Monday, September 1, 2008

One of Us

In 1824, John Quincy Adams faced Andrew Jackson in the Presidential election. They were nominally of the same party (it was a brief period of single-party dominance) but had little else in common.

Adams was the ultimate American elitist. The son of a President (a Founder, no less), he went to Harvard, spoke many languages, lived and traveled extensively in Europe, and was an accomplished American diplomat. He was classically educated and could quote Ovid as easily as I quote Seinfeld.

Jackson was anything but the American elitist. Born poor, orphaned by age 14, and sporadically educated, he was the true self-made man who made his fame on the field of battle. Thomas Jefferson, speaking of Jackson’s presidential ambitions, declared him to be “one of the most unfit men I know of for the place.”

Daniel Walker Howe, in his excellent history of early 19th century America What Hath God Wrought, writes that “no one liked Jackson for president except the voting public.”

And they liked him a lot – Jackson lost the election in 1824 despite winning the popular and electoral vote, and won decisively in 1828 and 1832. (He is the answer to a good trivia question: who is the only Presidential candidate besides FDR to win the popular vote in 3 elections?)

And they liked him, in part, because he was like them. Okay, he wasn’t really like them; he was a successful general, a born leader, tougher than any man alive, smarter than the intellectual elite realized, and one of the strongest personalities in the history of American politics. But he seemed like one of them. Like most voters, he was born poor, worked hard, endured sorrow, and had no use for proper spelling.

So began one of America’s great political traditions – the attempt by candidates seem like one of us, even when they are not.

One of the Boys
George W. Bush is the son of a President, grandson of a Senator, and attended the finest schools in New England. But he emphasizes his Crawford roots and likes to be photographed eating ribs and cutting brush.

John Kerry was educated in the finest schools in Europe and New England, and spent his childhood summers on a family estate in France. But he sought out photo ops in duck blinds and spoke of no part of his young life but his year in Vietnam.

Bill Clinton had a genuinely humble background that he emphasized in his candidacies, downplaying his spectacular academic career, which included a Rhodes scholarship and, like the other two, a Yale degree.

I could go on and on. Teddy Roosevelt the Rough Rider didn’t speak of Teddy Roosevelt the Park Avenue socialite. Lincoln bragged on his axe-swinging days but downplayed his successful law practice.

The best example may be William Henry Harrison. Tippecanoe* was from a prominent political family whose father was a signer of the Declaration and who had extensive public experience and great wealth. But when his opponents in the election of 1836 claimed he’d rather “sit in his log cabin and drink cider” he adopted the log cabin and cider bottles as his images, and won in a landslide.

* This was a great time for Presidential nicknames. Old Hickory (Jackson) was followed by The Little Magician (Van Buren), Tippecanoe (Harrison), His Accidency (Tyler), Young Hickory (Jackson’s protégé, Polk), and Old Rough and Ready (Zachary Taylor). Our era gives us Dubya, Bubba, and Poppy.

All of these politicians understood that voters don’t want to hear they are smarter and/or wealthier than us. So they pretend to be like us. When we catch them doing otherwise - windsurfing, say, or being confounded by a supermarket scanner, we punish them.

But of course, we know they aren’t really like us. Don't we?

Along Came Sarah
And into our lives strides Sarah Palin. There are no Ivy League or European colleges in her past. She has no illustrious ancestors – senators or admirals or ambassadors. She did not marry the heir to a vast fortune. She does not bring to the Vice Presidency, like Cheney or Biden (both of humble origins) an extensive and impressive career in public service. She has a son in the Army and a pregnant teenage daughter. Her husband’s in a union. Aside from her stunning election as Governor less than two years ago, she has led a life that is not dramatically different from most of the women on my block – except for, you know, the ice fishing and the mooseburgers.

And suddenly American voters are being asked…do we actually want someone that close to the Oval Office who is truly and genuinely just a slob like one of us?

We’ll never know of course. Regardless of who wins, there are too many other factors – particularly the guys at the head of the ticket – that will ultimately decide this election. But we’re all going to be in a lot of Sarah Palin conversations the next few weeks, and it’ll be interesting to see what people think.

Me? I’m just hoping we come up with a really good nickname for her. I’m pushing for the Holy Hand Grenade.

Update: George Will wrote a similarly-themed piece in Newsweek. We approached it differently, but used the same Harrison example. He included this bit, though, which I loved:

" Robert Taft, the son of President William Howard Taft, [spent] 14 years as a U.S. senator from Ohio. He was a conservative representing a state whose electorate included many farmers and blue-collar industrial workers, and opponents charged that he was out of touch with such ordinary people. In 1947 a reporter asked Mrs. Taft, 'Do you think of your husband as a common man?' Aghast, she replied: 'Oh, no, no! The senator is very uncommon. He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at the Harvard Law School. We wouldn't permit Ohio to be represented in the Senate by just a common man.' In 1950, Taft was re-elected in a landslide."

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