Bitterness and the Self-Made Man
Obama sells self-creation, but McCain's naval traditions may prevail.


Presidents come in two kinds. Some are self-made; they resemble Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, who “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” Such are Lincoln, who came from almost nothing, and Reagan, who came from very little: like Gatsby, they invented their own conceptions of themselves.

Other presidents are shaped by family tradition, a hereditary ideal: They have been bred to public service in the way the Roosevelts and the Bushes were. The tradition-driven man is conscious always of the legacy of his ancestors. The self-made man says, with Napoleon, “Je suis un ancêtre.” “I am an ancestor.”

The 2008 election promises to be the first presidential contest since 1992 (when the elder Bush lost to Clinton) to pit a tradition-bred man (McCain, the scion of a naval family) against a self-created one (Obama). The 1996 election was a contest between two self-made men, Clinton and Dole; 2000 and 2004 were patrician duels — Bush v. Gore, Bush v. Kerry. (Were Hillary to get the nomination, the tradition-driven McCain would face, not a self-made candidate, but one from the widow-orphan class of female leaders.)

Who, in the McCain-Obama match-up, has the advantage?

Given America’s democratic antipathy to hereditary privilege, the self-made candidate ought to have an immense advantage, at the polls, over his high-bred rivals. He is the embodiment of the dream Lincoln sketched in 1864. “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House,” he told the 166th Ohio Regiment. “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.”

Do the math, however, and the self-made man’s advantage evaporates. A division of the presidents elected since 1900 into two categories, self-made and tradition-driven, yields:

Self-made: McKinley, Harding, Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton . . . . (8)

Tradition-driven: Theodore Roosevelt (a product of old New York), Taft (his father, Aphonso, was a Cincinnati luminary and Grant’s Secretary of War), Coolidge (old Massachusetts), Franklin D. Roosevelt (old New York), Kennedy (heir not just to Joe’s dough but also to the Fitzgerald political tradition and, by adoption, to the Harvard-Choate tradition of public service), George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush . . . . (7).

Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Carter present a difficulty. A case can be made for their inclusion in the tradition-driven category. Each exhibited a pride of birth tinged with the old Southern ideal of gentility. Wilson, the son a Presbyterian minister, assimilated the Calvinist concept of election to the southern tradition of aristocratic leadership: He thought himself born to rule. Johnson was scornful of journalists who called him a plebeian foil to Kennedy; his ancestors, though they were not rich, were, he said, civic leaders, not cowboys. Carter descends from the minor gentry of Georgia. Yet though the southern presidents possessed deeply felt traditions, they had none of the advantages of the northern elites; they had to make their own way in the world, much as self-made men do.

Splitting the southern difference, then, I find 9.5 of the post-1900 presidents to have been self-made, 8.5 to have been the products of a notable family tradition. The closeness of the tally suggests that, although Americans revere self-made men, they do not reject their tradition-driven rivals. They know that men with strong hereditary traditions behind them have their own, often valuable contributions to make to a healthy polity.

The Founders are a case in point: They were most of them schooled from childhood to regard public service as an obligation. Hence the disproportionate predominance, in the early republic, of Virginia dynasts and New England patriarchs. There were exceptions — immigrants like Hamilton and James Wilson, self-invented men like Franklin. But it was only with Andrew Jackson that a novus homo took possession of the White House.