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March 23rd, 2017

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In praise of Barnum

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 19, 2016

    In praise of Barnum

Long before there was Donald Trump, there was Phineas Taylor Barnum, whose name has become synonymous with clap and trap, buncombe and blather. And long before The Donald had written a best-seller of a book devoted to the art of the deal, P.T. Barnum had written a better-selling one titled "The Art of Money-Getting, Or Golden Rules for Making Money," in which he set down rules for business and making a fortune.

And long before The Donald entered politics, P. T. Barnum had written "that a man who 'takes no interest in politics' is unfit to live in a land where the government rests in the hands of the people." The parallels here are dramatic, but so are the differences between these two very American characters. You might as well compare a fictional hustler like Elmer Gantry to a real-life evangelist like Billy Sunday.

With his populist streak, it was natural that P.T. Barnum would begin his political career as a Jacksonian Democrat, but along came Bleeding Kansas, the struggle between slaveholders and Free Soilers which turned that developing state into a battleground. By the presidential election of 1860 Barnum had become a Republican and joined the Wide Awakes, a paramilitary order dedicated to the election of a presidential candidate from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

At the end of The War, Barnum would run for the state legislature in Connecticut and win. He would serve there four years, mixing showmanship and reform. As a legislator he emphasized the voting rights of freed slaves, defended women's rights and argued for abolishing the death penalty. When the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was proposed, he supported it fervently, explaining: "A human soul ... is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot -- it is still an immortal spirit."

In 1875 Barnum ran for mayor of Bridgeport on a reform platform and won. During his one-year term, he cracked down on the prostitution that had been rampant in the city, cleaned up the jail, put prisoners to work, and supported the latest thing in making the streets safer: gaslights. But unlike The Donald of this age, P.T. Barnum stressed that "Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business."

The genealogy of words and phrases can be as embarrassing as it is enlightening. Calling a politician a modern-day Barnum is supposed to be an insult, the equivalent of labeling him a fraud. Yet there were many admirable aspects of his character. For one, he never advertised himself as anything but a showman. ("I am a showman by profession," he once wrote.) If his shows were a fraud, his audiences enjoyed them and even colluded with him in fooling themselves. He never pretended his productions were statesmanship. If he speculated in real estate, he didn't call his reverses successes. If only our contemporary pols were as forthright about their motives and ambitions.

When he went bankrupt, Barnum didn't hide that fact any more than a president named Harry Truman denied his financial difficulties as a younger man. If his shows weren't serious, P.T. Barnum certainly was. He was a born promoter and was candid enough to explain why: "Without promotion, something terrible happens. Nothing."

No less a character than Donald Trump, having been accused of being a modern-day Barnum, was obliged to admit his admiration for that notorious hustler. "We need P.T. Barnum a little bit," he said when questioned about his similarity to that great showman, "because we have to build up the image of our country." Barnum may have been accused of being less than serious, a joke and a fraud, but compared to today's supposedly serious candidates for president of the United States, Barnum was a serious man indeed. And a candid one.

For more details about the real P.T. Barnum rather than the stereotype, the interested reader might turn to the textbook written by Thomas V. DiBacco, professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D.C. Or just glance at his recent article on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal headlined "When a Ringmaster Leapt into the Political Circus." It wouldn't be the first time.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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