James Santel in The Hudson Review:
In 2000, Rolling Stone sent David Foster Wallace to report on John McCain’s presidential campaign. The resulting essay operates on a simple premise: that to just about anyone who came of age in what Wallace calls the “post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era,” American politics is a kabuki of tired rhetoric and hollow promises. It is, Wallace writes, “an era in which politicians’ statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability,” one of the consequences being that young voters between 18 and 35 were voting in lower numbers than ever (of course, that would change in 2008). As if that weren’t enough, Wallace points out (following Joan Didion’s “Insider Baseball,” her classic essay on the 1988 national conventions) that it’s in the interest of the powers that be to preserve this status quo of indifference and cynicism, a task that proves easier than one might think, because politics is “complex, abstract, dry, the province of policy wonks and Rush Limbaugh and nerdy little guys on PBS, and basically who cares.” In other words: at the root of America’s political malaise lies a short attention span.
This is a central theme of The Pale King, the novel about IRS agents Wallace was working on at the time of his suicide in 2008. Part of the unfinished novel’s plot concerns an intra-agency struggle between old-guard employees who see their work as a public service and newcomers who are interested in maximizing revenue. The novel thus allegorizes the ascendancy of privatization and self-interest at the expense of the commonweal.