The Presidency and the American Imagination

It is not surprising that candidates who aspire to be the President of the United States differ about policy matters. But when Americans consider the characters and beliefs of the men and women who run for the country’s highest office, they have a tendency to focus on a relatively small set of attributes and values. American voters may come from red states or blue states and may argue bitterly over matters of public policy, but when they discuss the character and background of presidential candidates, their divisiveness gives way to a remarkable unity. The candidate must be “one of us”; undoubtedly he or she is more educated, wiser, and more judicious than the typical citizen, yet somehow this person remains connected to every American’s life. A president may sit across a negotiating table holding the fate of the nation in his or her hands, but Americans believe that person should also be able to discuss the price of gasoline over a voter’s dinner table. This blend of world diplomacy and folksy wisdom is perhaps an impossible combination; but it is a goal Americans seem to demand of their presidential candidates and which most candidates try to achieve.

The characteristics Americans expect to find in presidential candidates generally reflect several fundamental themes: the candidate’s childhood, education, military service, personal life, and professional career. Traditionally, candidates have covered these topics in their campaign biographies. Of course, no two candidates have identical biographies. Some chose to portray themselves in ways that defied the norm. Nevertheless, there is a general tendency among candidates to draw upon those life experiences that they believe the public will find familiar and comfortable, in the hope that ultimately this will result in the public deciding that the candidate is trustworthy.

Presidential birthplaces have played a small, but peculiar, role in American politics. Although it might seem as if every presidential candidate asserted that he or she had been “born in a log cabin,” the only presidents who actually made that claim were Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), Abraham Lincoln (1860), and James Garfield (1880). However, many other presidential candidates have not been able to resist claiming that they were born in humble circumstances. For example, Ulysses S. Grant’s (1868) biographer wrote that Grant’s birthplace, although not exactly a log cabin, was “a mere shanty” that “compares very favorably with that in which Lincoln . . . first drew the breath of life.” The biographer of Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) conceded that Hayes had been born in a brick house, but he quickly mentioned that the house had a log extension. It could be argued that Franklin Roosevelt’s (1932) biographer faced an immense challenge. His candidate’s birthplace had approximately thirty-five rooms, and placing Roosevelt in the simple, one-room cabin in which so many of his predecessors claimed to have been born was impossible. Roosevelt’s biographer dealt with the size of the Roosevelt home by describing it, briefly but adroitly, as “the old family house.”

Whether they were born in a log cabin or a sizable mansion, presidential candidates most often portray themselves as either coming from modest middle-class, homes or having learned the values of the middle class. For example, in A Charge to Keep (1999) George Bush writes of growing up with “Midland values,” in a Texas community that cherished small-town principles. In Midland all the boys played together in pick-up baseball games, which ended only when George Bush’s mother “yelling over the fence” demanded her son come home for dinner. Midland was a place where children visited a friend’s house by “climb[ing] someone’s fence” or “cut[ing] through a yard,” where the boys wore blue jeans and T-shirts to grade school, and where no one locked their doors.

John Kennedy’s biographer was candid about the financial means of the Kennedy family. In John Kennedy: A Political Profile (1960), he concedes that the family was rich, but he admits this only after he has described how hard Kennedy’s grandparents and parents worked to earn their wealth. He also makes a great effort to link the Kennedy’s to the middle class. Even if his family was rich, as a child John Kennedy’s diversions were those of millions of other American children. In describing the Kennedy’s summer home at Hyannis Port, the author notes: “The big house there looked out over a long beach, a tennis court and a well-tended lawn handy for softball or other family games.”

The public is also interested in how a candidate grew into adulthood. In the nation’s early years, a presidential candidate’s childhood was usually spent as parents of the time believed it should be: being seen but not heard. By 1868, foreshadowing Tom Sawyer’s adventures that would debut a few years later, a little mischief began to be allowed. In the twentieth century actively participated in team sports, particularly during their college years. For example, Gerald Ford lettered three times in football at the University of Michigan and was voted the team’s most valuable player in 1934.

Presidential candidates’ biographers invariably claim that their candidates are well educated, although in the nineteenth century some candidates who a lacked formal education, such as Abraham Lincoln (1860) or Horace Greeley (1872), had to “overcome their handicap” through long hours of self-study. Presidential candidates, however, were rarely “bookish” in school. They were good students, but they were also popular companions. In the words of Calvin Coolidge’s biographer (1924), “Cal was no greasy grind.”

