Profound Questions: How Do I Make a President?
Originally published July 5, 2011
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
It's the dream of America that anyone can be president, so why not your ugly kid? You might not have limitless financial resources, Ivy League connections or a drinking buddy in the Freemasons. But you still have a chance to give your little angel a leg up. You can always die.
The key is to leave a vacuum. On a visit to Ferry Farm -- George Washington's boyhood estate, in Fredericksburg, Va. -- once you're done throwing silver dollars at cherry trees, the very friendly staff will walk you down a plausible path of causation. Augustine Washington dies when George is 11. Much of the family wealth goes to older stepbrothers. George's dream of attending an expensive English boarding school dies, and a motivational inferiority complex is born. Needing cash, George dusts off surveying tools he finds in a shed and takes some gigs in the west. His time in the west makes him appealing as a frontier military officer. Military experience makes him a mattress sale icon. You now eat a lot fewer crumpets because Augustine Washington caught a sniffle.
Dying: It's affordable, it's elegant, and it works. Peter Jefferson left 14-year-old Tom to struggle with his mopey mom for control of the family. Nancy Lincoln chugged some bad milk, forcing 9-year-old Abe into character-building conflict with his grumpy dad. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. left 19-year-old Teddy the reins to a dynasty, and a fairly agreeable mom -- who did the right thing and died six years later, on the same day as Teddy's wife, for maximum impact. You won't be around to see your baby carved on a mountain in South Dakota, but isn't it enough to be the chisel?
Just be smart about it. If your kid is already an independent adult, ramming your Prius into the local fireworks factory is an empty gesture. But a kid prematurely forced to take responsibility for his own welfare just might have the extra spine to one day order a nuclear strike on Ottowa. Assuming that becomes necessary.
Selfish types without the guts to expire can go the Joseph Wilson route. As a professor of rhetoric and a minister, Joe must have been disappointed by young Thomas Woodrow. The sickly lad didn't know the alphabet until he was 9, didn't start school until 10 and was an awful student -- he even might have suffered from dyslexia.
So Joe cracked the whip. Once Tommy was barely literate, Joe started springing pop quizzes: he demanded written reports on recent conversations, travels and lectures. Sloppy writing resulted in demands for rewrites -- as many as five per essay. A misused word in conversation resulted in a forced march to the dictionary. The presence of family and friends resulted in merciless father-to-son public teasings. Had swirly technology existed, dad would have given them.
In short, Joe Wilson manufactured a meganerd. Imbued with awkward social skills, a need to please and the iron discipline of an academic, Tommy went from flailing tween to president of Princeton. He literally wrote the book on political science -- a text used in classrooms for decades -- and was the only person qualified to hold the title Dr. President. A man who got awful headaches from reading (and, to be fair, massive strokes) spent his final days surrounded by books in his Washington home.
Nerd your kid up, is the point, for excellent reading habits are right up there with being a white Protestant as a feature shared by most of our leaders. The Stone Library outside Boston, housing the 12,000 books of the Adams dynasty, is a stunning display of the intellectual foundations or our nation. The Spiegel Grove library in Ohio, housing the 12,000 books of Rutherford Hayes alone, is a stunning display of the dedication required to overcome the handicap of being from Ohio. Books are a way forward.
But if reading to your kid is too much effort, and keeling over is still out of the question (sissy), you have one last option. There's a path between trying and dying: incompetence.
Harry Truman was an avowed nerd who claimed to have read every book in the Independence library. He had dreams of being a concert pianist and practiced without any parental prodding. But that didn't mean squat when father John wiped out the family savings investing in grain futures. Forced to swallow his pride, John agreed to work a farm belonging to his in-laws; unable to do it himself, he roped in young Harry, who walked away from office jobs in Kansas City and sacrificed his 20s to keep his family afloat. That awesome sense of duty -- and the humility and work ethic from moving dirt around for a decade -- became an asset when Harry turned to politics.
The Eisenhowers weren't exactly poor, but they were crammed on a small farm in Abilene after father David had almost bankrupted them with some bad business ventures. All his sons had to chip in to keep the farm viable, and that regimented burden might have prepared them for greatness: Dwight beat Hitler, Milton ran Johns Hopkins University, and the rest were successful professionals. Not bad for the sons of a broke mechanic.
While dying forces your kid to take care of himself, and nerdification requires you to take care of your kid, incompetence has your kid taking care of you. It's the laziest option you have, but it still might establish a baseline of confidence that empowers your sweetie to one day order troops to open fire on the Great AARP Riots of 2045. And even you can be incompetent. Just put your money in kelp farms and let Miller High Life do the rest.
That's three options for making your child slightly more likely to one day lose an election to the son of a man with mob ties. Keep that dream alive, parents. For America.