July 14, 2008

What I’m working On

No doubt you’ve noticed the dearth of blog posts this month. A big part of the reason is that I’m attending the International Society for the Study of European Ideas conference in Helsinki later this month. I’m part of the workshop entitled “Kings, Presidents and Ministers: Language and its Effects on the Executive in Biography and Imaginative Literature.” My paper will deal with the log-cabin myth in recent presidential autobiography.

The log-cabin myth could be thought of as one of the building blocks of the American dream myth. It’s the myth that many or most of our presidents rose from poor and/or obscure circumstances to earn the highest position in government. The log-cabin myth–a place of common birth–began in the early 19th century as way to prove common roots. Politicians believed, with much justification, that voters would respond better to a “man of the people.” It remains true to this day. Only three presidents, however, can claim, truthfully, to have risen from the common people (and only one of those was actually poor). Only one was born in a real log cabin.

My paper will examine the use of this mythology–not literal birth in a log cabin–in recent presidential autobiographies.

I’m looking forward to the chance to blog from another country. While I’ve traveled overseas before, this will be a Rhetorica first (assuming I can find a free wifi, but all indications are that I’ll have no trouble).

8 Responses

  1. Not that it’s directly on the log-cabin thing (which is interesting, and I hope you post the paper), but I was ruminating about the presidential bio narratives the other day, and thinking about a handful of aspects that are common in the stories. ThereÂ’s the Gerald Ford/Bill Bradley/Mo Udall/Jack Kemp/Ronald Reagan story of parlaying national prominence as an entertainer into a political career. ThereÂ’s the Al Gore/Mitt Romney/George Bush/George Bush/Kennedy/Kennedy/Kennedy story of the scion of a political family taking on the torch of a new generation. ThereÂ’s the Jimmy Carter/John McCain/Bob Dole/John Kerry story of a military career followed by coming home and linking up with the local political machine. The other story, the Bill Clinton/Mike Dukakis/Walter Mondale story, where a guy goes to law school, maybe practices or teaches law for a while, then wins local office and then statewide office and then runs for national office, is closest to Barack ObamaÂ’s story.

    The question, for me, is whether thatÂ’s a story that will win votes. I hope it is. ItÂ’s a great story. To me, thatÂ’s the anyone-can-be-President story. Not that thereÂ’s any greater truth to that one than the others, or that the anyone that goes to law school is more anyone than the anyone that plays basketball or calls ballgames on the radio or the anyone that serves in the military. Logically, of course, those are anyone stories, too. But not to me.

    Thanks,
    -V.

  2. acline 

    V- Interesting thoughts. It seems to me that winning stories are the ones in which the particular archetype meets the particular socio-political need of the moment. That’s just a guess. What would be interesting is to map the story types to the eras in which they prevailed. One might then develop a theory of presidential victory.

  3. I’d be wary of such a theory as explaining too much… I do think that a reverse theory of presidential not-victory might be in there somewhere. That is, the moment might narrow the range of acceptible bio narratives, so that otherwise plausible candidates would fail to fit in. Hard to define what an otherwise plausible candidate would be, though. Good thing I’m too lazy to try.

    Also, not altogether on-topic for bio narratives but still very very very interesting is this New York Times article about how political jokesters are having difficulty putting Sen. Obama into a joke category.

    One of the most insightful things about politics and culture I’ve ever seen was on the Letterman show in 1996. In the monologue, he did a joke about Bob Dole’s age and got a big laugh. He perked up at the laugh, said “You like those? Wait a minute” and ran offstage to be picked up by the backstage camera (in one of those filmed bits) as he went to the cue card store-room. In the store-room there were big boxes labeled “Dole is Old” “Clinton is Fat” and similar things. He went over to the “Dole is Old” box, where the late-late show fellow (whose name escapes me at the moment) was already digging through, and came up with half-a-dozen “Dole is Old” jokes to bring back and deliver, which he did to much audience hilarity.

    I think this really describes how politics works in our culture. We find those jokes–“Bush is Dumb” “Gore is a Braggart” “Kerry is Wishy-washy” “Perot is Short” “McCain is Grouchy” “Reagan is a Kindly Out-of-touch Uncle” and we hit them as hard as we can. We’re still working out which category to put Sen. Obama in, and I think that process will have more to do with the outcome of the election than all the policy differences, vice-presidential picks and endorsements will.

    Thanks,
    -V.

  4. acline 

    V- Yes. That’s the whole master narrative thing. Satirists, the good ones, are usually clued into the narratives as a normal part of their critique. I think you’re right about that Letterman moment being insightful.

    These narratives also make writing “political news” easier (re: today’s post).

    You may be right re: the negative theory potential of such a study. Someone needs to get right in it! 🙂

  5. Tim 

    I think master narrative is broader and more complex than the simplistic framing used by journalists and satirists to describe candidates and voters. No question that a simplistic frame can (and often does) become a master narrative. It’s got great (if misleading) explanatory value!

  6. acline 

    Tim… Yes. Now getting journalists to accept and understand the complexity is going to be a real trick.

  7. Should be a good one. Will you delve into the use of the log cabin in the 1840 campaign? There, it was applied at first by Harrison’s opponents in derision, but embraced by his followers and turned into a virtue. Of course, the insult was not that he had been born in a log cabin, but that he would be happy to retire to one (“Harrison is old”). But I suppose the story got muddled along the way, especially with all that hard cider flowing freely from the campaign floats.

    I suppose the log cabin only becomes important once most Americans no longer live in them.

  8. acline 

    Pessen covered the history in his book. So I’m picking up with Reagan and moving from there into the current campaign.