Some presidential biographers have had to deal with candidates who were not scholars or who did not do particularly well in school. Adlai Stevenson’s biographer (1952) took considerable pains to explain why Stevenson dropped out of Harvard Law School. One can assume that John Kennedy’s biographer (1960) would have preferred a more enthusiastic comment about his candidate’s academic success as an undergraduate than the remark made by one Harvard professor that “Kennedy is surprisingly able when he gets down to work.”

Time has changed how presidential biographers portray a candidate’s military experience. In the nineteenth century “martial glory” was frequently emphasized. In the tradition of the citizen-soldier, candidates were among the first to answer their country’s call to arms and serve bravely, if often briefly, in defense of the nation. Their military exploits were described in their biographies in great detail. Lewis Cass, Michigan’s Democratic hopeful in 1848, was, according to his biographer, “the first on Canadian soil,” during the War of 1812. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) campaign biography described, in part, his Civil War service in the following way: “He was everywhere, exposing himself recklessly, as usual. He was the first over the slough, he was in advance of the line half the time afterwards. Men were dropping all around him, but he rode through it all as if he had a charmed life.”

In the twentieth century, presidential biographies generally deemphasized military service and rarely spoke of a candidate’s heroic exploits. War was recast from a glorious interlude in which the candidate displayed personal courage to a tragedy. Dwight Eisenhower’s (1952) biographer included in his work Ike’s conclusion that “there is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.”

Of course, not all candidates followed this pattern. John Kennedy (1960) stands in sharp contrast to the twentieth-century tendency among presidential candidates to downplay military service and heroism. The story of how the eighty-foot vessel he commanded, PT-109, was sunk by a Japanese destroyer and the bravery displayed by Kennedy and the PT boat’s crew as they struggled to survive was widely known. The public’s familiarity with the episode was largely due to an article written by John Hersey for the New Yorker, which was condensed and republished in the Reader’s Digest in 1944. Distributing reprints of the 1944 Reader’s Digest article became a staple of Kennedy’s political efforts, including his 1960 presidential campaign.

Perhaps the most unusual comment ever made regarding a candidate’s military service came from Grover Cleveland’s biographer. In an 1884 publication he declared that when Cleveland received a draft notice to serve in the Civil War, “there was no question at all what his duty was; he promptly supplied a substitute.”

In private life presidential candidates are financially successful, which is a testimony to their hard work and good administrative skills. They have strong marriages and are good fathers to generally well-adjusted, happy children. Presidential candidates believe in God. They are religiously tolerant, usually nonsectarian, and sometimes rather casual about attending weekly church services.

In some cases a candidate’s marriage, children, or religion can cause problems. But even if their own lives and families are not completely ideal, presidential candidates must defend traditional values and illustrate that they are committed to America’s youth. Theodore Roosevelt’s biographer (1904) said that his candidates was a man “who will stand like a rock for the homely virtues, for the Ten Commandments, in a good and evil report, [Frank, you need to check this quotation.] and refuse to budge.” Theodore Roosevelt’s biographer may also have the standard for compassion granted to a sad child in this tale:

Then I see him as he stood that day on the car platform at Greenport, shaking hands with the school children that came swarming down just as the train was going to pull out. I see him spy the forlorn little girl in the threadbare coat, last among them all, who had given up in dumb despair, for how could she ever reach her hero through that struggling crowd, with the engineer even then tooting the signal to start? And I see him leap from the platform and dive into the surging tide like a strong swimmer striking from the shore, make a way through the shouting mob of youngsters clear to where she was on the outskirts looking on hopelessly, seize and shake her hand as if his heart were in his, and then catch the moving train on a run, while she looked after it, her pale, tear-stained face one big happy smile.

That was Roosevelt every inch of him and don’t you like him too? How could you not like a candidate who all but missed his own train to make a little girl smile?

Over time the public’s interest in a candidate’s spouse has grown. Until the 1870s it was normal for only a few sentences in campaign biographies to be devoted to candidates’ wives. The biographer of Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), however, broke this mold when he chose to discuss Lucy Webb Hayes’s fitness for the “public office.” Other biographers soon followed his example. Lucretia Garfield, we are told in her husband’s campaign biography (1880), spent time “in the alcoves of the Congressional Library, searching out books to carry home to study” when she was not caring for their children.

