The Last Page

The Last Page

By the late eighties, it was clear to novelist David Foster Wallace that television had absorbed the ironic critique of mass culture directed at it. Now television emits that very irony, a parody of parodies, like the “ignore advertising and just buy Sprite” campaign that’s so brazen there’s nothing left to laugh at. Why then, if it’s been a solid decade since irony was the only way to sell yourself to the viewing public, are political candidates so steadfastly earnest that they adopt hokey campaign theme songs? Candidates who supposedly want nothing more than to endear themselves to the American public—a public that ad executives pegged long ago as a cynical lot—insist on believing that what will win them a place in our hearts is a really groovy tune. Where did they get this stuff?

George W. got two: Randy Travis’s “I Did My Part”—a title reminiscent of Bob Dole’s “I paid my dues now you have to elect me” attitude—and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” possibly chosen because Bush is so irony-impaired that he missed it in the title of Wonder’s “Ghetto Paradise.”

One obvious explanation is that politicians aren’t aiming at a target as big as TV advertisers are. Perhaps pollsters know the key swing voter is old enough to remember McFadden and Whitehead, who wrote “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” the lyrical momentum behind Bill Bradley. But candidates can’t be trying to impress anybody with their theme songs. The biggest musical hubbub, of course, was over Hillary’s candidacy announcement, when the CD accidentally spun on to “Captain Jack,” who, Bill Joel promised, “will get ya high tonight.” The opposition sounded the alarm at this incontrovertible evidence that electing a pinstripe lawyer would herald the return of an army of hemp-wielding hippies and half-naked flower children. No one knows why Rodham Clinton responded to charges of being a carpetbagger by suggesting that thinking about a place is really just as good as being physically stuck there, as she did with “I’m in a New York State of Mind.”

But it’s not just Hillary who’s bumbled. Remember how Orwellian focus groups are, monitoring every muscle twitch to hone a political message until it tugs on precise heart strings? Remember your sense of powerlessness during the movie Wag the Dog, when the kingmakers craft a sanctimonious, instant patriotic ballad to control us gullible millions? Now think of Al Gore coming on stage to “Love Train.” The Democratic heir apparent, with all the media-manipulating strategists money can buy, but with all the smooth moves of the Tin Man, is supposed to mesmerize us by shaking his hips to “Love Train”?

Early in the race it seemed possible that the White House would be rented by the one candidate without an anthem, John McCain. But if you’re still upset that some people don’t know McFadden and Whitehead, wh...