"If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it at election time, " Mark Twain dictated for his autobiography on January 23, 1906. Mostly remembered as "the Lincoln of our literature," Samuel Clemens who became Mark Twain was also the America's first global celebrity, an astute observer and much sought-after commentator on American politics. And his insightful commentary retains an uncanny relevance to the challenges facing contemporary America, as fresh and provocative as any TV "talking head."
Dropping out of school at twelve when his father suddenly died, Sam Clemens was self-educated as a printer's devil, setting type in his brother Orion's Hannibal, Missouri, newspaper shop -- what Abraham Lincoln called a "poor boy's college education." After the Civil War, Twain headed to Washington, D.C., to clerk for Republican Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada. Hordes of railroad, mining and banking lobbyists flooded the corridors of power seeking special favors. Congress picked winners and losers, and money co-opted the legislative process. That his Senate boss chaired the Pacific Railroad Committee while on the dole of the Central Pacific Railroad was simply the way Washington did business -- by bribery, vote-buying and passing legislation that enriched its sponsors. Twain's oft-quoted maxim: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress," reflected the corrupt politics of The Gilded Age, the title of Twain's first novel, written in 1873 with Charles Dudley Warner. It was the epoch of Americans' obsession with getting rich, speculation in the financial markets, the influence of money and lobbyists in Congress, and rising income disparity between the rich and middle class. "The political and commercial morals of the United States," Twain wrote, "are not merely food for laughter -- they are an entire banquet." Contemporary commentators, who have noted recent parallels to the Gilded Age, have invoked another Twain aphorism: "History does not repeat itself; it rhymes."
Within two months, Senator Stewart fired his young legislative aide, and Twain moved over to newspaper row to report on the nation's capital. He mocked the platitudinous rhetoric of Congressmen and the lobbyists who their wrote speeches and their partisan bickering and parliamentary maneuvers like filibusters, repetitive roll calls, meaningless votes and incessant motions. Twain reported on an actual colloquy in the Congressional Globe (predecessor to the Record) in which Illinois Congressman and war hero General "Black Jack" Logan complained that two Congressmen had given exactly the same speech on the House floor a few days apart, written by a lobbyist. Only two? The New York Times reported in 2009 that during the House debate on so-called Obamacare, 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats used the same speech written by a Washington lobbyist.
As he severed his southern roots and moved to New England, Twain did an 180-degree turn on some issues, like race, women's suffrage, the death penalty and free trade. He strongly advocated social and racial justice. In satires like "The Great Beef Contract," he mocked incompetent federal employees appointed under the spoils system. He championed civil service reform. He bitterly attacked America's imperialist engagement in unjust wars and occupation of foreign lands.
Twain never joined a political party. He condemned elected representatives who put "loyalty to party" above "loyalty to country."He campaigned for and against candidates based on their character and record of integrity. "I simply want to see the right man at the helm," he said, "I don't care what his party creed is." Politicians would say anything to get elected and their promises simply didn't add up. He once wrote: "If you would work the multiplication table into the Democratic platform, the Republicans will vote it down at the election." He complained that "in the interest of party expediency," politicians "give solemn pledges; they make solemn compacts." They deliver their "political conscience into someone's else's keeping."
Twain was especially critical of negative campaigning -- mischaracterizing and demonizing the opposition. In "Running for Governor," he runs as a squeaky clean candidate against the corrupt machine, but he is assailed by scurrilous, fabricated attacks. When the press ignores his attempts to correct the record, he is forced to withdraw from the race, "a damaged candidate." Well before the internet, Twain remarked, "A lie can travel halfway around the globe, before the truth can get its shoes on."
Despite his skepticism, Twain passionately believed in representative democracy. As he wrote his dear wife Livy after the Tammany Hall Democrats had been swept from office in an 1893 New York state election, "Now you understand why our system of government is the only rational one that was ever invented. When we are not satisfied, we can change things."
America's success, Twain believed, depends upon educated, informed and engaged citizens, who demand accountability from elected representatives and speak out for reforms. As Mark Twain admonished, in words that retain a contemporary relevance: "It cannot be well, or safe to let the present political conditions continue indefinitely. They can be improved, and American citizenship should rouse up from its disheartenment and see that it is done."