It was a grey, chilly morning in Manhattan, and as raindrops pelted the window of my office at National Review, I was struggling unsuccessfully to make sense of a long article on Latin American trade policy. Then the telephone rang, and an annoyingly jaunty voice said, “Good morning. Elbridge Weintraub here, from Colonial Communications Consultants. I represent John Adams.”
An awkward pause. “You mean . . . John Adams the president?” I stammered.
“No, John Adams the podiatrist! Who do you think I mean?”
I told him I was looking forward to the HBO mini-series. Weintraub thanked me modestly and suggested lunch, and since he was buying, I said sure. We met at Fraunces Tavern, Manhattan’s number-one power restaurant for Early American agents. While being ushered to his usual spot, he waved at a table across the room. “That’s Cotton Steinberg, Jefferson’s rep, with a guy from the History Channel,” he whispered. “He’s pitching a reality series set at Monticello.”
My jaw dropped. “Thomas Jefferson has an agent too?”
“Has to — the estate is still paying off his debts. And Steinberg is one smart cookie, let me tell you. But the guy who handled Jefferson before him wasn’t worth a Continental. He kept bragging about what a great deal he’d made, getting his client’s picture on the two-dollar bill. I said, ‘I’faith, are you meshuggenah? The two-dollar bill? That gets you about as much exposure as an interview on C-SPAN.’ The only way you’ll ever see a two-dollar bill is if they stop printing singles, and Washington’s people will never allow that.”
This was too much. “Even George Washington has ‘people’?” I asked. “And are they really that powerful?”
“Hey, they got perpetual naming rights to the nation’s capital — for free. You think those guys don’t know how to pull a few strings? Anyway, when Steinberg’s team took over the Jefferson account, they decided to go gangsta. You’ve seen that scowling picture on the new nickels? That’s just the beginning. Jefferson’s old reps tried to squelch the rumors about him and that black girl, but Steinberg saw that if he promoted it properly, the story would be solid gold. The racial angle helps, of course — look at all the ink Strom Thurmond got. But even without that, there’s nothing like a love child to make a guy seem edgy. In fact,” he said, looking around warily and lowering his voice, “I hear James Monroe’s reps have been whispering that Marilyn was an illegitimate descendant. But you didn’t get that from me.”
“So you’re saying the history industry takes its cue from modern-day rappers?”
“Of course! Take this Adams-Jefferson feud, for example. That’s a total hip-hop stunt. In real life, they became best buds; just check out their letters. But clever marketing has kept the beef alive for 200 years. And with fanboys like Sean Wilentz and David McCullough leading posses for the two sides, you know it won’t die down anytime soon.
“That’s why every Adams biography dumps all over Jefferson, and every Jefferson biography dumps all over Adams,” he continued. “Walk into any faculty club in America and you can still start a fight over the 1800 election — and don’t even get me started on the War of 1812. Say what you want about Crips and Bloods, East Coast and West Coast — for staying power, they’ve got nothing on Federalists and Republicans.”
Out of nowhere there came a tinny rendition of “Yankee Doodle.” He whipped out his cell phone. “Weintraub here . . . Are you serious? Look, just because we represent an Early American guy doesn’t mean we work for Early American prices. Are you paying in 1804 silver dollars or something? Listen, it’s 20 percent of the gross or else we go to Time-Warner. Godspeed, baby.”
He resumed his discussion. “I’ll tell you who’s really milking the hip-hop thing, though: Alexander Hamilton. Think of it: A college graduate, a rich lawyer, a government bureaucrat, and a media mogul. The worst he ever did was fool around with somebody’s wife. ‘Sblood, the guy’s an investment banker! But one bullet in the wrong place, and all of a sudden he’s Tupac Shakur. Now Chernow, Brookhiser, all the big guns are working with him. And the thing is, the guy who shot him . . . what was his name again?”
“Yeah, it is kind of chilly in here — wish they’d toss another log on the fire. Anyway, the guy who shot Hamilton is the real gangsta — he fixed a presidential election, then double-crossed his running mate, then killed a man, then hired an army and tried to start a new country. But who even knows his name? Man, I wish I represented that guy — talk about upside potential!”
His phone rang again. “Weintraub . . . What? . . . Oh, come on, that’s just ridiculous. I mean, yes, my client does kind of resemble Uncle Fester, but the spelling of their last names is completely different. Absolutely untrue.”
I asked how he got started in the business. “When the agency hired me, my first account was James Garfield. James Aloysius Frickin’ Garfield — can you believe it?” he said, shaking his head. “Even Joe Franklin wouldn’t take my calls. So I said O.K., nobody’s heard of him, we’ll turn that into a positive. Some obscure cartoonist needed a dopey name for his cat. I hooked him up with Garfield, and the next thing you know, my client’s name is appearing daily in every newspaper in the country.”
A few minutes later, I was scraping up my last forkful of dessert and bracing for the inevitable sales pitch. “When I took over this account,” he began, “any Early American agent would’ve killed for a couple of minutes on A&E or a 50-word review in the Bismarck Tribune. You know, ‘dead white males’ and all that stuff. And Adams was a particularly tough sell. I mean, Washington won the war, Franklin kept all those mistresses, Madison had the wacky wife, Jackson killed some guys. But Adams! He’s a nebbish — vanilla ice cream without the vanilla. That’s why you never see him on coins or stamps. And his son, John Quincy . . . oy, don’t get me started on that kid. Brilliant guy, no question, but he boosts his family’s marketability about as much as Julian Lennon.
“In our current strategy, though, we go beyond John Adams the man to create John Adams the brand. All that stuff about him being boring? It’s no longer off-message — now it is the message. Just like I did with Garfield, we’re turning lemons into lemon mousse. We’ve rebranded John Adams as the Quiet Founder, stressing how dependable and reliable he was. Very high concept. I’m already negotiating with several insurance companies.
“Anyway, this summer we’ll follow up on the HBO series with a multimedia blitz to show Americans what the John Adams brand means to them. Our p.r. staff can brief you on the campaign’s highlights, fill you in on Adams’s career, or just talk trash about Jefferson. As you know, the Founders are huge and getting huger, and a feature article on John Adams — a conservative hero for the ages — would be the perfect way for National Review to stay ahead of the curve. But I have to know soon, because Vanity Fair is begging me for a cover story.”
I gasped in horror and said I’d think about it. On the way back uptown, I reflected on how different our nation’s history would be if King George III had booked a high-powered p.r. firm to make sure the colonists heard his side of the story. Instead he let Tom Paine and Patrick Henry control the media, and look what happened. It’s just another example of the dangers of taxation without representation.
– Fred Schwarz is an NR deputy managing editor.