Here’s a late-summer quiz: Which of these creation myths was not claimed by an American politician speaking at a national convention? (1) My grandfather arrived in this country with $100 sewn into his underpants; (2) I’m only here because my grandmother’s tripe stew won a contest, and the winnings allowed my brother and me to escape from hospital; (3) My grandparents arrived at Ellis Island with only a bag of rocks and a potato shaped like Mae West.
Yes, you guessed it: No. 3. But would anyone have been surprised if a candidate at the Republican or Democratic conventions had wept proud tears over his grandparents’ Mae West spud, which would have fed five children but was finally sold to send them all to college?
It was amusing to watch the Republicans in Tampa and the Democrats in Charlotte try to out-hardscrabble each other. Here you had members of the political elite, headlining their respective parties’ powerpaloozas, frantically trying to distance themselves from any associations with elites. I pictured them scrambling through family Bibles and battered trunks, searching for a dirty fingernail here, a bankruptcy notice there, and finally screaming: “He sold rags! Hallelujah!”
Both conventions began to resemble the Monty Python sketch in which a group of old Yorkshiremen try to crank up the horrors of their childhoods, until one wins by claiming he had to drink a cup of sulphuric acid every night before being murdered by his father. It was hard to know whether to feel sorrier for Elizabeth Warren (Harvard law professor, Democratic Senate candidate), whose mom had to work the phones at Sears after her daddy had a heart attack, or Paul Ryan (Wisconsin congressman, Republican vice-presidential nominee), whose mom had to take the bus 40 miles to work every morning after his dad died. It was a bit like poverty bingo. Tonight, everyone’s a loser!
You had to look to the grandparents for true suffering. South Dakota Senator John Thune’s granddad arrived from Norway knowing no English except “apple pie” and “coffee” – which seems a bit convenient, but maybe he was sharing a tramp steamer with the grandpa of the guy who founded Starbucks. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s grandparents “homesteaded the prairies with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and their faith in God.” They were marshmallows compared with Rick Santorum’s granddad, who was still mining coal at 72. (Did anyone consider he might have been trying to get away from his family?) Ann Romney’s grandpa was a coal miner, too, from a Welsh village called Nantyffyllon, which was so poor it couldn’t afford vowels.
And then we had the ultimate misery match, between the newlywed Romneys and the newlywed Obamas. It was like watching two couples compete for the lead roles in a college production of Barefoot in the Park. The young-and-in-love Romneys survived on pasta and tuna, served on an ironing-board dinner table. (If my dad were the governor of Michigan and I was eating off an ironing board, there’d be some angry words at Thanksgiving, let me tell you.) The young-and-in-love Obamas had more college debt than income, and Michelle had to tolerate Barack’s dumpster-dived coffee table. If O. Henry were alive, he’d be putting it all in a Christmas story.
The only people who avoided the hardship narrative were the ones who knew they couldn’t, in good conscience, go there. Caroline Kennedy and Jeb Bush didn’t even try to make us feel their deprivation. What was Jeb Bush going to say? “There was this one CIA Christmas party, and Dad came home with a Castro doll, but the remote-control exploding cigar was missing, and I wrote to Santa, but then my brother said Santa wouldn’t answer because he was a communist, too, and Christmas was ruined.”
The triumph-over-adversity shtick has been around forever, right? Bill Clinton quoted the legendary Democratic operator Bob Strauss as saying, “Every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself,” a reference to Lincoln, the log-cabin president who dragged himself up by his bootstraps. Interestingly, a former Clinton speechwriter, Ted Widmer, wrote in The New York Times about how reluctant Lincoln was to trade on that humble past.
In 1861, Lincoln travelled to Illinois, unannounced and unaccompanied, to visit his stepmother. He talked to some schoolchildren there about the hardships of his past, something he rarely did. As Mr. Widmer writes, “Unlike today’s politicians, for whom every childhood challenge is an opportunity for publicity, Lincoln was reticent to a fault about the traumas of his youth. He had conquered all that – why go back there?”
Why go back there, indeed? Because these are shinier times, and politicians know there’s something valuable buried in all that dirt: votes.