Almost without fail, every four years, the American presidential election brings into the limelight a candidate who coins a defining phrase or displays a facet of his personality which he is best remembered by, or portrays a vision which separates him from the rest of the field. John F. Kennedy’s clarion call, “Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country,” stirred a nation. Then there was Lyndon B. Johnson, who, but for his ill-advised incursion into Vietnam, would have gone down in history as arguably one of the great presidents with his civil rights bill and the leap towards a ‘Great Society’. Richard Nixon, who was unfairly branded by his detractors as “[o]ne you would not buy a used car from”, will best be remembered for his introduction of China to the world. Bill Clinton was “the comeback kid” after recovering from near disasters in the primaries while Al Gore “invented the internet”. You need to mention hope and change to summon up Barack Obama of four years ago.
None of these compares for bizarre improbability with the recent entry into the 2012 campaign of Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, the daughter of a St. Petersburg pharmacist. During her high school years, Alisa was eyewitness to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 which she denounced and, in order to escape the fighting, her family went to the Crimea, where she finished high school. The final communist victory brought the confiscation of her father’s pharmacy and periods of near starvation. When introduced to American history in her final year of high school, she immediately took America as her model of what a nation of free men could be. Subsequently, she graduated from the University of Petrograd to study philosophy and history and, in late 1925, obtained permission to leave Soviet Russia to visit relatives in the United States of America, arriving in New York in February, 1926. Changing her name to Ayn Rand, she worked at various jobs in Hollywood and began writing The Fountainhead in 1935. In the character of the architect, Howard Roark, she presented the kind of hero whose depiction was the chief goal of her writing: the ideal man as “he could be and ought to be”. Published in 1943, it became a best-seller and gained for its author lasting recognition as a champion of individualism.
Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, was her last work of fiction and she dramatized her unique philosophy in an intellectual mystery story that integrated ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics and sex. Although she considered herself primarily a fiction writer, she realized that in order to create heroic fictional characters, she had to identify the philosophic principles which make such individuals — and these principles are the ones that have helped to inspire the political convictions of Paul Ryan, the 42-year old congressman from Wisconsin, Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate. Ever since this announcement a fortnight back, the politics of smear has given way to literary inquisition as both Republicans and Democrats tear into the works of the eccentric Russian-Jewish philosopher in search of not enlightenment and wisdom, but ammunition.
Entire arsenals can be found in Rand’s contempt for altruism, self-sacrifice and any form of collective welfare. In a delightful YouTube clip unearthed from the archives of the 1960s, Rand can be seen lecturing a palpably bewildered Johnny Carson, the king of light-hearted late night chat shows, about the “morality of rational self-interest” and the virtues of “laissez-faire capitalism”. One can only imagine the bewilderment of the host, best known for the jocund tone of his shows, subjecting his audience, close to midnight, to quotes like, “Man must not sacrifice himself to others — the highest moral purpose of his life is his happiness alone.” While Ryan’s choice and his admiration for Ayn Rand will not help the caring, sharing, sympathizing image that Romney needs to project, it is nevertheless good for the US to have a candidate who genuinely believes in something that is not the product of a campaign focus group.
One of the most tiresome aspects of modern presidential campaigning is the perceived compulsion of candidates to present themselves as cultural ambassadors, interested in everything the audience throws at them and, above all, giving nobody any reason to take offence. One has only to glance through Romney’s Facebook page to see what an image consultant did when he took over his life. The page ignores his Mormon faith, lists his favourite books, music and television shows and you could not ask for a more inoffensive and insipid cultural portrait. There is one glaring exception — he likes the Beatles. No issues here, except that he is 65 years old, highborn and enormously wealthy — and all he does is listen to pop music? By all accounts, the Mormon Tabernacle choir is worthwhile listening to. Where does he rank it?
There is another issue which will surely be brought up in the coming weeks. When he first ran for the presidential nomination in 2007, Romney injudiciously admitted that his favourite book after the Bible was the epic science fiction, Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard, the highly controversial founder of scientology. Critics castigated the book as a fantasy “wholly populated by the most one-dimensional of cardboard characters”, which Romney’s detractors might cite as the perfect description of Romney’s presidential campaign.
All these may sound trivial but the candidates’ cultural and intellectual preferences matter a great deal in these days of 12-second sound bytes and 24/7 news channels. The smartest politicians have always managed to turn their after-office habits to their advantage and the not too well kept secret is to leave a weighty tome on the edge of the office desk that the prying eyes of a visiting journalist would surely notice. According to White House folklore, Bill Clinton was a master of literary manipulation. Keen to shake off his country hick image, he used the ploy on numerous occasions but possessed the necessary intellect to carry it out successfully and, to doubly impress his audience, he often quoted verbatim from the tome’s text. Ronald Reagan was perceived as an affable dunce, but he shrewdly countered this by quoting extensively from conservative economists, Milton Friedman being his favourite, and keeping his criticisms mostly restricted to the growing size of the government, an unpleasant development anathema to many liberals too.
It is most likely that after the initial bounce of interest in Romney’s new running mate, both Republican candidates will soon find themselves on the defensive as Rand’s undisguised contempt for the poor and downtrodden is brought into question. But there is another side to Ryan’s controversial literary allegiance. Unlike the presidential contender, Ryan is highly articulate, and has the intellectual weaponry to match the best-selling author president. It is a pity that the forthcoming presidential debates will feature the carefully rehearsed, do-not-offend-anybody Romney, and not Ryan, who might have made Obama appear too clever by half. At least his report card for the last four years says so.