‘Mensch’ Bill Tonelli On Cutting DFW’s McCain Piece For Rolling Stone in Half: ‘I Just Did It!’

The last book David Foster Wallace published before his suicide last Friday was McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express, a souped-up edition of the classic piece on the 2000 election originally published in Rolling Stone and later anthologized in Consider the Lobster along with a thorough, at points severe foreword about how the piece almost didn’t happen because the editors at Rolling Stone couldn’t make up their mind about whether they wanted it or not:

At first I was supposed to follow McCain around in New Hampshire as he campaigned for 1 February’s big primary there. Then, around Christmastime, Rolling Stone decided that they wanted to abort the assignment because Governor Bush was way ahead in the polls and outspending McCain ten to one and they thought McCain was going to get flattened in New Hampshire and that his campaign would be over by the time anything could come out in Rolling Stone and that they’d look stupid.

Senator McCain beat Governor Bush in New Hampshire, of course, by a margin so stunning that even those who’d been optimistic about his chances there were taken aback. When the early returns emerged, RS called DFW up and told him they wanted him back on the story and asked him to fly out to New Hampshire that very night and get to work. He couldn’t, because, as he wrote, he had "dogs with professionally-diagnosed emotional problems who require special care, and it always takes me several days to recruit, interview, select, instruct, and field-test a dogsitter," but a week later he was on the bus, reporting on the campaign just as McCain-Bush was starting to feel like a real contest.

 

The assignment originated with an RS editor named Bill Tonelli, who thought it’d be fun to get a bunch of good writers who don’t usually weigh in on politics to write profiles of all the major candidates. Wallace’s was the only piece that materialized.

The timing, according to Mr. Tonelli, couldn’t have been better.

"There was that brief moment there when McCain was coming on strong and he looked like he was posing a real threat to Bush," he told The Observer. "And that is really the week that David went out there. … Suddenly a McCain victory looked entirely possible and we looked brilliant for having him out there."

According to Mr. Tonelli, it wasn’t until after Mr. Wallace had filed his piece on the trail that RS publisher Jann Wenner ordered it killed.

"What happened was, he wrote it really fast—I think he probably did it in, I dunno, 2 weeks maybe? I don’t really remember. It was on a Tuesday at noon, and he faxed to me a 27,000 word version, and by Friday night we had closed a 14,000 word piece. We had gone through the whole thing—I think I cut it in half overnight and then the rest of the week was taken up with line editing and fact checking and copy editing and making the whole thing work."

How did he choose which 13,000 words to cut? "I just did it!" he said. "There were some things that you could kind of pull out, because they were set pieces."

After that initial sweat, Mr. Wallace and his editor spent countless hours working on the final draft. Mr. Tonelli described it as "a typical process where you don’t know the guy one day and then you’re on the phone together six times a day. There was one day when we were on the phone eight hours, going through every comma and period."

"Meanwhile," Mr. Tonelli went on, "the McCain candidacy was collapsing and Jann felt, you know, ‘We can’t run this piece now, we might as well kill it because it’s gonna seem dated. McCain is not gonna be a candidate by the time we run it so who’s gonna care?’"

This would have been the end of February, after the South Carolina primary gave Governor Bush a double-digit victory that seemed to suggest that New Hampshire had been but a fluke.

"So we had a piece at 14,000 words, what I thought was a pretty good story, that Jann was ready to kill," Mr. Tonelli said. "Then for whatever unknowable reason Jann changed his mind and decided to run the piece. Who knows what goes on up there?"

What of the sequence of events as descried in Wallace’s foreword to the piece as it appeared in Consider the Lobster? Reading that, one gets the impression that the assignment had been withdrawn before Mr. Wallace even started his reporting.

"That part mystifies me," Mr. Tonelli said. "There was a point when the story was going to get killed but it seems to me that it was after David had done all the reporting. One of us is wrong."

According to a footnote Mr. Wallace appended to the foreword, Senator McCain’s post-Super Tuesday forfeit—which came while the article was being edited—caused the "top brass" at RS to get scared once again of looking stupid and demand a final draft within 48 hours so it could be crashed into the next issue.

Mr. Tonelli, Mr. Wallace wrote in the footnote, "was pretty much a mensch through the whole radically ablative editorial process."

‘Mensch’ Bill Tonelli On Cutting DFW’s McCain Piece For Rolling Stone in Half: ‘I Just Did It!’