Class of 2000 Projects the Grit, Not the Gravy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 1999; Page A1
The cabin is small and drafty, built of logs cut from the wilderness. When the wind blows through the chinks, the lamplight gutters. Lying in the dark, a lonely frontier family can hear the scream of a panther outside. On a quilt sleeps a child who will someday be president of the United States.
You know this cabin. All Americans know it. It is Abe Lincoln's cabin, or Andrew Jackson's. Greatness found in common places -- is that not the American essence? Almost from the beginning, voters have demanded presidents who have won a hard, brave fight with life.
It is, says former presidential speech writer Paul Begala, "what makes us exceptional. It's our middle class, our poor, our system that makes us special. When we choose an executive, we want that myth writ large."
The only log cabins we're likely to encounter in this election are summer houses and ski chalets. All of the top six candidates in 2000 come from prosperous families.
There is George W. Bush. His millionaire father was president and his grandfather was a senator. Steve Forbes, the richest of the six, inherited control of a magazine empire founded by his grandfather. John McCain is the son and grandson of four-star admirals, while Elizabeth Dole comes from a family that flourished in the wholesale flower business.
The Democrats? Same story. Vice President Gore, the son of a senator, faces Bill Bradley, the son of a bank president.
Conservative activist Gary Bauer, a Republican, is the leading candidate able to claim lowly origins, which he does in nearly every speech.
This depth of privilege may be something new. Certainly, we have had general elections where one rich kid ran against another. In 1988, George Bush the Elder faced Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, a doctor's son. But the primaries that year included Republican Robert J. Dole and Democrat Jesse L. Jackson, two self-made men from humble roots.
Campaign 2000 is shaping up to be a battle of the rich against the well-to-do. A hard fight with life? Consider this: Among the leading candidates, two graduated from Princeton, one each from Harvard, Yale, Duke and the U.S. Naval Academy.
These privileged backgrounds may only intensify the need for candidates to show that they've been humbled and have triumphed, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
"If a candidate is someone born to privilege, it is very important to show that he or she has gone through fire," Beschloss explains. His example: Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose image as a wealthy lightweight, coasting on the name of his presidential cousin Theodore, was transformed by his ordeal with polio.
Or take John F. Kennedy, son of a phenomenally rich man. Even after his election, he still dispensed mementos on special occasions commemorating his heroism after the sinking of PT-109.
So far, Arizona Sen. John McCain trails the front-runners in polls and in fund-raising. But in this category he is way ahead.
"Faith of My Fathers," McCain's newly published memoir, tells a harrowing and inspiring story of trial and triumph. McCain presents himself as a cavalier young man who is swept into the Naval Academy as a matter of course.
He is the scion of one of the Navy's leading families. (His mother is the daughter of a rich oilman.) But as a young man McCain had few successes of his own. Indeed, he emphasizes his lackluster early record; the chapter recounting his graduation from Annapolis is called "Fifth From the Bottom."
Then he is shot down over North Vietnam and becomes a prisoner of war. For more than five years, he endures a sickening array of tortures and deprivations, never losing his humanity and humility, and emerges from his ordeal strengthened in his patriotism and imbued with a sense of purpose.
This gripping book has landed McCain on all the television shows he can handle, and as he travels to promote it, admirers by the hundreds are thronging bookstores to get his autograph.
Earlier this month, Democrat Bill Bradley polished his version of the myth. He announced his candidacy in Crystal City, Mo., then took reporters on a tour of his humble hometown. He fielded questions beneath the basketball hoop in his old backyard.
Bradley struck a false note in his speech, when he tried to contrast himself with candidates born with "a famous family name" or "great wealth." In truth, his hometown was humble, but his childhood certainly wasn't. As a boy, his family took luxury cruises and wintered in Palm Beach; he had to prevail on his parents to stay in town year-round so he could go out for the high school basketball team.
But the hoop reminded everyone of Bradley's countless hours of single-minded drill and discipline in pursuit of basketball excellence. He was not the tallest, or the fastest, or the most agile boy, but he made the Hall of Fame.
