A Braying Ass Known by His Voice

Posted: Jan 29, 2012 9:01 PM

The trademarks for America’s major political parties, the elephant and the donkey, were adopted from a series of cartoons that caricaturist Thomas Nast began publishing in 1874 in Harper’s Weekly.  The leadoff cartoon depicts a trumpeting elephant labeled “The Republican Vote.”  The mighty pachyderm is shown to be blasting away at New York’s major newspapers that are also symbolized as a variety of animals.

While the Democratic Party is directly portrayed as a skittish fox in the Nast cartoon, the image that stuck was the primary target of the cartoon’s mockery, a donkey as the Democratic-sympathizing New York Herald.  Nast frequently alluded to the fables of Aesop in his illustrations.  The Herald newspaper appears as Aesop’s character of a donkey wearing the skin of a dead lion with the lengthy caption, "An Ass, having put on the Lion's skin, roamed about in the Forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings."

While the Democratic Party has done an admirable job of working with the imposed icon of a jackass, the Republicans have had it much easier with the more noble image of the elephant.  But at this stretch in the presidential primary, the lead Republican candidates are behaving more like Nast’s first use of animal symbols for the Grand Old Party.

In 1871, Nast compared Republican Party infighting to Aesop’s fable of The Lion, The Bear, and the Fox.  One version of the tale reads, “A Lion and a Bear jointly seized on a young fawn, which they immediately killed.  This they had no sooner performed, than they fell to fighting, in order to decide whose property it should be.  The battle was so bloody, and so obstinate, that they were both compelled, through weariness and loss of blood, to desist; and lay down by mutual consent, totally disabled.  At this instant, a wily Fox unluckily came by; who, perceiving their situation, made bold to seize the contested prey, and bore it off unmolested.  As soon as the Lion could recover breath, How foolish, said he, has been our conduct!  Instead of being contented as we ought, with our respective shares, our senseless rage has rendered us unable to prevent this rascally fox from defrauding us of the whole.”

Senator Rick Santorum gave his best debate performance to date last Thursday, scolding the dueling frontrunners with, “These two gentlemen are out distracting from the most important issues we have by playing petty personal politics.  Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies?  And that’s not the worst thing in the world.  And that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard.  And you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues!”

Intramural mudslinging makes all of us registered voters cringe as we wait our turn to vote in our state’s primary or caucus.  We lament the depressing negative ads and the focus on personal imperfections that seem to provide little indication of White House worthiness.

I credit Newt Gingrich for setting a constructive tone at the first several debates.  You may recall that the Speaker spoke very respectfully of his fellow candidates while chiding the moderators for attempting to incite a brawl between the Republicans.  The Lion and the Bear were both looking stately until they came across a fawn named Iowa.

So, why do they do it?  What made Newt Gingrich suddenly switch from generous admiration to articulate disdain for Mitt Romney?  It is because while his hand of graciousness was extended, Mitt Romney’s operatives chopped it off with six million dollars of negative ads.  And why would Romney’s parallel campaign launch such a cynical attack?  Because it is effective.  As consumers, the voters say that they hate the negative campaigning and then support it by responding positively.  The campaign consultants are aggressively managing human nature on behalf of their client.

Like Senator Santorum, I hope that the Lion and Bear return to a contest of describing their plans for skinning the donkey so that we can restore the dignified image of the elephant (At this point I realize that I have stretched the cartoonist, Aesop fable, animal metaphor about as far as it could go).

The Democratic Party would have done well to seize Thomas Nast’s original characterization of them as a fox.  They used that kicking donkey for a while.  Then in 2010, the Democratic Party finally adopted its first official logo; a no-frills emblem of the letter “D” inside a circle.  But no matter its outward appearance, a braying ass is known by his voice.