions, Iraq—that are apt to get more voters of all ages and education-levels to the polls. For more interested or sophisticated young voters, there are also the matters of the staggering rise in national debt and off-the-books war-funding, the collapse of the dollar, and the grievous damage that's been done to all manner of consensuses about Constitutional protections, separation of powers, and U.S. obligations under international treaties.