Letter 9: “Up, Simba”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

Reading “Up, Simba” this past week in January of 2010 solidified your status – in my book at least – as a modern-day prophet.  Your essay, “F/X Porn,” (1998)[1] first created these suspicions a few weeks ago as your words seemed equally true of James Cameron’s “Avatar” as they did of “T2” released twelve years ago.  Likewise, your week-on-the-road-with-Senator-John-McCain exposé written in 2000 could have been written just as easily during the 2008 campaign season instead.  I’m sure some of the names in the McCain camp and details from the campaign trail were a bit different the second time round, but it was pretty much “second verse same as the first.”[2]  I can’t wait to stumble across your next prophecy as I continue reading.

In both campaigns, McCain marketed himself as the anti-candidate, or as he liked to call himself in ’08, “the Maverick.”  He touted the fact that he wasn’t willing to play the Washington game, and that during his tenure as a Senator he was a constant thorn in the side of the Establishment.  As a civil servant, he shunned special interest groups and often crossed party lines to do what was best for the American people.  He even selected the “Rogue” from Alaska as his running mate.

While I did not agree with all of his politics, I still voted for him on that brisk November evening just over a year ago.  It was his patriotism and my belief that as president he would genuinely act in the best interests of the American people that won my vote.  He had a history and reputation of serving his nation,[3] and I believed that he would continue to put the people before his own, or any lobbyist’s, interests.

So about halfway through “Up, Simba” I got to thinking.  What does it say about our country, or the System, if the same guy runs for president in two different elections eight years apart on the same platform and persona, and loses both times?  And we’re not talking about some anti-establishment windbag looking for his fifteen minutes of fame.  This is a bona fide war hero and senior statesman.  This is a guy with serious street cred.  So does the fact that he ran for president and lost twice show us a tragic example of personal and political failure?  Or is the System just that impenetrable?  Is the Establishment so entrenched in its ways and so good at duping the American public that it can destroy anyone who would oppose it… twice?

As I kicked those ideas and questions around, another one came to mind:  can there ever really be such a thing as a true “anti-candidate”?  Or is the term simply an oxymoron?  See, here’s what I’m thinking…

In order for a candidate to have a legitimate shot at winning an election, especially on the national stage, he or she must use the System (the media, campaign rallies, town hall meetings, etc., etc.) in order to get his or her[4] name out there.  To be anything more than an unknown third-party candidate and have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of actually winning the election, a person needs to be known.  Every election year, there are plenty of third party candidates who are promising change and promising to take on the Establishment, but no one votes for them because no one has heard of them.  So in order to do the things that are necessary to be known, like getting television interviews or holding political rallies or being invited to debates, the candidate needs some pretty serious cash flow.  It takes a lot of money to produce bumper stickers and lawn signs.  It takes serious cash to buy ad time on television.  Running a campaign as a serious contender is a multi-million dollar undertaking.

A candidate has basically two options for financing a campaign.  First, the candidate could be independently wealthy and pick up the tab himself.  However, this will most likely work against the candidate, rather than in his favor because the independently wealthy candidate probably became independently wealthy by using the System to his advantage.[5]  The wealthy candidate is – at least in the eyes of many voters – the embodiment of Establishment, and is therefore the enemy.  And if not the enemy, then at least highly suspicious.  After all, why would this guy who made millions in Big Business or trading on Wall Street all of a sudden start fighting for the little guy?[6]  I just can’t see how someone who earned the millions of dollars they are using to fund their campaign by being a part of the Establishment is going to have any credibility as an anti-Establishment candidate.

If a candidate is not independently wealthy, he must then rely on contributions and donations to fund his campaign.[7]  These contributions and donations sometimes come from private citizens,[8] but most come from large corporations or political lobbies.  In other words, from the Establishment.  And we all know there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Money donated to the anti-candidate’s campaign is going to have at least a few strings attached.  Those corporations and political lobbies and even the private citizens have an idea of what they would like to see done in Washington.  They will offer money to those whose ideas and political leanings most closely reflect their own.[9]  In order for the anti-candidate to get his hands on some of that money, he is going to have to consider the “ideas and suggestions” of those who are contributing to his campaign.  He is going to have to make friends with the System he has vowed to fight against. 

So on a purely financial level, it would seem nearly impossible for an anti-candidate to be a serious contender in any national election.  Either his motives – as pure as they may be – will be suspect, or he will have to court members of the very Establishment of which he has made himself an enemy.

