Back when I was a young long-hair with an Iron Maiden back-patch on my jean jacket and an Ibanez guitar collecting dust under my bed, the watchword was EBC: Everything But Country. It was okay to listen to jazz, since Jimi Hendrix had; classical was encouraged so that you could steal the easy parts for those arpeggiated acoustic bits that always led into the really heavy prog-metal stuff. But country music was strictly verboten, left to some imagined half-human Deliverance-child in the woods behind the school. That image was not helped in the nineties by the total Diane Warren-ization of Nashville; Garths and Shanias triumphed, and good taste lay vanquished.
Similarly, the current watchword on the left is ABB: Anybody But Bush. But come November the option on the ballot will not be Anybody, it will be John Kerry; and Kerry, since the effective end of the Democratic primaries, has been running a lackluster (at best) campaign. A, dare I say it, Gore-esque campaign. It seems the reflected glory of Howard Dean’s vigorous campaign made Kerry look more exciting; somehow, with all the recent blunders of the Bush administration handed to him, he still can’t seem to muster any passion.
Country music survived its slump by going underground: the No Depression movement, named for the first Uncle Tupelo album and exemplified by the Bloodshot Records roster, recognized the affinity between punk rock and classic country, blues and bluegrass and combined them into a new brand of ‘alternative country’. Many of the movement’s champions also became enthusiastic archivists, re-releasing long out-of-print records and dragging forgotten artists out of retirement for new sessions.
The problem for certain of those classic country artists was that even during the lean years, they had refused to quit. Like John Kerry or any other long-term senator with potential embarrassments laid bare in a decades-long voting record, these artists had tainted their credibility with album after album of substandard material and nauseatingly slick Nashville production. It’s a little difficult to mount a comeback when you never went away.
Johnny Cash was the first to overcome this obstacle via a process of rehabilitation by association. Enter Rick Rubin. If a new Cash album alone wouldn’t be newsworthy, the involvement of the man in the booth behind the Beastie Boys and Slayer would at least provide novelty value. Fortunately Rubin was sage enough to just hand Cash a guitar and a slew of strong material and get out of the way. If he needed Rubin’s name to restore his reputation, that was sure as hell all he’d need. Just this month Loretta Lynn has imitated Cash’s model by releasing an album produced by Jack White. Following Rubin’s lead, White has undertaken a fairly radical re-imagining of the instrumental sound, employing a raw blues-rock backing, but never upstages the songs, all of which were written by Lynn and stand up well to her classic catalogue.
But in John Kerry’s case, rehabilitation by association would require a more hands-on approach. Unlike Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, who still had the chops to stand on their own merits, Kerry the biography far outshines Kerry the candidate. He could use a surrogate to fill the Rick Rubin/Jack White role, someone sympathetic to his basic goals but far enough afield to generate excitement and interest voters who Kerry may have trouble attracting on his own.
I nominate John McCain.
Not as Vice-President, as some have suggested. Choosing a Republican for the VP spot would only serve to further alienate the “no difference between the two parties” faction and drive them towards Ralph Nader. Plus, McCain is too conservative on social issues, which would make for a cringeworthy debate – Dems don’t need their number two agreeing with Dick Cheney on national TV.
No, Kerry should enlist McCain as a prominent advocate on the campaign trail with the understanding that he would become Secretary of Defense in a Kerry administration.
Thus far McCain has continued to support the Bush administration out of party loyalty, albeit reluctantly. But he has consistently criticized the implementation of the war in Iraq, with increased volume in recent weeks. On May 2 he appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and disputed the claims of Gen. Richard Myers that the Marines’ pull-out from Fallujah and planned hand-over of power to a former Baathist general was not a defeat. He also appeared incensed that the general had not yet read the report regarding prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison; he followed up on this with strong questioning directed at Gen. Myers and Donald Rumsfeld during their testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee.
And it is no secret that he has held a grudge against the Bushies ever since the 2000 Republican primaries, when their now-familiar mud-slinging tactics were turned against him. The current situation in Iraq would provide Sen. McCain the perfect opening to drop his support for the administration and openly campaign for John Kerry. The two are friends, have worked closely together in the Senate, and McCain features prominently in one of Kerry’s recent biographical ads.
McCain’s strengths are twofold: he is a strong voice on national defense and he is perceived as being honest and a straight talker. The former would counter any accusations of weakness on Kerry’s part related to his post-Vietnam anti-war stance. For fence-sitters who support the war but are beginning to doubt the manner in which it is being waged, a statement from McCain that Bush has screwed up the war and that Kerry would be a stronger leader could be a deciding factor. And the latter would be the perfect antithesis to the arrogance and deceit exemplified by Secretary Rumsfeld, especially now that he has come under fire and is being pressured to resign. And who better than a former POW to criticize the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Now is the time, with Bush’s poll numbers sinking and blunders in Iraq illustrated by the shocking Abu Ghraib photos, for something dramatic to inject life into John Kerry’s plodding campaign. If the candidate can’t handle the job himself, he needs to enlist someone who can. With John McCain’s help, there could be a chance for a truly alternative country come November.