By J.F. McKenna
Mark Twain for president.
Why the devil not? Admittedly, he’s dead more than a century. Yet, given the current condition of the country, is that such a serious disqualification?
This revelation entered my cranium after I had watched another brain cell-killing round of weekend cable news shows, during which all topics of actual relevance had taken a back seat to such critical issues as Time magazine’s graphic salute to so-called attachment parenting. I swear I even heard the disembodied voice of the author—a voice uttering words that actually found their way into print 13 years after his 1910 death:
Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all? Does this mean study and examination, or only feeling? The latter, I think. We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is public opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God.
When Twain had actually set those words to paper, he was referring to the pitched battle over gold versus silver as the monetary standard. You feel free to substitute any contemporary issue you like. You have to agree that Twain understood the American of his day—and could do no worse, even dead, dealing with today’s American and the issues of this presidential election year.
Consider the latest nostrum manufactured by bureaucrats and editorial writers: Since J.P. Morgan & Co. lost $2 billion on a risky bet in the private market, more governmental regulation of banking is needed. Those magpies chattering outside the halls of power fail to mention that the last round of federal regulations didn’t forestall Morgan’s admitted dumb move. Also absent from their analyses is this acknowledgement: America & Co. currently disposes of twice that amount servicing the national debt every day. Talk about hedging. No, instead, let’s talk about Twain. Particularly on matters fiscal and financial, the creator of Huck Finn would have plenty to say as a candidate, especially since he himself knew the role of successful author, the role of generally inept businessman and the role of long-time citizen-skeptic.
In his later years, the celebrated humorist invested in the notorious Paige typesetter, which cost him $300,000 out of pocket. He also completely misread the market when he published the forgettable Life of Pope Leo XIII. Yet Twain was always good for his debts. He never sought a public bailout. In fact, he once declined a public relief fund backed by the New York Herald and business titan Andrew Carnegie.
To today’s pro-Solyndra crowd and its Beltway cronies who promote federalized capitalism, Twain would be firm, if his past comments are any guide. The co-author of The Gilded Age once told critics of Carnegie’s “tainted wealth”: “Taint yours. Taint mine.” Concerning class envy and government-sponsored winner picking, ‘nuf said.
William Dean Howell called his friend Mark Twain “the Lincoln of American literature.” Even cold in the ground—assuming the nation can quickly make some electoral accommodations for the deceased—Twain is the Lincoln for our political times, able to present a well-established record for putting conscience above party, and even country. Who else on the national stage is willing to take that position?
Without question, the beloved writer would pick up right where he left off, reminding today’s voters that in 1884 he chided Howell about blind allegiance to any party and its candidate. “It is not parties,” he told Howell, “that make or save countries or that build them to greatness—it is clean men, clean ordinary citizens, rank and file, the masses.”
Twain wouldn’t sidestep or soft-peddle an agenda. Moreover, he would court the anger of the high-definition parlor-talk types by chastising even established political poobahs, as he did when he took on Teddy Roosevelt in his Autobiography.
“Mr. Roosevelt,” he contended, “is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the 20th century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off, and he would go to hell for a whole one.”
If he wrote that about the iconic TR, imagine what he would say about current candidates for the White House. Chris Matthews’ hair would fall out, and Joe Scarborough’s glasses would gather a thick coat of steam.
Yes, a dead author running for president, even a beloved one, poses certain challenges for the Republic. I admit that. But I fall back on my earlier contention: Can the Republic do any worse right now? I don’t think so.
Besides, Mark Twain would keep us laughing all the way to November. An inveterate jokester while very much alive, Twain once conned a newspaper about a presidential bid. He told the reporter: “I am in favor of everything everybody is in favor of—temperance and intemperance, gold standard and free silver. I will satisfy the whole nation and not be half a president.”
J.F. McKenna is a business writer and editor as well as a communications consultant. Last October, he dragged America’s most beloved author through the CBR column “Mark Twain—Risk Analyst.” Reach him at email@example.com