Issue 15 The Average Fall 2004

Fanfares for the Common Man

The notion of the average individual, the “common man,” has been one of the most resilient features of American political rhetoric, a kind of one-size-fits-all concept drawn on by leaders of all ideological persuasions to woo support, illustrate policy points, and assert their essential connection to the demos. From the “divine average” sung by Walt Whitman to “the great silent majority” courted by Richard Nixon a century later, the symbolically ordinary American is at once singular and plural—the fabled part of which the mythic whole is made, the literal “constituent” element of the socio-political fabric. “God must have loved the common man,” Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “he made so many of them.” The selection of quotes presented here, taken from 20th-century American politicians, suggest that paens to this legendary figure are similarly abundant.

Theodore Roosevelt, 25 August 1902We have founded our republic upon the theory that the average man will, as a rule, do the right thing, that in the long run the majority will decide for what is sane and wholesome. If our fathers were mistaken in that theory, if ever the times become such—not occasionally but persistently—that the mass of the people do what is unwholesome, what is wrong, then the republic cannot stand, I care not how good its laws, I care not what marvelous mechanism its Constitution may embody. Back of the laws, back of the administration, back of the system of government lies the man, lies the average manhood of our people, and in the long run we are going to go up or go down accordingly as the average standard of our citizenship does or does not wax in growth and grace.

Huey Long, 23 February 1934Read what Plato said; that you must not let any one man be too poor, and you must not let any one man be too rich; that the same mill that grinds out the extra rich is the mill that will grind out the extra poor, because, in order that the extra rich can become so affluent, they must necessarily take more of what ordinarily would belong to the average man.

Franklin Roosevelt, 4 November 1938The modern interdependent industrial and agricultural society which we live in is like a large factory. Each member of the organization has his own job to perform on the assembly line, but if the conveyor belt breaks or gets tangled up, no one in the factory, no matter how hard he tries, can do his own particular job. Each of us—farmer, business man or worker—suffers when anything goes wrong with the conveyor belt. If our democracy is to survive it must give the average man reasonable assurance that the belt will be kept moving. Dictators have recognized that problem. They keep the conveyor belt moving—but at a terrible price to the individual and to his civil liberty. The New Deal has been trying to keep those belts moving without paying such a price.

Adlai Stevenson, 11 September 1952 It seems to me government is like a pump, and what it pumps up is just what we are, a fair sample of the intellect and morals of the people, not better, no worse.

Harry Truman, 22 October 1952The truth is that the Republican Party does not represent the average man in this country. Indeed, the Republican Party represents the big special interests, the oil lobby, the real estate lobby, the big corporations and the banks, and all the rest of that crew. I saw a poll the other day that said over 90 percent of the bankers were going to vote the Republican ticket this year. I think that is a pretty good sign of who the Republican Party is working for.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1 October 1956Daily I read about politicians—some of them candidates for high office—who go about the country expressing at length their worries about America and the American people. They profess to be alarmed, scared, and convinced that in all ways we are slipping badly. They cry that the country is going to pot and only they—prescribing for our ills from the seat of government in Washington—can save it.

Now I have a simple prescription for their worries and fears. It is this: When they visit a city like Cleveland, let them look around at the hustle and bustle; talk to, and especially listen to, the people here. Let those politicians absorb some of the spirit that animates Clevelanders, all of them—whether they work in banks, in factories, in orchards and fields or in kitchens. Their worries and fears of the future of America should begin to sound foolish—even to them.

John F. Kennedy, 15 July 1960That is the choice our nation must make—a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but … between national greatness and national decline—between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of “normalcy”—between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity.

George C. Wallace, 24 October 1968I want to tell these newspapers something. These large newspapers that think they know more than the average citizen on the street of New York haven’t always been right. I remember the time the New York Times said that Mao Tse-tung was a good man, and he turned out to be a Communist. I remember when they said that Ben Bella was a good man, and he turned out to be a Communist. When old Castro was in the hills of Cuba, the New York Times said he was the Robin Hood of the Caribbean, and they introduced him on national television as the George Washington of Cuba. They were mistaken about Castro.

Richard Nixon, 8 August 1968As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.

And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish: Did we come all the way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy and Korea and in Valley Forge for this?

Listen to the answers to these questions.

It is another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. They’re not racists or sick; they’re not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they’re native born and foreign born; they’re young and they’re old.

They work in American factories, they run American businesses. They serve in government; they provide most of the soldiers who die to keep it free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American dream. They give steel to the backbone of America.

They’re good people. They’re decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care . . .

And this I say, this I say to you tonight, is the real voice of America.

Jimmy Carter, 30 August 1976It seems almost inevitable that if political leaders stay in power too long, and ride in limousines too long, and eat expensive meals in private clubs too long, they are going to become cut off from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. It is almost like a law of nature—as Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt.

Ronald Reagan, 17 July 1980I ask you not simply to “Trust me,” but to trust your values—our values—and to hold me responsible for living up to them. I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the earth who came here in search of freedom.

Some say that spirit no longer exists. But I have seen it—I have felt it—all across the land; in the big cities, the small towns and in rural America. The American spirit is still there, ready to blaze into life . . .

George W. Bush (cabinet meeting), 12 September 2001 Start with bin Laden, which Americans expect. And then if we succeed, we’ve struck a huge blow and can move forward. We don’t want to define [it] too broadly for the average man to understand.

Quotes compiled by Sasha Archibald.

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