George Washington threw a dollar coin across the Delaware, George Dubya, the onetime “Texas Prince Hal yearning to become Henry V,” throws missiles at Iraq. Who can tell how the spin will play?
Writes Cornog, associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, once-upon-a-time stories sell candidates and make legacies, and any president worth his salt has taken great pains to see to it that his story—the “crafted presidential narrative” of the subtitle—is shaped and then told to maximum advantage. Nixon got it right (thanks in large part to then-speechwriter and now apostate conservative Kevin Phillips) when he ran with the notion that he was representing the “silent majority,” the nonprotesting, law-abiding taxpayers of Anytown USA; through Nixon’s dogged sticking to that very story, writes Cornog, “the term ‘silent majority’ successfully established itself in public discourse, doing its master’s bidding faithfully.” Nixon got it wrong before that selfsame court of public opinion when, on his way out the Oval Office door post-Watergate, he snuffled that no one would write a book about his sainted mother, an episode that more Americans are inclined to remember about the fallen president. It’s all wheel-of-fortune stuff: as Cornog provocatively notes, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq may have in some regard been an effort to rewrite the ending of his father’s administration, which isn’t remembered for much of anything save squandering victory in the first Gulf War, and that wheel is still in spin; we could end up with two bad stories, not one. And though Americans, Cornog asserts, like fairy tales, like to hear that their president enjoys “the happy family that we all wish were true of our own,” they don’t much enjoy excessive moralizing—which is why the nation never really loved Jimmy Carter but was inclined to forgive Bill Clinton his indiscretions and Ronald Reagan his dopiness.
Interesting and enjoyable reading for the election year, with a bonus story among many other presidential narratives: the origins of the Baby Ruth candy bar.