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Is Obama the Anti-Doughnut President?
by Ben Click, Professor of English
One in an occasional series
Well, it got ugly; we knew it would. Now, thankfully, Joe the Plumber has returned to his backed-up toilet, and the pigs have removed their lipstick and returned to their pens. The country has a new president-elect, and the public anxiously waits to see if we will have change or more of the same.
As the date for Inauguration nears, we also near the Twain Centennial. It’s been nearly 100 years since America’s most recognizable and quoted author was voicing his views on presidents, elections, and the damned human race that votes. Still, it’s like he’s speaking to us today.
And he’s probably laughing too. Given that he viewed Congress as “that grand old benevolent association for the helpless,” it’s unlikely that he’d be overly optimistic now that Democrats control both House and Senate. Even “fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” And this is what President-elect Obama has to work with?
And what of past presidents? The only two presidents author Samuel L. Clemens, pen name “Twain,” failed to meet were Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes. The rest he knew personally, some quite well. He saved Ulysses Grant and his family from bankruptcy when he published Grant’s memoirs, handing Grant’s widow the largest royalty check ever cut at the time ($200,000). He vacationed in Bermuda with future president Woodrow Wilson. And, he had something to say about them all, whether he liked ‘em or not. Given that we have just elected a new leader, it seems fitting that politics be the inaugural topic for this column, particularly the politics of elections, voters and presidents.
“If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times,” Twain said. We’ve definitely seen some of the “bottom” of our “race” in this election, particularly at the rallies. Who can forget the crazy lady at the McCain rally who was afraid of Senator Obama because she thought him “a Arab” and a “terrorist”? Or the reports of Obama supporters wearing “Palin is a C- -t” T-shirts? Maybe they’re just fringe supporters; maybe they ain’t, but they got to vote!
And while most voters aren’t “fringed” yet, they are polarized. Consider the 2004 election where choosing a candidate felt like picking the least bruised fruit in the produce section. Did people vote for Kerry or against Bush? When William McKinley was elected to a second term, Twain said: “Well, we have tried a president four years, criticized him and found fault with him the whole time, and turned around and elected him again.” Sound familiar? Twain wouldn’t be surprised at our abysmal voting I.Q. When it came to religion or politics, he believed that “a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.” (An insult to the monkey population!)
He must have forged his respect for the vote as a youth. As a 14-year-old in 1850, he belonged to the “Cadets of Temperance,” whose officers, during elections, bought off votes with doughnuts until the “Anti-Doughnut Party” was formed to end the corruption. Years later, when Twain decided that he could not vote for either William Jennings Bryant (because a friend told him Bryant was bad on finance) or William McKinley (because McKinley was an imperialist and Twain, well, not so much), he boasted: “I’ve got that vote, and it’s clean yet, ready to be used when you form your ‘Anti-Doughnut Party’ that will want only the best men for offices, no matter what party they belong to and which will solve all your political problems.”
Sadly, Twain never saw his “Anti-Doughnut Party” formed, but he had some definite thoughts on the kind of candidate who might fulfill the best-man-for-office designation and who wouldn’t. He considered Grover Cleveland “all a president ought to be” and Theodore Roosevelt “all that a president ought not to be.” Although he liked Roosevelt as a man, he thought him an immature showoff, calling him “the Tom Sawyer of the political world.” And though he usually voted Republican, Twain supported Cleveland, a Democrat. He even dismissed as irrelevant charges that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, claiming that the man was superior to his opponent in terms of public virtue.
But will President-elect Obama be that best man? Believing that circumstance and temperament determine one’s course in life, Twain would merely say that circumstance provided Obama his opportunity. His temperament seized it. Obviously, Americans preferred the “cool-handed Hopemonger,” “Mr. Ice,” to the “passionate Maverick,” “Mr. Fire,” as Time writer Nancy Gibbs labeled them in her recent cover feature, “Does Temperament Matter?”
How they responded to the nation’s recent financial crisis said more about their temperament than their reason. Both men joined the crowd and supported the federal bailout. But ultimately Obama, now “the most conspicuous man on the face of the earth” (a term Twain used referring to himself), might do well to not to follow the crowd like he did during the financial meltdown, but rather try to be more original in thought.
We shall see whether Mr. Obama can be the change that makes him “everything a president ought to be” or if he was just a candidate who understood that “it’s better to be popular than right”— as Twain surmised about politicians. If, as Twain said, “the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it,” let us hope (and pray if you wish) that our new president restores our government to one that deserves our loyalty.