Today would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday, had he not committed suicide in 2008 after years of struggling with severe depression. I will admit to sometimes finding his writing off-putting: he could be anthropological about his subjects, particularly in his non-fiction, where on occasion, that distance shaded over into contempt. But sometimes, he applied that approach to a subject that truly merited it, and that was the case in “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub,” his report for Rolling Stone about John McCain’s struggle against George W. Bush in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000 (the essay was later republished in one of his collections, and then an expanded version as a stand-alone book).
While of course there’s expertise that comes with covering the campaign trail, and the jobs of embeds are really hard, it’s also a setting that benefits from someone parachuting in occasionally and pointing out that hey, all of this is utterly ridiculous, and exhausting, and a spectacle. Wallace writes:
If this all seems really static and dull, by the way, then understand that you’re getting a bona fide look at the reality of media life on the Trail, much of which consists of wandering around killing time on Bullshit 1 while you wait for the slight meaningful look from Travis that means he’s gotten the word from his immediate superior, Todd (28 and so obviously a Harvard alum it wasn’t ever worth asking), that after the next stop you’re getting rotated up into the big leagues on the Express to sit squished and paralyzed on the crammed red press-couch in back and listen to John S. McCain and Mike Murphy answer the Twelve Monkeys’ questions, and to look up-close and personal at McCain and the way he puts his legs way out on the salon’s floor and crosses them at the ankle and sucks absently at his right bicuspid and swirls the coffee in his McCain2000.com mug, and to try to penetrate the innermost box of this man’s thoughts on the enormous hope and enthusiasm he’s generating in press and voters alike … which you should be told up front does not and cannot happen.
In any case, you’ll get told to read a lot of things by David Foster Wallace today. But this would be my vote for which one you should pick. It’s a fantastic piece. But it’s also a terrific reminder of how marvelous it would be to have him around for a presidential election that’s many magnitudes weirder than South Carolina in 2000. What a loss.