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                                       politics + culture

Sunday, December 11, 2005

an american character

There are many aspects to Henry Ford that come clear in Steven Watts new biography The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century not the least of which are Ford's anti-semitism, his isolationism, his pioneering adoption and perfection of the techniques of mass production, his anti-labor views and practices and, last but not least, Ford's wistful late-life fascination with Americana of the 19th-Century. This fascination was best expressed in a museum Ford built called Greenfield Village, a museum, ironically enough, representing the best collection of artifacts from pre-industrial American life...purchased and preserved, of course, with the profits from Ford's automobile factories. That is but one of the many contradictions to be found in the life of Henry Ford.

Steven Watts, whose previous work includes a biography of Walt Disney, skillfully navigates the history and personality of the "man and the myth" of Henry Ford. Already a living folk legend in his day, Ford cultivated his own reknown as a self-made man and plainspoken American as a means of generating free publicity for himself, his political views and his automobile company. Watts reminds us that much of the Henry Ford we know today was created as a public persona to help sell his cars. If fact, Ford's public image is inextricably linked, from the very beginning, with his corporate public relations:

Coming to prominence amid the collapse of Victorian tradition with its values of self-disclipline, thrift, and producerism, Ford popularized a new creed of consumer self-fulfillment. He was perhaps the first American businessman to realize that large-scale production depended on large-scale consumption. [snip]

In a new atmosphere of consumer abundance, Ford became a principal architect of a cultural order stressing standardized experiences, collective self-consciousness, and widely dispersed leisure amoung a popular audience. He first found fame in automobile racing, popularized camping, proselytized for positive thinking, and skillfully used the new media mechanisms of print and radio to enhance his personality in the public perception. As the Model T became the prototype of America's mass prosperity, Ford became the prototype of the mass-culture celebrity. [snip]

Henry Ford achieved a towering stature by drawing upon consumerism, mass culture, and populism to articulate an American way of life just beginning to take shape at the dawn of the modern era. But he became beloved, as well as influential, for another reason. Ford's striking innovations, rather than unsettling a mass audience, managed to assuage fears of the unknown. At the very moment he was transforming the world, he made new ideas a practices palatable by maintaining a conspicuous reverence toward the past.(Watts, xii)


That passage expresses something essential about American culture. Reading Watts's biography of Ford, one cannot help but realize that the persona that Ford built....pro-corporate, folksy, consumer-oriented, ruggedly individualistic, and, at heart, deeply ensconced in comfortable American myths...represents the precursor to the personality juggernauts of the Ronald Reagan and, now, George W. Bush eras. In fact, I would argue that in order to understand the popularity Reagan and Bush have had with the American public, it is essential to understand the contradiction that was Henry Ford.

Ford was a bad driver. He didn't like racing cars. And yet he realized early on that in order to popularize his name and brand that racing was essential. So race Ford did, at one point setting the Land Speed Record at 90 mph on a frozen lake. To sell his car, Ford sold an image of himself: a self-made man, an inventor, a daring driver. From the beginning, Henry Ford realized that myth, especially when it conformed to deep-seated ideas that Americans hold about themselves, was the most important marketing tool at his disposal.

That's not to say that the innovations that Ford made...and the vehicle that made his name...the Model 'T'...were not, in and of themselves, revolutionary. Henry Ford, with the collaboration of determined and brilliant partners, built the first massively successful, vertically integrated, large-scale factories that created a product which...because Ford paid his workers enough that they could afford the car themselves...seemed to create its own demand. The Model 'T', in many ways, made America what it is today. As Watts carefully lays out, our car culture, our association of 'freedom' with the mobility afforded to the vast majority of Americans by gas-powered vehicles...has defined, on some level, the American way of life.

As the Model 'T' triumphed, Henry Ford became deeply invested in his own myth. He established newspapers to promote his views, he promoted the values of 'physical fitness' and 'positive thinking' as if those characteristics were the reason his enterprise had succeeded. At every point, we learn, Ford associated himself...his character, his upbringing, and his outlook...with his own success. Watts notes that Ford applied those standards, selectively, on others:

The first thing I would consider is health. I would never choose a man who looked sickly, weak, or run down. A man who does not care enough about this own body to take proper care of it and keep it in a high state of efficiency is not likely to care enough about somebody else's business to give it efficient management. (Watts, 31)

(It was precisely this mindset that led Ford to badger and torment his own son, Edsel, who was both a smoker and a drinker...and nowhere as physically robust as his father...until Edsel's premature death at 49.)

As the years wore on, it became harder for Ford to tell where the 'mythic character' of Henry Ford ended...and the reality of having been a man with some brilliant ideas who was in the right place at the right time began. (That contradiction, at the end of the day, lies at the heart of the American identity.) Ford's anti-Semitism, his anti-labor views and the ever-increasing pace of his assembly lines put the lie to his folksy benficence. Edmund Wilson got to the core of the mature Ford's contradictions, as Watts writes:

Edmund Wilson, already establishing his reputation as a trenchant social critic, skillfully dissected the Ford psyche as well as the Ford Company. He offered the usual accolades, describing Ford as "A mechanical and industrial genius" who had created an inexpensive, indestructible car for ordinary Americans. But he also decried the fact that as the years went by Ford seemed to care less and less about his workers' welfare, had become increasingly addicted to self-advertising, and had surrounded himself with yes-men who feared to diagree with him. The discrepancy between declining wages and a speeded-up assembly line for employees on the one hand, and Ford's image as a benefactor of the working man on the other, constituted a fraud at the heart of his reputation...[snip]... Ford, Wilson concluded, had become "The Despot of Dearborn."(Watts, 349)


Despite the darker side of Ford apparent to contemporaries like Wilson, it is precisely the image of the ingenious, self-made man that led Americans to embrace Henry Ford as the first "hero" of the Industrial Age. Steven Watts biography explores this terrain well.

Reading Watt's version of Ford's life got me thinking about how that same myth-making was at work, both personally and politically, in the career of Ronald Reagan and the current presidency of George W. Bush. There are deep similarities in viewpoint and appeal, but, at the core of the comparison lies a comfortable conviction that American power stems from a moral uprightness rooted in our national character...that our power represents a shared destiny...that material success is a reward for our virtues. This point of view is so engrained in our national culture that we fail to see it though it swims before our very eyes. Reagan and Bush both used this point of view to their advantage.

We live today in Henry Ford's world as much as we live in Ronald Reagan's: Consumer-driven. Corporate-dominated. Firmly entrenched in a culture of American exceptionalism and moral uprightness. We are comfortable in the myths we tell ourselves. Scandals don't seem to disabuse us of the notion of our moral superiority. Like Henry Ford, we believe that our material success is an indicator of our virtue. In that context, of course, it is perhaps only material failure that would have the power to bring those myths crashing down.

Politicians like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have been adept at playing into this mindset, in particular finding ways to connect with a pro-corporate, pro-consumption, patriotic populism very similar to Ford's own views. Steven Watts's biography of Henry Ford points out the insights to be gained in paying attention to where our national myths come from...both to understand those myths' hold upon the American public...and to understand the tacit assumptions and contradictions implicit in that oft-used phrase the American way of life.