Satire In Mark Twain

’s Writings Essay, Research Paper

In “Running for President,” Mark Twain writes sardonically of the American political process which consists largely of investigating political candidates for the purpose of finding weaknesses or scandals in their past in order to defeat them in an election. In doing so, he takes the approach of reductum ad absurdum, i.e. taking the argument to absurd lengths, and verbally sketches a brilliant political cartoon whose imagery reduces the reader to wry chuckles of recognition.

Twain starts his essay with the announcement: “I have pretty much made up my mind to run for president.” (80 Readings p.225) He then proceeds to argue that he is the best candidate because he has and will disclose all his weaknesses so that no derogatory revelations can come to light. One by one, the skeletons in his closet are paraded before the reader in their most exaggerated form. He first admits to attempted murder and inhumanity, writing that he has forced his old, rheumatic grandfather at gunpoint, to climb up a tree and stay there throughout a long winter’s night. Moreover, he claims that he would do it again if he had another grandfather, proof that he is not pleading any false remorse. Twain then speaks of his cowardice, telling of how he ran away at the battle of Gettysburg because he was scared. He says that “I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it.” Again, there is no fake expression of remorse. Instead he says, “I entertain that preference yet.” Twain continues and confesses to his avarice, admitting that his philosophy towards money is to “take any kind I can get.” Further, he confesses to greed coupled with insensitivity, for when his aunt dies, he buries her under his vines so she can fertilize them. He argues that this does not disqualify him from office because “[no] other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives.” Twain concludes by outlining his plan of genocide to get rid of the poverty problem. He says that all poor people should be killed, stuffed into sausages, and exported to the natives of cannibal islands to improve our export trade in that region.

In selecting his imagery, Twain not only exhibits a wickedly funny sense of humor, but also zeros in pointedly on common vices of politicians and the hypocrisy of what are today referred to as “spin doctors.” He starts with a confession of attempted murder, proceeds to cowardice, greed, and insensitivity, and then proudly demurs any sense of remorse or regret, rejecting his friends’ attempt to smooth over certain facts.

By proudly recounting his wickedness in his decision to run for president, Twain implies that all candidates for president are guilty of the same wicked deeds and thoughts. His parting campaign slogan, of being “a safe man – a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last,” is meant to highlight his opponents lack of honesty about his depravity, thus justifying his decision to run for president.

“Running for president” is a classical satirical essay. It begins with the introduction of the subject matter, – the decision to run for president – proceeds with a discussion of the worst aspects of the proposed candidate’s deeds, and then ends with a summary characterization of the candidate as honestly depraved and therefore qualified for office. It is brilliant in its expose of the views of politicians and the political system, painting its absurdities in vibrant color and unforgettable imagery, thus creating a political cartoon without the actual drawing. It is this that has made Mark Twain one of the great American satirical writers of all time, and American politics, or, in fact, politics in general, the butt of infinite jokes.


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