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November 3, 2008

“Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least.”  The quote is attributed to Mark Twain.  Someone once asked my grandfather whom he was going to vote for in a presidential election.  His comment was, “I’ve hardly ever been able to vote for anybody.  I almost always have to vote against somebody.” 

Many of us feel that way this time around. This election is unique in several ways. In this political contest, the comedians of America have played a significant role. The candidates have appeared on late-night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live.” They have been the subjects of stand-up comics and half-hour satire. Comedy has been a significant force as voters make their decisions.

For the past six years, “Time” magazine has published a special issue timed to the Fourth of July. The Making of America series has featured Lewis and Clark, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. In the seventh annual issue, Mark Twain was featured, the first American writer to achieve the kind of fame normally accorded Presidents and generals.

Roy Blount called Mark Twain our original superstar. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, and David Letterman make us laugh at issues that are serious.

Blount is quick to remind us that this stinging satire is not new. Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature could be traced back to Mark Twain. With his white suit, cigar, disheveled hair and moustache, Twin was the first political comedian, the master of one-liners. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said.

“As it happens, many of the issues of our day were also the issues of Twain’s day,” writes Blount, “and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since.”

Andrew Carnegie once remarked to Mark Twain that America is a Christian nation. “Why, Carnegie,” Twain answered, “so is Hell.”




Mark Twain had a talent for detecting hypocrisy. His irreverence could be edgy. When it was funny, it was unsettling.

President Roosevelt shocked the nation by declaring that “In God We Trust” should be removed from United States coins because they “carried the name of God into improper places.” In conversation with Carnegie, Twain responded that “In God We Trust” was a fine motto, “simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well–In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”

The man who said those things came from America’s heart, and he made Americans laugh, especially at themselves.

In the special edition of “Time,” Richard Lacayo wrote of an exchange between Mark Twain and the British poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold. Arnold made two visits to the United States to observe American customs. Eventually he wrote his impressions in a book, “Civilization in the United States.”

Troubled by the way Americans appeared to lack any capacity for reverence toward those in authority, Arnold wrote, “If there be a discipline in which the Americans are wanting, it is the discipline of awe and respect.”

One institution of American life struck Arnold as an especially bad idea. That was what he called “the addiction to the funny man, who is a national misfortune there.”

Six years earlier, he had attacked in his writings the most famous American funny man of all, Mark Twain.

Lacayo wrote of Twain, “He was plain speaking and the kind of deadly wit that could cut through the cant and hypocrisy surrounding any topic, no matter how sensitive: war, sex, religion, even race. Twain was righteous without being pious, angry for all the right reasons and funny in all the right ways. You might say he gave virtue a good name.”

Twain was offended by Arnold’s words and prepared a reply that he never published. It includes the single best one-line defense of how a democratic society works. “A discriminating irreverence,” he wrote, “is the creator and protector of human liberty.”

Tuesday, November 4, is Election Day.  By almost anyone’s estimate, this is one of the most closely contested presidential elections since Harry Truman narrowly won the office in 1948. 

I am ready for the campaigning to be over.  I believe that most of the country is ready to make a decision and move forward with new leadership.  We have all had an overload of rhetoric. 

Mark Twain understood how important it is for people of faith to vote. In the September 2, 1904, edition of Collier’s, again critizing Christians, Twain wrote: ” If the Christians of America could be persuaded to vote, it would bring about a moral revolution that would be incalculably beneficent.  It would save the country.”

Until next Tuesday, I am going to try to become a more informed voter, especially on those wordy amendment issues. I am going to laugh at the jokes and the impersonations.

On Election Day, I am going to have a good breakfast. I will pray for this country and those we will elect. I am going to my voting place, a picturesque old schoolhouse in the county. I am going to wait patiently for my turn and be glad for the large voter turnout. I am going to cast my ballot in secret.  I will be grateful that I enjoy the freedom to do so.

I would urge you to do the same.


Kirk H. Neely

© November 2008

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