During the sectional crisis of 1860, for example, Republicans promoted Abraham Lincoln as “the railsplitter,” the self-made man who sought to remake the nation by prohibiting the spread of slavery. Twenty years later, amid Southern terrorism and Northern corruption, Republicans declared that their candidate James A. Garfield was “the ideal candidate because he is the ideal self-made man.” Voters agreed and elected him. More recently, in the wake of a presidential sex scandal and impeachment proceedings, Republicans trumpeted George W. Bush as a self-made man who had “battled and defeated his own inner demons” by discovering Jesus and being born again.
It is thus no accident that last November, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as John McCain and Sarah Palin, were championed by supporters as different versions of the self-made man or woman and decried by opponents as being falsely or insufficiently self-made. Amid the worst economic crisis since 1929, Obama, Biden, and Palin continually emphasized their rise from modest roots, while McCain drew attention to his struggle up from POW to a politician who put “country first.” A central theme of the 2008 campaign was that bringing “the change our country needs” would require a self-made person at the helm.
The original meaning of a “self-made man,” coined in 1832 by Henry Clay, the leader of the reform-minded Whig Party, denoted someone who had risen up from lowly origins and sought to improve his world. In remaking themselves, self-made men also reformed society.
Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the two preeminent self-made men in American history, both emphasized this point. As Douglass put it, true self-made men waged war on evil and injustice; they served their “fellow men on earth” and “God in Heaven.” Lincoln’s goal of self-making also began with the self and extended into society: “I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition.” For Lincoln (the archetypal self-made president) and Douglass (the former slave who became the most famous black man in the western world), the very existence of slavery precluded the possibility of self-making and a reformed nation.
Southerners articulated a different version of self-making, one that was defined by wealthy and slave owning. In many respects, Lincoln’s Southern counterpart was Nathan Bedford Forrest. Like Lincoln, Forrest was born dirt poor in a log cabin in a border slave state, had no formal education, and earned money as a rail splitter. But he became a successful slave trader, and by the eve of the Civil War was a multi-millionaire. He spent the rest of his life trying to preserve the old order of white supremacy in the South, first by fighting as a Confederate cavalry general, and then by founding the Ku Klux Klan.
During the Gilded Age, as growing inequalities of wealth and the rise of big business made it increasingly difficult to struggle up from poverty, the concept of self-making expanded. Now anyone (no matter how elite in origin) could become a self-made man as long as he remade himself by overcoming adversity and rising high enough. In eulogies to J.P. Morgan, journalists declared that “in him were the qualities of the self-made man,” because he overcame his ugliness and the “ambition-destroying handicap of having been born rich” and ascended “as many rounds of the ladder as did many other financiers who began with nothing.” Self-making also expanded to include the “self-made woman.” The first book by that title appeared in 1873, urging women to struggle up and persevere until they were the equals of men.
These two versions of the self-made man—-the one born of lowly origins who rises up, the other who remakes himself through adversity—have persisted from the nineteenth-century’s Gilded Age through the one that just ended, sometimes competing. During these years, almost half the nation’s presidents—Garfield, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, the younger Bush, and Obama—campaigned on reform platforms and portrayed themselves as self-made (or remade) men.
If Lincoln is the ultimate self-made man, then Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt are exemplars of remade men. Distant cousins, they came from families of enormous New York wealth. As a boy, Theodore was called a “sissy,” as one scholar noted. Physically weak and timid, he suffered from asthma and other illnesses. But by championing the “strenuous life” of boxing, weight-lifting, hunting, and combat, he remade himself to such a degree that a Harvard classmate called him “the most self-made man in America.” His political success stemmed partly from his ability to turn remaking into an authentic image of self-making.
When Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, he faced a genuine self-made man in Herbert Hoover, who had been born into poverty. But most Americans viewed Roosevelt as the superior self-made man because he had struggled up from the crippling effects of polio to become governor of New York. Americans saw in his withered legs something of their own blighted condition, and his tone of confidence gave them hope that they too, could overcome. According to the historian Michael Parrish, “crutches became FDR’s log cabin.”
