“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.