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What We Need

In a Presidential Candidate

Mark Twain is not remembered as a partisan political person, but more as an equal opportunity abuser of politicians of all stripes.

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures,” Twain wrote, “that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

Twain set equal opportunity aside in 1880 when he openly and enthusiastically supported James A. Garfield, a Republican, for the presidency in what turned out to be one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Garfield, a Civil War hero and general from Ohio, beat Winfield Scott Hancock, a Civil War hero and general from Pennsylvania.

Ohio and Pennsylvania were swing states in 1880, as they are today. Garfield won both states and the popular vote by about 10,000 votes. One must believe Mark Twain’s support helped put him over the top.

While seriously supporting Garfield, Twain also humorously wrote a short and very funny essay in 1879 about his own candidacy for the White House.

The first line of the essay was straight forward: “I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President.” Twain went on: “What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before.”

No word on whether he had Newt Gingrich’s second wife in mind when he wrote those words.

Twain was arguing, in his funny way, what has become conventional wisdom about a candidate with, well, a history. The rule has become: Put out the bad news yourself before the other side can smear you with it.

So, Twain, tongue firmly in cheek, blew the whistle on himself admitting that he had “treed a rheumatic grandfather” for his snoring; that he ran away from combat at Gettysburg not because he didn’t want the Union saved during the Civil War, but he just wanted someone else to save it; and that he was “no friend of the poor man.”

“These are the worst parts of my record,” Twain said, and, of course, warts and all he recommended himself “as a safe man” for the presidency.

Mark Twain knew something that too many politicians today don’t know – humor is the great humanizer. Used wisely it is powerful stuff. Used badly it’s like unstable dynamite and it blows up. The smart candidate knows the difference.

Lincoln had a great sense of humor, as did Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. John Kennedy could tell a funny story, often at his own expense, which is the best kind of humor. Mark Twain was telling us in 1879 – we need more funny politicians.

Mark Twain also said in his presidential candidate essay: “The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?”

It’s not always true that the funniest candidate wins, but more times that not he – or she – will win. Mark Twain should have run. He would have been a riot.

Humor is a mirror into a person’s sense of self. If you can make a joke, tell a story on yourself, be aware of how you are seen by others, it can be a great asset. Come the fall,when the major party candidates are finally set, the guy who best gets this political truism will have a major advantage. A candidate need not be Mark Twain, but a little of his sense of humor is worth a lot of votes.



“When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he had learned in seven years.” – attributed to Mark Twain.

Hugh Billingsly (aka Ward Cleaver) must be smiling that knowing smile somewhere this weekend. He learned a lot as Wally and the Beav were growing up. Such is the lot of dads.

Mark Twain may or may not have ever uttered that quote, but my dad used to love to repeat it followed by a twinkle and a little laugh. I think now he must have been signaling my brother and me that “you boys will understand one day…” Yup, dad was right again.

My dad never played golf. He wasn’t a hunter or fisherman. He didn’t shop well. He tended to the yard. He painted things. He played catch pretty much whenever called upon. He always flipped the car keys your way at the drop of a hat. He could fix most anything, a trait he did not, unfortunately, pass along to me. I don’t think he ever went to the garage for a tool. That was work for a son, which is why I hate to this day to go to the garage for a tool that I probably won’t be very good at using. He knew about cars and airplanes and, I realize now, women. He was old school with women, particularly with mom. He’d stand when a woman entered the room. He’d take his hat off in an elevator, and he always wore a hat. He would hold a door and offer a compliment, easily and genuinely.

He loved jokes. I repeat them today even as I recall thinking they were corny or silly when he first told them and then repeated them again and again. My favorite one is, nope, I can’t repeat it on a family blog. Dad could give a great speech, tell a great story and make a great point. He loved Will Rogers and could quote the great cowboy humorist. He wasn’t very political, just very practical. Everyone, I mean everyone, liked dad.

Dad loved baseball and was very fond of the St. Louis Cardinals. He once saw them play two World Series games and loved to tell that story. Dad loved to read and almost anything; magazines, books, newspapers, the backs of menus. He liked his VO with just a little water. Wasn’t much of a beer drinker. Wasn’t fond of many foods, but for reasons that still escape me loved my mother’s meatloaf. And saltine crackers. He liked his steak very, very well done. I remember cringing when he’d tell a waiter to “bring me the charred remains” of  a once tender New York steak.

