Lemon Squeezers

Feel-good stories from John McCain, Dave Eggers, and Carlos Santana.


If, as President Calvin Coolidge

is reputed to have quipped, "the

business of America is business"

— and after seeing Silent Cal

eerily anticipate the Village

People by famously modeling an

Indian war bonnet and less

famously modeling the leather

guy's chaps, we should just

concede the point — then one of

the premier strengths of

American entrepreneurs is their

ability to make lemonade when

life gives them lemons.

That propensity is in full

flower throughout these United

States, a place where the lemons

practically grow on trees. The

knack for leveraging personal

adversity into cold-hard cash

— or its arguably more

satisfying kissing cousins,

cultural capital and political

power — is on glorious

display vis-à-vis three of the

current moment's most ubiquitous

headline hogs: Presidential

hopeful Sen. John "I'll kill the

first person who says I'm a

psycho Vietnam vet and make a

necklace and matching bracelet

with their ears" McCain;

professional orphan and

gratuitous Suck basher Dave "A

Heartbreaking Work of Staggering

Genius" Eggers; and multiple

Grammy victim Carlos "My life is

guided by an angel called

Metatron and incidentally I was

molested as a child" Santana.

Each of this tragic trio has not

simply seen fire, rain, and

sunny days that they thought

would never end; each has

emerged from such apocalyptic

conditions with an uncanny

ability to strategically employ

tear-inducing biographical

details to win friends and

influence people.

Consider Sen. John McCain, who

currently has at least as strong

a shot as Alan Keyes at getting

to participate in the Village

People Seniors tour — and a

marginally better chance of

actually setting up residence at

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

(assuming the current renter

does in fact move out next

January when his lease is up).

What sets this self-styled

"maverick" and "straight talker"

apart from any number of other

slightly pop-eyed,

third-person-plural pols who

seem barely able to stifle the

voices in their heads long

enough to kiss a few flapjacks

and flip a few babies at a

church pancake breakfast?

Certainly it's not McCain's

politics, which have been

charitably described as

incoherent and more fairly

described as "opportunistic,"

which is to say shockingly

conventional. Certainly it's not

his quickness to employ racial

epithets such as "gooks" or his

storehouse of Chelsea Clinton

jokes (the reason Chelsea is so

ugly, yuk-yuks McCain, is

because Janet Reno is her

father). Hell, it's not even his

ability to inspire

entertainingly hate-filled Web

sites, his colorful former

nicknames (e.g., "Punk,"

"McNasty"), or his eagerness to

strap a pill-popping,


charity-swindling trophy wife to

his side wherever he goes. Any

number of politicians can

claim similar attributes (Mike

"Mofo" Dukakis may have McCain

beaten hands down on all counts,

and look where that got him).