Elizabeth Hanford Dole excelled at Duke, sojourned in Oxford, traveled in Europe, studied law at Harvard and arrived in Washington with nary a student loan debt. After a few years of drawing a modest government salary, she bought a big apartment at the Watergate. But she highlights her tribulations, constantly drawing on her experience as a woman in the man's world of politics and government.
(The Dole name raises an interesting question. If voters want tribulation and triumph, why wasn't Bob Dole -- raised in mean circumstances and grievously wounded in war -- swept to victory? Beschloss offers the theory that Dole spent his adult life trying to overcome his disabilities by appearing ordinary. He couldn't shift gears to highlight his pain and endurance.)
For others, the themes are less clear. For Forbes, the entire subject appears hopeless. In 1996, a writer for Vanity Fair reported: "I asked Steve Forbes to tell me about the setbacks he had experienced as a young man, and he mentioned disappointments he had had at boarding school."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush has cast himself as a latter-day Henry V. As Shakespeare tells it, Henry as a young man was the roisterous and ne'er-do-well Prince Hal, the consummate party guy, pal of Falstaff and assorted less likable lowlifes. But when it came time to fill his father's shoes, Prince Hal straightened up and was a better man for having known sin.
In telling his life, Bush hints darkly about having been "young and irresponsible," but says he overcame his failings and now knows firsthand the value of virtue. He found God, conquered alcohol and made his fortune; now he is ready to pick up his father's torch.
Hanging over Al Gore is the image of lucky little Eloise, the girl who grew up in the Plaza Hotel. Gore's father was a senator from Tennessee who kept his family in a suite at the old Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row. Young Gore attended prep school at St. Albans, then headed off to Harvard.
The vice president has struggled to show voters that he has been tested. In his convention speeches in 1992 and 1996, he dwelled on tragedies he has endured: the near-death of his son in an auto accident; the loss of his sister to tobacco-related cancer. More recently, he evoked his family farm in Carthage, Tenn., boasting of his skill at plowing a field. He was hooted down on the nation's op-ed pages.
"Why don't these guys 'fess up?" asks Begala, a Gore supporter who nonetheless feels the image of young Gore at the plow won't scour. "Of course he is a child of power and privilege, but I still think he can make a plausible and powerful populist case."
Begala sketches a possible speech for the vice president. "I think he should say: 'George Bush and I both were born on third base. The difference is, I didn't think I hit a triple. It's a blessing from the American system, none of which I deserved. The question is: What have you done to redeem that?' "
Who knows exactly why American voters so desperately want an up-from-the-depths, out-of-the-ashes story? Some historians say it's all about democracy, a ratification of the core principle that anyone can aspire to be president. Some suggest it is a way of testing the character of the people who wish to represent the nation.
What's clear is that this runs deep. It predates television. It was as true in the smoke-filled room as in the era of the open primary. In the spring of 1860, supporters of Abraham Lincoln worried that, despite the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, he had no gripping public identity. He was a well-connected lawyer in Springfield, Ill., with some rich railroads for clients.
Mindful of Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson and William "Tippecanoe" Harrison (who was the first president who claimed to have been born in a log cabin), several Lincoln men began digging into the candidate's background. They found little but poverty and hard work. But they needed a symbol, so they journeyed to a farm where Lincoln had worked as a young man, and returned with two rough-hewn rails from a fence that he had built.
At the climax of the Illinois Republican convention, these supporters marched into the hall carrying the rails, draped in bunting. The audience rose and cheered. From then on Lincoln was known foremost as a man of the American frontier -- the Rail Splitter.
The theme repeats itself in many variations. There is Dwight Eisenhower reflecting at his boyhood home on the Kansas prairie that "we had so much fun we never knew we were poor." Richard Nixon spoke often of his father's business failures and titled his first memoir "Six Crises." Ronald Reagan reminisced of childhood days in humble Dixon, Ill., and Bill Clinton distilled his story into an unforgettable tag line: "I still believe in a place called Hope."
It gets us nearly every time. No matter how rich and powerful America becomes, we'll always be peering through the oilpaper window of that little cabin, searching for our future.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company