The Forgotten Imagemeister: Ad-Man Bruce Barton Was the Most Formidable Operative in American Politics-Until He Took on FDR

By Greenberg, David | The Washington Monthly, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Imagemeister: Ad-Man Bruce Barton Was the Most Formidable Operative in American Politics-Until He Took on FDR


Greenberg, David, The Washington Monthly


The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making Of Modern America

By Richard M. Fried Ivan R. Dee, $27.50

When Bruce Barton died in 1967 at the age of 80, a colleague from his advertising firm BBDO proudly described him as "the man everybody knew"--a play on the title of Barton's best-selling 1925 life of Jesus, The Man Nobody Knows. The judgment was apt: Barton had been a giant of his age. The New York Times featured his obituary on page one, summing up an extraordinarily dazzling and diverse career: successful magazine writer and editor; celebrated popularizer of Christian ideas; advertising trailblazer; public relations guru to presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover; Republican congressman from Manhattan's "silk-stocking" district; and, not least, rhetorical whipping boy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose jibes at the obstructionist lawmakers "Martin, Barton, and Fish" felicitously tripped off of the tongues of Democrats in the homestretch of the 1940 presidential campaign.

For a man so influential in so many realms of society--politics and religion, journalism and business--Barton slid into obscurity after his death with surprising speed. To be sure, scholars have flocked to him as a subject. Essays about Barton by Leo Ribuffo, Jackson Lears, and the late Warren Sussman have become staples of graduate-school reading lists. Focusing on Barton's rendering of Jesus as a figure out of Dale Carnegie--indeed, as a veritable adman avant la lettre, hawking his teachings around the Holy Land--historians have typically interpreted Barton as epitomizing the nation's entree in the 1920s into modernity. Barton; ideas, Sussman wrote, "found a way of bridging the gap between the demands of a Calvinistic producer ethic with its emphasis on hard work, self-denial, savings, and the new increasing demands of a hedonistic consumer culture: spend, enjoy, use up." For Lears, Barton likewise personified the shift "from salvation to self-realization." Certainly, The Man Nobody Knows, the bestselling book in the country for two years straight, caught the zeitgeist, allowing Americans anxious about social upheaval to retain their belief in a (watered-down) form of Christianity while blessing their embrace of the new creed of self-fulfillment.

But despite this academic attention, Barton has until now lacked a book-length biography. Indeed, claims Richard Fried, a leading historian of the Cold War and McCarthyism, "Bruce Barton is surely the most prominent American of the 20th Century without a biography." To rectify this omission, Died has written The Man Everybody knew--picking up the punning phrase to underscore Barton's once-sweeping flame, while also acknowledging the relative obscurity into which his subject has fallen. Despite a few unfortunate efforts to sound literary ("Clever and voluble, Barton was an agile picador working against a distracted New Deal bull"), this admirable, readable volume enriches our knowledge of Barton's career and his political involvements in particular. Interpretively, it may not break much new ground, but--rather like Larry Tye's 1998 biography of Edward Bernays, The Father of Spin--it offers a well-researched and detailed, if relatively brief, account of a neglected pioneer of contemporary image-malting.

The Man Everybody Knew also resembles another recent biography, Steven Watts's People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, which interpreted the celebrity carmaker as similarly straddling the 19th-century America of thrift and moralism and the 20th-century world of spending and enjoyment. Indeed, Sussman, in his canonical essay, grouped Barton and Ford with Babe Ruth as cultural heroes of the 1920s. What Ford and Barton shared--Ruth perhaps less so--was a worldview that fused an enthusiasm for capitalism's ability to deliver unprecedented comforts to millions with an abiding attachment to the fading ideals of small-town life.

Barton was born in 1886, the son of a Congregationalist minister who espoused the liberal Protestantism then beginning to challenge the more traditional Christian doctrines. …

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