Kennedy had more difficulty than the Roosevelts convincing voters of his self-made or remade status, largely because his father was famously wealthy and had groomed him from youth to be president. This difficulty almost cost Kennedy the election. In 1960, with communism and economic stagnation perceived as major threats, self-making was a key campaign theme, and most of Kennedy’s opponents regaled voters with stories of their childhood poverty. His Republican opponent, vice-president Richard Nixon, was well-known as a self-made man, having come from humble Quaker roots. But he weakened his ticket’s image by choosing for his running mate the Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge. Kennedy’s campaign slogan, “The New Frontier,” linked him with the image of the cowboy, often seen as a self-made man. Kennedy also emphasized that his father was self-made. And he selected as his running mate Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who embodied the rags-to-riches odyssey. “When I was young, poverty was so common we didn’t know it had a name,” Johnson frequently said. He bolstered the ticket’s image and helped Kennedy win Southern votes. Had Kennedy been more effective in portraying himself as a self-made or remade man, by drawing attention to (rather than ignoring) his ability to persevere through debilitating ailments, the election probably would not have been so close. As it was, he won by only 100,000 of 69 million votes.
Historically, voters more easily forgive the silver spoon in Democrats than in Republicans. This is because Republicans have been more deeply committed to the image of the self-made man, frequently coupling it with the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. Yet during the Republican ascendancy from 1980-2006, with Democrats increasingly demanding change at the polls, they have also come to appreciate the power of the self-made image. Indeed, during the past thirty years, the only Democratic president before Obama, Bill Clinton, was a quintessential self-made man, having grown up poor in small-town Arkansas. This leveling out of the concept reflected the fervor with which the 2008 presidential candidates from both parties sold themselves as self-made men or women.
This brings me to the 2008 campaign. Obama and McCain each cast himself as a self-made or remade man, ran on a platform of change, and sought to claim his version of self-making as the most “authentic.” Obama, the son of a poor white mother who at times resorted to food stamps, and an African father who abandoned her, attended private schools on scholarship and became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and the third black senator since Reconstruction. Like Frederick Douglass, he became world-famous before the age of forty on the strength of a bestselling autobiography. And he identifies deeply with Lincoln’s story of self-making. In launching his presidential bid, he declared that “the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.”
By choosing Joe Biden as his running mate, Obama teamed up with another self-made man in the original sense of the term. A child of working-class parents, Biden overcame a severe stutter before entering public service. Obama’s and Biden’s self-made image, coupled with their platform of change, was a keynote of the Democratic convention; and they emphasized their rags-to-riches stories on the campaign trail. The 2008 Democratic ticket was unusual in having a genuine, double self-made billing.
Some Republican tried to portray McCain as “a self-made common man” while calling Obama “an elitist,” in the hopes of convincing voters that their candidate more closely followed in the tradition of Lincoln. But this was a hard sell, since McCain is the son and grandson of decorated four-star admirals, attended a prestigious prep school before entering the Naval Academy, and is married to one of the wealthiest women in America.
McCain has been much more effective at crafting the image of a remade man in the tradition of TR and FDR. Retelling his prisoner-of-war story at the Republican convention, he described how he was reborn through adversity: “They worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me. . . . I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.” In remaking himself, McCain became newly self-made.
McCain’s wife Cindy linked him to her family’s own self-made story. On the campaign trail she followed Kennedy by emphasizing that her father was a classic rags-to-riches guy: he “had nothing,” she told ABC News last August. “I’m proud of what my dad and my mother did and what they built and left me.”
Sarah Palin briefly energized the Republican ticket in much the same way that Johnson had helped legitimate Kennedy’s vision of a New Frontier. Female voters in particular were hungry for a compelling image of the self-made woman, and the tough-talking Palin, who comes from a modest, small-town family, was “the living definition of a self-made woman,” according to the journalist Michael Hayutin. When Palin became his running mate, McCain began competing with Obama in the realm of self-making, and thus over a vision of reform, which was the central issue of the election. But after Palin betrayed her stunning ignorance of politics, geography, and history, Democrats vigorously and successfully attacked her self-made image: she had not transformed herself, they argued, but rather was the same, stupid country girl she had always been.
Democrats also tried to undermine McCain’s remade image. In a long Rolling Stone article published a month before the election, Tim Dickinson argued that McCain’s Vietnam experience did not change him, other than to make him even more ambitious: “he’s still the undisciplined, spoiled brat that he was when he went” to Vietnam, he quoted a former POW as saying. But Dickinson’s prickly tone disabused few people of McCain’s remade image. Besides, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being transformed after spending five years in a POW camp and being tortured repeatedly.
Republicans similarly (and less successfully) tried to chip away at the authenticity of Obama’s self-made image. To some critics, Obama came across as too polished, too articulate, too disciplined. They exploited the popular belief, especially among Republicans, that Americans want to see themselves in a candidate. They want their candidates to be amateur or “imperfect servants,” as McCain says of himself (he plays the role well), rather than a supremely gifted, professional and disciplined campaigner and orator like Obama, who actually writes some of his own speeches.
In this respect, Obama resembles a professional athlete. For many Americans, professional athletes are “our culture’s holy men,” as David Foster Wallace shrewdly noted; “they give themselves over to a pursuit, endure great privation and pain to actualize themselves at it, and enjoy a relationship to perfection that we admire and reward. . . . They do it ‘for’ us, sacrifice themselves for our (we imagine) redemption.”
But Republicans, who see government as the problem, would never equate professional athletes with politicians. If athletes are their holy men, politicians are their policemen. And the police deal with problems, which are always messy. One Republican ad cast Obama as a “self-made messiah.” To a star athlete, this would be a term of endearment; but it was meant to be a put-down, connoting arrogance and elitism.
In another critique of Obama’s self-making, detractors compared him to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. He was, like Gatsby, mysterious and unknowable, a stranger, a “romantic but insubstantial figure,” and “a man of false dreams” who was not who he seems.
But critics who liken Obama to Gatsby ignore two crucial points. First, despite his flaws, Gatsby is, with Lincoln, one of the great self-made men in the American imagination. Indeed, in one of the most important lines in the novel, the narrator Nick Carraway tells Gatsby: “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” In a society of cheaters and cynics and careless people who “smashed things up” and then “retreated back into their money,” Gatsby stands apart through his “incorruptible dream” and his willingness to realize it. He is, like Obama, audaciously hopeful.
Moreover, by invoking Gatsby critics inadvertently played the race card. Gatsby’s mysteriousness and strangeness stems more from his identity as an ethnic outsider who passes for a WASP than from his self-making. His given name, Jay Gatz, is probably Jewish. Even more significant is the fact that Fitzgerald first conceived him as a light-skinned black who passed. Thus, critics who linked Obama to Gatsby, and dwelled on his strangeness and mysteriousness, unconsciously echoed white characterizations of ethnic and racial outsiders during an era (the 1920s) of virulent racism and anti-Semitism.
The concept of self-making was as important in the 2008 election as it has ever been. While Americans generally prefer image over issues, the two were closely linked last November: after all, they were voting for the self-made man who they hoped would remake a nation reeling from domestic and foreign crises.
Most political analysts have concluded that Obama won last November owing to economic free-fall in the months leading up to election. But they are wrong, for they ignore the power of genuine self-making. What actually happened was that Obama persuaded voters that he was more like Lincoln than Gatsby, and that his doubly self-made ticket was authentic. Indeed, his self-made persona not only defeated McCain; it trumped the racism that continues to plague America. As Frederick Douglass noted long ago, the art of self-transformation can break down racial barriers.