Friday, February 17, 2012

A Presidential Candidate

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion

Detail from “Mark Twain, America’s best humorist,” cartoon by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, from the December 16, 1885, issue of Puck. Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
A previous Story of the Week featured Abraham Lincoln’s autobiographical sketch written for his 1860 presidential run. This week we* offer as a follow-up the sort of “campaign memoir” that could have been written only by Mark Twain.

“Mark Twain as a Presidential Candidate” appeared in 1879, the year before the race between James A. Garfield, the Republican candidate, and Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democrat. Although Twain found much to ridicule in politics and politicians, he was hardly reluctant to get involved or curry favor. A jubilant supporter of Garfield’s bid for the presidency, he delivered a mocking “funeral oration” for the Democratic Party at an election night victory celebration in Hartford. (His somber tone initially fooled many in the audience.) In Boston for another celebration four days later, he recounted the excitement of the campaign:

. . . everybody thought a thunderbolt would be launched out of the political sky. I judged it would hit somebody, and believed that somebody would be the Democratic party, and that it would hit them faithfully. I did not believe we had much to fear on the Republican side, because I believed we had a good and trustworthy lightning rod in James A. Garfield.

In January 1881 Twain wrote “as a simple citizen” to President-elect Garfield and urged him to retain Frederick Douglass “in his present office as the Marshall [sic] of the District of Columbia.” As U.S. Marshal, Douglass presided over the inauguration of President Garfield, leading him into the Capitol for the ceremony on March 4. Before his first year as President was cut short by assassination, Garfield appointed Douglass as the District of Columbia’s first African American Recorder of Deeds.

Coincidentally, on the day Garfield was shot (July 2, 1881), Mrs. Clemens received a disturbing letter from a friend in London, consoling her for Mark Twain’s death in Australia. (As it happens, the man Down Under was an impostor.) Twain immediately sent a response, “Being dead I might be excused from writing letters, but I am not that kind of a corpse. May I never be so dead as to neglect the hail of a friend from a far land.”

Toward the end of his life, Twain summed up his views on politics: “The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet”—and over the course of his career he gladly filled the role of maĆ®tre d’.

* We refer to ourselves as we with hesitation, knowing that the following quote is often attributed to Twain: “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial we.” But, with some relief, we have confirmed that there’s no evidence Twain ever said it.

*   *   *
I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. 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. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.