Dad was a member of the so called “greatest generation,” but he wouldn’t have thought of referring to himself that way. The war and the Depression were the life changing events in his too brief life. I wish I would have been smart enough, when he was getting much smarter as I aged from 14 to 21, to ask him more about it. He didn’t say much, but he knew a lot. He was among the smartest guys I have ever know. It’s taken me a good part of my life to figure that out.

He loved his own dad, I think, the way I love him. Much to my regret, I never knew my grandfather, but know enough to know what I missed. I think about and miss both of those good old guys this weekend as I watch a little baseball, read a little, try to find the right company to tell that story of his and stay away from the garage.

Happy Fathers Day.


Coin of the Realm in Politics

Potentially one of the side benefits to come from the budget deal struck late Friday was the development of a modicum of trust among House Speaker Boehner, Senate Leader Reid and President Obama.

It is a testament to the generally awful state of partisanship in Washington these days that Obama and Boehner, according to several accounts, spent more personal time together over the last week than they have in all the time Obama has been in the White House. Something is wrong with that picture.

Trust, built upon a genuine personal relationship, is simply critical to getting anything done in politics. Without it you can’t make a deal, shake hands and know that the pact is secure.

Boehner told a television interviewer over the weekend that he and Obama now “understand each other better.”

“Throughout these meetings over the last four or five weeks we’ve been straight up with each other, and honest with each other,” the Ohio Republican said. “Certainly haven’t always agreed, but it was a good process.”

A Boehner aide said, probably sending shudders down the spine of Tea Partiers, that the GOP leader and the president “believe the other operates in good faith. I think they are friendly, but not quite good friends at this point. Maybe some day.”

It’s easy to dismiss the personal relationship factor in high stakes politics, but our history is full of examples were the personal touch, backed not by agreement always, but always reinforced with trust, has made progress possible.

The great Montana Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield insisted that Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen get the lion’s share of the attention when the Senate debated civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. Even though Mansfield outranked him, the important meetings were held in Dirksen’s office and Mike gave way to Ev when it came time to talk to the press.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill couldn’t have been different politically, but they developed personal rapport and that led to trust. Obama and Boehner would do well to study that model.

By all accounts, Obama and Boehner love their golf. As the cherry blossoms come out in Washington pointing to the end of a gloomy winter, Obama ought to call up the Speaker, pick him up at the Capitol and find a place where the two of them – maybe with one key aide apiece – can play eighteen and finish with a couple of beers.

Progress is politics is made of such small, but meaningful gestures. Now is the time to build more trust. The next budget deal will be much more difficult.

The Great Twain

TwainClothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. – Mark Twain

Of all the incredibly funny things he said, that is my single favorite Mark Twain quote. I smile every time I see it.

April has been Mark Twain month. I’ve seen articles about his death 100 years ago this month. His love of baseball. He was an investor in the Hartford Dark Blues, a team that folded after one season. The local newspaper said his investment in the shaky enterprise had firmly established his reputation as a humorist. Ouch.

There are an embarrassment of new books about Twain. Stories about the fabulous house, now a museum, he built in Hartford. Controversy over naming a cove on Lake Tahoe after him. And always the quotes.

“I am only human,” he said, “although I regret it.”

No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”

One of the best new books is Mark Twain: Man in White by Michael Shelden. Shelden tells the story of Twain’s last years as a celebrity and how he came to wear the snow white suits we now identify as part of his “brand.” I have been reading the book and completely enjoying the story of a man of immense talent, big ego, huge humor and breathtaking originality. Shelden makes the case that Twain managed his own image as carefully as his prose.

My friends at the Idaho Humanities Council are devoting their summer institute for Idaho teachers to Why Mark Twain Still Matters. Watch for more information on public events during the week-long event in July.

Before Mark Twain there never was anything like him and there hasn’t been since. He may have been the ultimate American original. Go read him again and read about him. You’ll be better for it and, as Mom would say, “it will be good for you,” but most of all it will be great fun.

Much of what Mark Twain said more than a hundred years ago still seems relevant, like this which wasn’t said, but might have been, about Washington, D.C. and Goldman Sachs.

“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

Oh, yes, Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” when talking about the economic excesses of the late 1800’s. The guy has been dead for a century, but he’s as fresh as this morning’s headlines.