[15 February 2009]
American presidential election history is littered with the political detritus of many noble – and not so noble – figures. Some were candidates for the highest office in the land and some just happened to be there at the time. There were those who ran for the highest office of the land, were unsuccessful and then faded gracefully. Their names are remembered more for their pop culture value than anything else. So, for example, although Thomas Dewey was once a famed federal prosecutor, district attorney and then governor of New York, he is usually remembered for the infamous picture of an ebullient and victorious Harry Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with its headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman”, which is what the Tribune forecasted for the 1948 election.
The same can be said for Alfred “Alf” Landon, a two-term governor of Kansas and early oil baron, who ran for the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1936. Although he was absolutely crushed by FDR, the real shock was that Landon had been predicted to win, most notably by the Literary Digest, which conducted a massive and poorly constructed public opinion survey. The debacle would eventually cause the Literary Digest to fold completely.
Then there are those presidential candidates who lose and are bitter as hell about it. We remember these kindred souls for either the things they said that caused their campaigns and aspirations to implode, or for the bad luck they just happened to run into. An obvious choice for this category would be the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., who was the quadrennial African-American presidential candidate in the pre-Obama days. Although a respected civil rights activist in his own right, Rev. Jackson always just seemed to have the wrong thing to say at the wrong time. As the Bobby Knight of politics, Jackson’s defining moment came in during his 1984 presidential bid when he referred to Jews as “hymies” and New York as, naturally, “Hymietown”.
But, then there are the people who never ran for president or had any outward political ambitions, but just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Their origins and intentions are innocuous at the onset, but grow feverishly in the public eye once they get a taste of the celebrity life. Thomas Joseph Wurzelbacher is such a man. Wurzelbacher was just your average middle-class Ohio plumber who, in the words of Dennis Leary, probably liked “football and porno and books about war.”
But in October 2008, while playing football with his son on his front yard, Wurzelbacher actually had the chance to meet then Senator Barack Obama, who was going door-to-door meeting voters in the town of Holland, Ohio. Not shy of confrontation, Wurzelbacher asked Obama about his proposed tax plan of small business owners and the two engaged in a discussion.
Their exchange was filmed by an ABC cameraman and within days, the world of viral video that makes zeros into heroes, catapulted Wurzelbacher to international stardom. He, in turn, became a symbol of the middle class and was referenced as “Joe the Plumber” no less than 26 times during the 15 October 2008 presidential debate between Obama and Sen. John McCain – more references than even the Iraq war!
So now it’s 2009 and Obama, who Wurzelbacher labeled a “socialist”, is in power, so no more Joe, right? Well, not only is Joe still sticking around, but a lot of people still revere him. He has his own website, “SecureOurDreams.com where folks can buy “Joe the Plumber” merchandise including t-shirts, books and of course, a plunger. He has also assumed the unlikely role of a war correspondent for Pajamas TV where he has been sent to Capitol Hill and even Israel.
And now someone thought it might be a good idea to hear what Wurzelbacher, an ordinary American, thinks of politics. So someone asked him to write a book. Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream is the most sensationalist work of non-fiction since Lisa Beamer and Ken Abraham’s Let’s Roll: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage (2002) and O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer (2007). At least Wurzelbacher can be comforted by the notion that he is not the only unscrupulous person or publisher in America to abuse his or her status for material gain – this is a path that has been well-established in the US.
My first indication of what I was store for was when I received Joe the Plumber and another book. Publishers frequently do this and will send along some other new release in the hopes that the reviewer will hopefully shed some positive praise on both books. Unfortunately, in my case, I was sent a copy of Thomas N. Tabback’s new book. Who? Exactly. Tabback – or TNT as his initials convenient spell out – is the co-author of Joe the Plumber and the sole author of Things Forgotten. His book is a 500-page, evangelical work of fiction that deals with a New York City cop who is shot and wakes up 3,000 years ago in Biblical Canaan. I would discuss this book more, but a part of me just died on the inside.
Back to the seemingly ordinary tale of Joe the Plumber, who, according to the book’s insert, has become “an American folk hero and the ultimate icon of the working class.” Woody Guthrie is probably rolling in his grave. Tabback and Wurzelbacher paint Joe as a Panglossian figure – always willing to lend a helping hand and open his door to his neighbors. Well, perhaps if his neighbors are also pro-Israel, pro-Christian, neo-conservatives. And such is the damning irony of this book. The authors have the audacity to go to great lengths to show how “American” Joe is and how he’s like everyone else, but he’s not: he has a very specific, very narrow point of view of American politics that can only be shared by one demographic at the intersections of race (Caucasian), gender (male) and location (Midwest).
Wurzelbacher really surprises me in this book because I had absolutely no idea that he knew so much about so many issues. Meet Joe the Political Theorist – “We have been sliding with every-increasing speed towards socialism since FDR’s New Deal was implemented in 1933. It was supposed to pull America out of the Great Depression, but it didn’t. Find a historian that tells you different and call them a L-I-A-R.”
Or Joe the Theologian – “God is in jeopardy of being ousted from the United States of America, if He doesn’t decide to leave us beforehand. Okay, maybe it’s just the Christian God, but how in the world does a country of nearly 80% Christians allow that to happen?” And then of course, Joe the Iranian Expert – “If you think he [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] should be able to step up to the United Nations podium … and rail against the country that has graciously given him a stage, then are you really interested in protecting our freedoms?”
But my favorite avatar is Joe the Tax Evader, who openly admits to not paying his taxes so he could have enough money to take care of his son. Writes Wurzelbacher, “I knew eventually I’d have to pay up. I have and will continue to pay the government their [sic] due, but I wonder if ever there was a more justifiable cause for the government to give tax relief than for a father’s fight to remain a fixture in his child’s life.” Joe, put down the pen. TLC is calling.
Ultimately, I was able to sympathize with Wurzelbacher just a little bit because of the apparent way the Obama and McCain campaigns used and abused his name and the symbolism it afforded them to reach out to key voting demographics. But, my limited support for Wurzelbacher is trumped by how aghast I am at this book’s publication. If Joe the Plumber is indeed the future face of America, than echoing Wurzelbacher, God help us all.