Throughout much of our history, minor candidates have jumped into the lake of presidential politics, some making a splash.
In his latest, screenwriter, playwright, and author Stein (Vice Capades: Sex, Drugs, and Bowling From the Pilgrims to the Present, 2017, etc.), whose 2008 book How the States Got Their Shapes was adapted into a History Channel series, focuses on American politicians—well, sort-of politicians. Beginning in 1848, the author escorts us through the election cycles, pausing to focus on a particular fringe candidate, providing a bit of background on the candidate and speculating about what that person’s candidacy told us about ourselves—and what it could bode for the future. Some of the names will be familiar to most readers, including Joseph Smith, Victoria Woodhull, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Pat Paulsen, Eldridge Cleaver, Stephen Colbert, and Roseanne Barr. Yet other names—and nicknames—will doubtless be new to most: Leonard “Live Forever” Jones, who claimed to be immortal; Gabriel Green, who represented the Universal Flying Saucer Party; Pigasus, a domestic pig put forth by the Youth International Party in 1968; Vermin Supreme; and the Naked Cowboy. Stein treats each candidate with a rubber band of seriousness—for some, there are stretches—and quotes liberally from various sources, both print and online. The author also deals with a variety of “firsts”—the first woman, the first African American, the first “transhumanist,” and so on. He discusses how the internet and social media have propelled a number of folks into presidential prominence, including “Deez Nuts,” who turned out to be a teenager from Iowa. The author’s tone varies throughout, from amused to ironic to admonitory. Donald Trump lumbers in from time to time, but, as Stein notes, he is hardly the first to be called “the clown in the White House”: Lincoln, for one, preceded him.
Informative and entertaining, forcing American readers to take some glances into what at times is an unflattering mirror.