A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” So argued Adlai Stevenson, when running as the Democratic candidate party for President in 1956. No doubt his viewpoint owed something to his bitterness at being defeated by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 – a campaign notable for one of the best political adverts ever made. Yet if Stevenson thought that marketing a Presidential candidate was undignified, he showed a gross unawareness of American history. For the careful marketing of presidential candidates was around long before Kellogg’s ever came on the scene.
Francois Furstenberg’s In The Name of the Father shows how early Americans used the life of George Washington in an effort to build a model for good republican citizenship. Washington was the one unimpeachable figure in America in the years after independence; even the extreme partisanship of the 1790s saw Washington’s character emerge largely unscathed, though some of his opponents suspected his support was used for partisan ends. William Maclay, a somewhat irascible Senator from Pennsylvania, summed up the respect in which Washington was held through a back-handed compliment in his diaries. “If there is treason in the wish I retract it, but would to God this same General Washington were in heaven! We would not then have him brought forward as the constant cover to every unconstitutional and irrepublican act.”
For Furstenberg, two texts stand out more than any other in cementing Washington’s role as the Father of the Nation – Washington’s Farewell Address, and Mason Locke Weems’ famous biography of Washington, first published ten years after his death.
The Farewell Address, Washington’s statement announcing his retirement as President, became the key ‘civic text’ of the early nineteenth century. It offered a blueprint to Americans on how to live a republican life, and proved particularly useful during times of national crisis. Sales peaked around the election of 1800, and most spectacularly of all during the war of 1812, when the Address was reprinted more times than when it first appeared in 1796. Its messages, such as those warning of the dangers of partisanship or sectionalism, and emphasising the need for each individual to support the union, became a manifesto that allowed every American to contribute to the success of the nation.
Far outstripping the success of the Farewell Address, though, was Mason Weems’ biography of George Washington. For the historian, the biography is of limited use – because most of it is entirely made up. Devoid of useful information about Washington, Weems instead concentrated on portraying Washington’s personality in the most favourable light.
The young Washington showed his honesty when he confessed to cutting down his father’s cherry tree, for ‘he could not tell a lie’. An anecdote of Washington praying at Valley Forge showed his piety; his refusal to gamble showed his morality. That none of these stories had the slightest foundation did not matter. Weems had struck a wonderful gap in the market. The public were hungry for stories of their most famous countryman; they revelled in his depiction of the perfect citizen. And, as Furstenberg amply shows, the biography became a crucial text in American schooling – teaching the next generation of citizens how to behave.
Of course, Washington had carefully cultivated his public image during his lifetime. In 1783, when many of his army officers hoped to lead a coup installing Washington as leader of America, he refused. Instead, he engaged in high political theatre, dramatically resigning his commission as commander-in-chief before Congress, emphasising the primacy of legislative authority. Retiring to Mount Vernon, he invoked comparisons with the Roman general Cincinnatus, who had reluctantly taken on power, and retired to his farm as soon as he completed his task. His return to national politics, first at the Constitutional Convention and later as the first President, was cast in similar terms – a reluctant patriot taking on high office only because of the insistence of his countrymen.
It is striking just how much these themes have remained constant in portrayals of the American presidency – and how far Presidential candidates will go to portray themselves according to these norms. Washington is not the only President to have been portrayed as a humble farmer who had greatness thrust upon him. Travel writer Jonathan Raban, when travelling through Montana, came upon a disused schoolhouse, where he read tales of the childhoods of Presidents past.
I read stories about… the sickly boyhood of Theodore Roosevelt (‘For years he had to sleep sitting up against some pillows. He could not lie down without coughing’) and the impoverished boyhood of Andrew Jackson (‘But Andrew kept growing in spite of all they said. He clinched his little fists at colic, measles, and whooping cough. He talked very early, and walked instead of crawled…’)
…The America of the schoolbooks was a realm of lonely but invigorating adventure, where poor farm-boys grew up to be President; land of the brave, the true, and the clean, where a beckoning star stood permanently above the western horizon and poverty and ill-health were mere tests of one’s American mettle.
Nevermind that Roosevelt’s childhood was spent in a fancy brownstone in New York City, dining with his parents and conversing in several languages; the image of Roosevelt that sticks with us is of the frontiersman heading to his ranch in North Dakota, acting as ranchman and cow-puncher. For, as Furstenberg wrote of Washington, “veneration of Washington would mold young Americans’ national character, fomenting their attachment to the nation. By urging the emulation of Washington, these sorts of texts were coaxing audiences into becoming not just better people, but better Americans.” For Washington, so too Jackson and Roosevelt.
And so the American public developed idea of the ideal President – the virtues that it would extol more than any other. Even as America has shifted from a rural to an urban nation, those seeking the highest office have shown due deference to its original politics. The Living Room Candidate, an online museum of campaign adverts from 1952 onwards, shows the tropes of Washington lasting into the 21st century. Production values may have increased through the years, but the moral values of the candidates have changed very little.
Dwight Eisenhower is portrayed as the Cincinnatus of the 1950s. ‘Out of the heartland of America’, growing up in a ‘small frame house’ he saves the world on D-Day before returning to ensure America is equipped for the Cold War. Bill Clinton speaks movingly of working his way through law school through part-time jobs turning down big money jobs because ‘all he wanted to do’ was to go back to Arkansas and ‘make a difference’. Al Gore sells himself as a man who went to Vietnam out of duty, with the last thing he is thinking of being entering politics – before realising that was what he needed to do to make things right.
Jimmy Carter is perhaps most instructive of all. “A man whose roots are founded in the American tradition”, Carter released a video biography highlighting his military service, talking about his family who had farmed in Georgia for 200 years, before entering politics as Governor of Georgia, where he looked after the ‘working people’ with an ‘efficient and well-managed government’. Indeed, Carter released ads on all kinds of issues – but invariably from his farm in Georgia. The message was clear. After the great national nightmare of Watergate, a man called to service from his farm was the kind of man America needed.
And it’s a message we’ve seen this year, too. Barack Obama talks of his values coming “straight from the Kansas heartland where I grew up”, just like Eisenhower. He worked his way through college, passing up Wall Street jobs to go to Chicago as a community organiser, just like Bill Clinton. And while Obama might not have been of a generation called to go to war, his adverts place the service of his grandfather and grandmother front and centre.
The abiding slogan of this campaign has been ‘change we can believe in’. Yet if we look back over 220 years of Presidential elections, it is perhaps not change that a presidential candidate needs. Instead, harking back to the age of Washington, they need a biography that Americans can believe in.
Penguin Press HC, 352 pp, ISBN 978-1594200922