"But Huck, we can’t let you in the gang if you ain’t respectable, you know."
Some version of this betrayal is, regretfully, often performed by most Americans who would be president. Or mayor. Or chairman of the board. The upwardly mobile Tom says the words to the stubbornly downriver Huck at the end of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
It’s one of the saddest and truest moments in American storytelling. And there are portents and divinations in the tale with no little relevance to our political future.
At the point in the novel when Tom says these words, he’s won Becky Thatcher’s heart, found the hidden treasure, and escaped the now-dead Injun Joe. All of his success is, of course, accidental. It was his own poor judgment that got him and Becky lost in the cave. Only luck got them out. But that doesn’t stop his glorification.
"Why, Tom might even be president some day," says a proud Aunt Polly at the end of the 1938 film version of Tom Sawyer. "If they don’t hang him first." Her tease is a traditional "isn’t-he-just-rowdy-enough" comic criticism. Aunt Polly can tell the presidential timber from the scrub. What’s required is a little (apparently) victimless misbehavior of the kind that somehow reinforces and never threatens the social order. Key is a willingness to sacrifice friendship and the welfare of others as proof of loyalty to the powers that be. That’s the right stuff, in America.
Political scientist Catherine H. Zuckert captures (pdf) Twain’s point about the Tom Sawyers we choose to lead us:
…Twain suggests, we should recognize the true character of the beast. People like Tom Sawyer serve others not for the sake of the others; they serve because they glory in receiving glory. And they are perfectly willing, indeed, happy to use immoral and illegal means. We should reward such people with the fame they so desire-if and when they perform real public services. But we should not trust them. We should recognize that they are always scheming to "take" us. We should regularly remind them that we do not enjoy being "sold." We should hold them-and force them to hold others-responsible.
Tom’s betrayal of Huck on behalf of convention and social success gets to a wrenching truth about us. No matter our preferred puffery, whether it’s of the rugged-individual or the takes-a-village kind, we’re mostly keen on conformity. In the New World we’re strictly old hat, and the comfortable topper fits many of us too well.
How easily we forget that the Great American Cowboy is usually an obedient employee of powerful interests. The gallows, pillories and scarlet letters of our model villages (Salem is probably the best known village name) are hidden behind fetes of conviviality and tolerance.
But Twain’s not done with this tale. As he said in his notebook, the subsequent Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is "a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat." As Twain explains, conscience is just a "thing" so easily deformed that it can justify slavery.
There are moments when Huck is sorely tempted by an overwhelming desire for social acceptance. His conscience hurts, not for Jim, the slave he’s taking to freedom, but for his own alienation from society. As Denis Donoghue has pointed out (see his page 238), Twain shows us that conscience is such a nimble tool of conformity that Huck feels guilty about freeing a slave.
But it’s just here that Huck’s sound heart prevails over deformed conscience. Huck composes a letter to Miss Watson informing her that Jim’s been captured by the Phelpses, a letter that would end Jim’s dream of freedom. But Huck doesn’t send it, explaining:
…I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind…It was a close place. I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.’
That’s Huck’s triumph, a triumph completed when he rejects Tom’s proposed couple of weeks of pretend "howling adventures," and instead decides to truly "light out for the territory" alone and "ahead of the rest."
American elections are fairly alive with Twain’s insights and prophecies, but what are some of the political portents of Huck’s and Tom’s adventures?
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are perfect little Toms. They are just roguish enough to slake our thirst for illusions of freedom, but at bottom so willing to sacrifice the dreams of others for their own gain that they easily meet the admission requirements for leadership in America.
Twain himself once joked that Teddy Roosevelt was Tom become president. Even Ronald Reagan played the role, shrugging off his frequent confusions and even the Iran/Contra scandal as harmless and charming bobbles, nothing more serious than muddy footprints on the parlor floor.
Clinton is no Bush; he gave us moments of hope, and if nothing else forestalled the American Right’s pursuit of unchallenged domestic rule and global empire, silly Victorian fantasies with no chance of success in a world of subtle challenges far beyond the cognitive grasp of your average Manichea-con.
Still, the quips of Chris Rock and Toni Morrison that Clinton was America’s first black president are off the mark. Clinton is a Tom Sawyer, and Tom Sawyer was white, white, white, and so are his heirs.
The Tom Sawyer path to presidency is not open to Barack Obama. American culture will not allow Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate, to get near the role of Tom. There is no acceptable level of harmless roguishness for Obama. Muddying up the parlor floor would doom him.
John McCain, on the other hand, is another perfect little Tom. McCain coldly abandoned his first wife, Carol, after she was disfigured in an accident. You can hear McCain deliver Tom’s words of betrayal: "Carol, I can’t let you in the gang if you ain’t respectable you know."
McCain’s mistakes and corruptions, his feeble grasp of issues, his betrayal of his first wife, all feed into his image as a safe, mild "maverick." The same was true of Bush and Clinton.
In America, the betrayal of an individual, especially in the pursuit of power or wealth, is acceptable. In fact, it’s expected, maybe required. It’s a right of passage that proves to the powers that be that no unsanitary horizontal loyalties will jeopardize allegiance to their power.
So how do we undo a Tom Sawyer like John McCain? What’s not acceptable is a betrayal of the town. Imagine the reaction from Judge Thatcher or Aunt Polly if it was discovered that Tom had been in cahoots with Injun Joe the whole time? That sort of betrayal is not forgiven. That’s where McCain might be vulnerable. We should focus on his betrayals – not of his ex-wife – but of America.
What about Barack Obama? He needs to run as a Huck Finn. And that means he runs as the Sound Heart opposed to the Deformed Conscience. While avoiding sanctimony and preachiness, Obama should choose at every turn to refuse betrayals. And he should tell us so. This doesn’t mean he should become an inflexible ideologue. It means he should take seriously the themes of hope and change, and be very careful about taking expedient, compromising paths.
Obama shouldn’t go out of his way to unpopular policies, but Americans are not going to choose Obama because he’s moved closer to so-called moderate views on this or that issue. That wouldn’t be in character. It would look more like Eddie Haskell obsequiousness, and there’s nothing of the Sound Heart in that. Obama needs to make sense within a narrative American voters know in their bones.
No matter what the issue, figuratively speaking Obama must never send the letter to Aunt Polly. All he has is his Sound Heart, and he will lose if he sends it away in the mail.
There’s a well-respected theory, advanced a few years ago by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, that Twain based Huck’s powerful, colorful and emotionally resonant language on a black child, Jimmy, Twain met back in the Midwest. In other words, Huck was black.
That raises a vexing question. What of Jim, the slave Huck leads to freedom? Isn’t it the case that Obama is less like Huck and more like Jim who’s come steaming back upriver to speak for the millions too long denied voice?
Is there something unseemly in the suggestion that the first black person to become a major party’s candidate for president of the United States should pose as a white character from a 19th Century novel? Does it matter that Huck may have been our first black literary hero in a way Clinton was never our first black president? Does it matter that Huck chooses, heroically, to free his friend rather than conform to the deformed conscience of his time?
As Huck said, the question is a close place. Confound it, it’s a place only a deformed conscience could avoid.