Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anti-Candidate is an essay written by the late David Foster Wallace about the 2000 primary candidacy of John McCain. It is collected in his book "Consider The Lobster" and at 78 pages, is the longest essay in the book. It was originally written for Rolling Stone magazine. The title comes from a call one of the other journalists Wallace was traveling with would make as he lifted his camera into place. Rolling Stone specifically selected Wallace for the job because he was not a political journalist.
The essay manages to capture two of the trademarks of David Foster Wallace. Political campaigns are full of jargon, both relating to politics and to technical details of journalism and recording. David Foster Wallace is famous for his thick use of jargon and obscure vocabulary, and he uses it here to good effect, as he jumps right into the wild world of campaigning and strings together a dense narrative out of the details of campaigning. Everything, from the most serious political decision to the reporters scrounging for food, is described with the texture of immediacy.
Behind the style of the piece, the substance is also familiar to frequent readers of Wallace. Wallace's books often dealt with issues of authenticity and commitment, and Wallace uses McCain to explore these themes. Wallace is for the most part very admiring of McCain's character, if not his politics. He reports on, and responds to McCain's promise to always tell voters the truth, mentioning what a rare moment of authenticity it is in contemporary political culture. However, Wallace is certainly not naive, and two main incidents are shaped around this. The first is when Bush attacks McCain with negative ads, which require McCain to either respond negatively, or else to appear weak. Wallace realizes that if McCain does respond, he will turn his idealistic campaign into a more "political" one, which will drive off many of his supporters, leaving the primary election to the hardcore ideological base---who of course favored Bush. When Wallace pieces this out, the more experienced reporters around him respond with a derisive comment on Wallace's naivety. That Bush was aiming for just this result was obvious to everyone involved. Later on, at one of McCain's town halls, a mother describes how hurt her son was when he received a push poll from the Bush campaign describing McCain (who her son idealized) as a bad person. McCain has an emotional reaction and the entire story becomes a piece of media narrative. It is here that Wallace reasserts his attitude of skepticism. Those familiar with Wallace know that the idea of skepticism, and how to prevent it from becoming total solipsism is a thread throughout his work. He works it into this essay as well, and it fits in naturally with the subject. Wallace leaves us wondering whether we can ever trust any leader who wants to appear honest, since the honesty itself can be another gimmick, and how much this applies to McCain, a man who Wallace seems to admire both for his campaign, and for his actions as a Prisoner of War. No direct answer is ever arrived at.
Of course, this was all written in the year 2000. I read it a few weeks ago, before the heartbreaking suicide of David Foster Wallace. It is hard not to read it in light of both that, and of McCain's 2008 presidential bid, which seems to be a departure from McCain's attitude of his 2000 campaign. The questions raised here-about Wallace's quest to find authenticity and meaning in American culture, and any politicians ability to deliver such a thing--seem to have come to a tragic head.