But let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that an anti-candidate is able to raise enough money to actually fund a national campaign, and is able to maintain some semblance of his political integrity in the process.  Once the anti-candidate has entered the fray, there are so many things he has to consider, many of which you highlight in “Up, Simba” as things you observed while on the trail with Senator McCain.  The anti-candidate has to consider public-opinion polls and attack ads by his opponent and continued fundraising while on the campaign trail.  Running for office seems almost like a big chess game in which your moves have to be calculated and your opponent’s moves have to be anticipated.  Attack ads must be countered with attack ads.  Speeches on foreign policy must be matched with a criticism of said speeches, and then followed with a better one of your own.  A dip in the polls must be addressed with more photo ops and print and television ads…

In other words, the anti-candidate has to do all the stuff that a regular, sell-out-to-the-System candidate does while on the campaign trail.  He has to play the game, and if he plays it well and wants to have a chance at winning the election, in the end there may be little to distinguish the pigs from the humans.  Both the candidate and the anti-candidate end up having that Ace of Spades tucked up their sleeves.[10]

It truly seems to be a paradox.  In order for an anti-candidate to have any chance of actually getting elected and bringing about the much needed change which is the backbone of his campaign, he has to enter the fray of politics and play the game.  He has to use the System he opposes to get his anti-System message to the masses.[11]  He has to become part of the Establishment in order to bring down the Establishment.

So what does this all mean, not only in the here and now, but in the future?  We arguably have a pretty messed up social and financial and political system.  We have an economy that gives huge tax breaks to Big Business and obscene wages and benefits to union members while small business owners struggle to make payroll and provide pathetic health coverage for their few employees.  We have a political system that is so entrenched in partisan politics that when given the opportunity to bring about real changes that might actually benefit real people, the efforts get stalled and eventually die away in committee hearings.  We have gotten ourselves into wars of which there seem to be no end against an enemy who refuses to play by the rules. 

The System, the Establishment, the Machine, the Man… whatever you want to call it has taken deep roots and shows little signs of budging.  And yet there are intelligent, reputable, patriotic individuals who see the mess we’re in and want to do something about it.  But as recent history has shown us, such aspirations appear to be little more than pipe dreams. 

Is it possible for an anti-candidate to come through a presidential campaign unscathed?  And then once a member of the Establishment, can he actually use the System to bring the necessary change to the System?

Or do we need to go all 18-century and call for an outright revolution?

[1] See “Interpolation 1: ‘F/X Porn.’”

[2] It could probably be argued that “The Shrub” was responsible for both losses.  In 2000, McCain eventually conceded the Republican nomination to George W. Bush; in 2008 McCain’s associations with Bush (among other things) seemed to cost him the election.  Although McCain tried to distance himself from Bush’s policies and decisions, in the minds of many voters a vote for McCain meant a third term for The Shrub.

[3] I knew that he had fought in Vietnam and spent time in a POW camp, but it was not until reading “Up, Simba” that I learned the full extent of the story.  I can’t think of a more heroic candidate that has run for office in my lifetime.

[4] From this point on, I will be using the generic third-person singular pronouns “he” or “his” when referring to a hypothetical person running for office.  I do this not because of my chauvinistic views, nor because I believe that only men should hold public office.  I do it simply out of laziness.  I don’t want to take the time or break my train of thought each time to add “or she” or “or her” each time.  I know some authors switch back and forth between the gender referents to maintain political correctness, but that gets confusing.

[5] Or he inherited the money, and is then seen as a spoiled child who never had to work an honest day in his life.  This will probably not bode well with voters, either.

[6] The very same little guy whose union dues pay to protect him against the likes of Independently Wealthy Political Candidate.

[7] Which, by the way, it is the Establishment that sets the rules concerning who can donate how much to whose campaign.  These rules, and the creative ways politicians get around them, are often a prime target for anti-candidates.

[8] I suppose there has to be somebody out there who checks the “Would you like to contribute $3 to the presidential campaign fund” box; otherwise why would they bother putting it there?

[9] Or to those who can easily be bought.

[10] An attempt at an allusion to the final scene in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

[11] A great non-political example: the 90’s band Rage Against the Machine.  In addition to their signature blend of rap and hard rock was their signature anti-Establishment lyrics.  The irony is that the very Establishment they Raged against was the same Establishment that allowed them to sell millions of records and presumably make millions of dollars in record sales and concert tickets.


One thought on “Letter 9: “Up, Simba”

  1. Problem is, McCain has proven himself time and again to not have a serious bone in his body; he loves controversy and has a history of doing stuff just to get a reaction from the press, like picking Sarah Palin (without having done any serious background checks) or “suspending” his campaign because of the financial crisis (which almost certainly cost him the election if he hadn’t already lost thanks to the Palin choice.) There are dozens of smaller boogeymen in his closet that expose him as not remotely the maverick he likes to pretend to be.

    For example, in 2006 he said he’d oppose DADT when top military brass did. Top military brass are now publicly against DADT, and he’s flip flopped on it. McCain looks good on the surface, and I used to have a favorable opinion of him, but the deeper you dig the worse he looks, especially in his conduct after the 2000 election, as he betrayed himself over and over again to keep in the good books of his party, only to run the most cynical campaign I’ve ever seen in 2008 (seen again the choice of Palin and the suspending of the campaign.)

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