No, the only thing that makes

McCain different from your

father's Oldsmobile — or, for that

matter, Al Gore, George W. Bush,

and Bill Bradley — is the

fact that he got shot down over

Vietnam in 1967 and spent a few

years in the Jane Fonda suite of

the infamous Hanoi Hilton. While

the conventional wisdom sees

this interlude as somehow

interrupting the promise of the

young McCain's life — you can

almost hear Steve & Cokie

Roberts sighing, "Oh, the bombs

he would have dropped!" — the

exact opposite is true. The very

best day of his life was when

North Vietnamese villagers

fished him out of Trucbach Lake

and started beating the living

bejeezus out of him. Indeed,

sans the POW shtick — a

politically potent non sequitur

that he and his people shrewdly

showcase every opportunity they

get — no congressional seat, no

Senate seat, no race for the

White House, probably not even a

shot at the current missus (18

years McNasty's junior, we're

guessing that, likely as not,

Cindy would have fallen instead

for a Gulf War

reservist-cum-Rite Aid


A similar biographical gravitas

undergirds the critical

reception of Dave Eggers and his

entertaining memoir, A

Heartbreaking Work of Staggering

Genius. For the most part, the

29-year-old Eggers has lived a

life of churlish glee, of

rich-kid play acting in the

culture industry (he

unsuccessfully auditioned for

MTV's Real World, cofounded

Might back in the mid '90s, and

failed upwards into a gig at

Esquire; he currently edits

McSweeney's, a literary

quarterly and Web site). Not a

bad resume at all, but not

especially individuating or

memorable in any Hemingwayesque,

Maileresque, or even Laura

Ingalls Wilderish way. Indeed,

as a February 28 column in the

New York Observer suggests, his

pose as earnest

anti-anti-ironist (or is that

anti-anti-earnest ironist?) is

dental-drill deadening and a tad

too serioso in the end to induce

more than shudders at the

thought of future additions to

his oeuvre. The Observer article

also allows a chilling inference

about Eggers's future as a

tantrum-throwing superstar. As

we watch the young bard sic a

handler on reporter Elizabeth

Manus at a New York bookstore

reading and later unironically

attack Manus on his site, we

wonder how long it will be

before he is demanding the Four

Seasons fire some hapless

chambermaid who has left the

wrong mints on his pillow.

Such prissy antics do not

typically a literary young lion

make (Mailer, in his

pre-Sansabelt days, would have

flashed a knife and taken a

swing at Manus). So what

precisely is lifting Eggers into

the bestselling ionosphere,

where a nod from Oprah's Book

Club almost certainly awaits

him? Only this: At age 22, both

of his parents died within a few

months of each other and,

subsequently, he largely raised

his then 8-year-old brother.

That gives this


inside-clown instant cachet

with the demographic that is

still mourning the passing of

Party of Five. This biographical

nugget makes him golden, though

even its magic has clear limits,

as is evident in a blurb for a

different reading in NYC:

"Eggers waxes ironic on his

creative shenanigans and details

his parents' deaths in A

Heartbreaking Work of Staggering


By contrast, tedious rocker

Carlos Santana, waxes only

unironic even as he coughs up

gruesome biographical tidbits in

a bid for continued media

attention. It's been a long time

between grabs at the brass ring

for a guy still living down his

'80s discography, and Santana

seems pretty primed not to slip

up this go-round. Hence, in a

recent Rolling Stone interview,

Santana explains how his life

came together after he met up

with an angel named "Metatron,"

who bears a resemblance to Santa

Claus ("white beard, and kind of

this jolly fellow") and who

helps him commune with the dead

(including Jimi Hendrix and

Miles Davis). Metatron, says

Santana, has delivered important

messages, including this one:

"You will be inside the radio

frequency…for the purpose of

connecting the molecules with

the light."

To be sure, a '70s guitar god

palling around with an angel

named Metatron is not

particularly newsworthy and, to

be blunt, the fact that

Santana's new record,

Supernatural, has sold 7

million-plus copies is simply

more evidence that the Y2K bug

did in fact bite harder than is

generally acknowledged. It's

almost as if Santana — or

perhaps more precisely, Metatron

— realized that his "comeback"

narrative was itself more a

cause for dolor than dollars, so

Carlos has gamely added some

repressed spice to his story

this time: Both in the Rolling

Stone interview and on 60

Minutes II, he came clean that

he had been molested as a child.

In true lemon-squeezing form,

though, the horrible truth is

ultimately just one personal

selling point: "I have learned

to convert all this energy now

into something productive and

creative," says Santana.

For all the mileage they get out

of such material, two basic and

often insurmountable problems

present themselves to those who

trade on personal tragedy as a

branding strategy: First, they

run the considerable risk of

becoming every bit as cartoonish

as Cotton Hill, the gruff,

irascible grandfather on King of

the Hill, whose reflex response

to every personal criticism and

lull in conversation is to

remind his audience that he had

his shins blown off during World

War II. Second, as Christopher

Reeve can readily attest, they

make it unduly tough on

themselves to produce a sequel.

Then again, that may be a

blessing in disguise.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.