The Presidential Fringe: Questing and Jesting for the Oval Office

“The Presidential Fringe: Questing and Jesting for the Oval Office” by Mark Stein

c.2020, Potomac Books $29.95 / $44.95 Canada 264 pages

A year from now, the circus will be over.

All the phone calls at dinnertime, the incessant ads, the name-calling and campaigning and political wrangling, it’ll all be over but the question now is: will the Oval Office turn blue or will it remain red? As in “The Presidential Fringe” by Mark Stein, will we put a clown in office?

Hold on, that’s a very old – and valid – question, especially if you’d lived in 1848. The circus was big then and “clowns” were circus fools, not unlike people who ran for political office with little-to-no true chance of winning. Victory or not, though, many of history’s fringe-of-mainstream candidates left enduring marks on our election system.

Surely, every President had his detractors, but 1848 candidate John Donkey was possibly the first “clown,” something, says Stein, like “political equivalents of P.T. Barnum.” Donkey’s entire presence reminded politicians then of a “circus” filled with “ridiculousness.” 

John Donkey, you see, was a cartoon character.

That surely seems frivolous, but a surprising amount of effort went into “fringe campaigns” through the years. As Stein points out, some campaigns had slogans and campaign buttons. Other candidates stumped for votes, albeit often as publicity stunts. Some candidates ran authentically good races, though they truly never had a chance, but they accomplished two things: they often had more success than some thought they’d have, and they paved the way for others, later. Definitely not clownish.

This included Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for the Presidency. It was true of George Edwin Taylor, America’s first African American candidate. A number of people who clowned for a living have run for office: Gracie Allen, Pat Paulsen, and Roseanne Barr. Some ran to point out problems in America, like Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory. And if you look closely in history, some “fringe” candidates were scoffed at in the early days of their campaigns, and ridiculed – until they whizzed past the naysayers and blazed their way right into the Oval Office…

Not to be a bubble-buster, but “The Presidential Fringe” isn’t nearly as much fun as the cover might indicate that it would be. 

Nope, author Mark Stein doesn’t insert a lot of levity into his stories – at least, not anything that wasn’t inherently there or that didn’t already exist. Yes, we get a tiny sense of silliness from much of what’s told, but even that’s wrapped in serious dates, names, cultural attitudes, and facts that tend to squash the fun flat. 

Could it be because we’re jaded by current politics? Stein sometimes seems to suggest that, as he draws parallels between history and today’s news, and shows how ridicule in politics is as common now as it was before the Civil War. As it turns out, we’ve always had “clowns” running for the White House – and some of them actually make it there.

This isn’t a bad book, but just be aware that’s it’s more learning, less laughter. Still, if you’re a fan of edge-of-middle politicking, “The Presidential Fringe” is a ringleader.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin