The Chronicle Review

The Carnival Campaign

How a 1968 short story foresaw 2016

October 30, 2016

Illustration by André da Loba for The Chronicle Review
I n a recent interview with The New Yorker, Robert Coover described how political grandstanding over illegal immigration colored his new story about a Texas senator who encounters aliens from Mars. "Events," he commented, "sometimes step on stories-in-progress."

I find the reverse happening with Coover’s 1968 story "The Cat in the Hat for President," which he revised and later published as the 1980 novella A Political Fable. Nearly 50 years after its publication, Coover’s tale about the antic presidential bid of Dr. Seuss’s famous Cat "steps on" contemporary politics in unexpected ways. With its rhyming feline, deadpan narration, and magical plot twists, it’s wondrously attuned to the carnival aspects of the Donald Trump campaign.

A Political Fable is out of print, but perhaps with the January release of Coover’s new novel, Huck Out West, a publisher will reissue this gem. The story is narrated by a political insider nicknamed Soothsayer Brown. Brown’s control of his unnamed party is disrupted when the Cat in the Hat takes over the presidential nominating convention. Two vaudevillians do a song-and-dance routine extolling the Cat’s candidacy, and a call-and-response chant of "Me-You" circulates among the delegates. Flouting tradition and decorum, the Cat drives his crazy clean-up machine onto the convention floor. After winning the nomination unanimously, he floods the hall and captures the attendees in a giant fish bowl.

What follows is the most anarchic presidential campaign ever described, featuring a fantastical debate, television violence, a lynching, an orgy, and a collective red-white-and-blue hallucination.

A forgotten relic of the 1968 presidential campaign, the story resonates deeply with this year’s. Like Coover’s feline impresario, Trump cycles through an astonishing series of roles (among them the Tough Guy, the Clown, the Sexually Assaulting Womanizer, the Windbag Tycoon, the Know-it-All Bigot). And like the Cat, he has used his famously erratic personality to short-circuit American politics.

The people are weary, a political guru explains, and the Cat feels their "terrible need for the extraordinary."

That may be true, but in the midst of Coover’s rich comedy, Brown’s lament will strike some readers as painfully germane. "I’d discovered a terrible foolishness, a vast derision, a widespread breakdown of all I’d considered solid and meaningful in American politics."

David Haven Blake is a professor of English at the College of New Jersey. His latest book is Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics, recently published by Oxford University Press.