As the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth, presidential spouses began to have political interests and support particular causes. Eleanor Roosevelt (1932) fundamentally changed the role expected of a presidential spouse. Unlike past presidential spouses, who might have public views on some political issues but rarely were active participants in the political arena, Eleanor Roosevelt became a political force in her own right. She served as an ambassador for her husband, played an active role in party politics, and expressed her personal views in a daily newspaper column syndicated nationwide. Since Eleanor Roosevelt’s time, presidential spouses have frequently chosen to both express political views and champion personal causes.

If presidential candidates can be said to have a common flaw, it is that most are lawyers. Nearly all presidential biographers candidly admit that lawyers generally are not well thought of, but most biographers quickly differentiate their candidates from the public’s often negative view of lawyers. As Rutherford B. Hayes’s biographer (1876) put it, Hayes “showed the surprised people that a lawyer could be a Christian gentleman and a practical philanthropist.”

In the public arena, many presidential candidates have a distinct problem: They are career politicians. This is a calling that the public has disliked since before the Civil War. Paradoxically, those who lack practical political experience often find that they must justify their right to run for president. Of the two problems, most biographers would prefer the latter one. It seems to be easier to claim candidates have native abilities in the fields of politics and government than to explain away their long, perhaps dodgy, political records.

For example, even though Wendell Willkie (1940) had never run for office before, his biographer assured the public that his candidate “is no Johnny-Come-Lately to the strange science and art of politics. Politics come as naturally to him as hitting home runs did to Babe Ruth.” In 1912 Woodrow Wilson’s biographer, who had the difficult task of convincing the public that Wilson, who had been a college professor before entering politics, was a practical man of action. He solved this problem by describing Wilson’s short stint as governor of New Jersey in glowing terms. It was “a tremendous surprise to the shrewd politicians to find on board the ship of state a skillful and efficient political captain, who understood the most direct course, who read the compass with perfect accuracy, and who saw each flashlight and signal in time to avoid the breakers and shoals.”

Most presidential biographers, however, were not writing about relatively unknown candidates. A few biographers, particularly in the era just before and after the Civil War, claimed that party principles governed their candidates’ decisions. Winfield Scott Hancock (1880) was described as the “thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac,” and it was also said that he was “born a Democrat.” Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and James Garfield (1880) both noted particularly in their biographies that they had been among the founders of the Republican Party. In the twentieth century a few candidates continued this tradition. The biographers of both Dwight Eisenhower (1952) and Herbert Hoover (1928) claimed that their candidate had been ‘brought up” as Republicans.

In the twentieth century, however, it was more common to describe presidential candidates as public servants who always put the public good above any call to partisan loyalty. This tradition’s roots went back to the nineteenth century. Of John Quincy Adams (1824) it was claimed, “It was not enough for him, that a proposition, affecting any great national interest, originated with this or that party, to secure it to his support: he examined it on the broad ground of principle, and opposed or defended it according to the honest dictates of a judgment unshackled by preconceptions.” William Jennings Bryan’s (1896) commitment to principle was supposedly such that “his own party friends and managers shudder.” In this tradition, it was written of Theodore Roosevelt (1904) that “he might indeed quarrel with the party of a lifetime, for he would as little surrender his conscience to a multitude of men as to one, and he has said that he does not number party loyalty with the Ten Commandments.” Harry Truman’s biographer might have been the most succinct. Truman (1948) would “rather be right than President.”

Both the American presidency itself and the journey taken by those who hope to attain that office are surrounded by symbols and rich in meaning. But the office is also a window on how Americans view themselves. American presidential candidates are expected to rise above society yet be a part of it. Gifted with learning, wisdom, and judiciousness far in excess of most of the nation’s residents, presidential candidates are nonetheless supposed to be “just like us” in clear and easily verifiable ways. The public expects America’s presidential candidates to be able to find solutions to the most complex problems on the planet, but that same public also demands that these candidates be well-acquainted with the price of a gallon of milk. Considering all that Americans demand of their presidential candidates, it is perhaps surprising that so many men and women have aspired to this position.