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 entre in the 1920s into modernity. Barton’s 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, Fried has written The Man Everybody Knew–picking up the punning phrase to underscore Barton’s once-sweeping fame, 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-making.
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. The senior Barton’s calling clearly made an impact on his son. Bruce, embarking on a journalism career, often took up religious subjects: pieces about missionary projects for a Presbyterian journal, profiles of evangelists such as the preacher Billy Sunday, even a biography of Christ called A Young Man’s Jesus that preceded Barton’s more famous book by 11 years. In this first of his many careers, Barton often found himself toiling at understaffed magazines where he would take a hand in running the business side. The experience–along with his stints during World War I doing promotional work for the Salvation Army and the YMCA–left him primed after the armistice to make advertising his main calling. With Alex Osborn and Roy Durstine, he founded BDO in 1919. Nine years later, they merged with George Batten’s firm to become the legendary BBDO.
If cultural historians have amply dissected The Man Nobody Knows, annalists of advertising have mined BBDO’s ground-breaking campaigns for some of the era’s biggest companies, including General Electric and General Motors. Fried, primarily a political historian, covers this ground dutifully, but his narrative comes alive when he fleshes out Barton’s equally seminal part in public affairs, beginning during the 1920s. Few other historians have fully credited Barton’s importance to Calvin Coolidge, a fellow Amherst graduate, celebrant of capitalism, and dispenser of bromides. Recognizing Coolidge’s potential early on, Barton wrote puff pieces of the dour New Englander when he was still governor of Massachusetts. When Coolidge became president, Barton played a dual role, helping his client write speeches and stage photo ops as adman, then donning his journalist’s hat to exalt the president in glossy magazines.
Barton’s salesmanship, along with Coolidge’s underappreciated talents, succeeded. The public image that Barton and Coolidge crafted together–Silent Cal, the unpretentious, upright steward of prosperity and guardian of old-fashioned values–played well across America, except among those acerbic intellectual critics of 1920s normality like H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. Alas, Barton’s next political client, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, proved less amenable to P.R. Although Hoover cruised into office in 1928 partly on the strength of his “Wonder Boy” reputation as the man who had fed a ravaged postwar Europe, not even the ablest Madison Avenue image-smith could salvage his presidency from the wreckage of the Great Depression. Indeed, the 1932 election was the rare occasion in which the Democrats’ publicity efforts worked better than the Republicans’; they branded the makeshift camps that homeless and jobless Americans erected “Hoovervilles,” to the incumbent’s lasting frustration.
As he oversaw BBDO in the 1930s, Barton remained a loyal Republican. But he also seemed to reconcile himself to the New Deal. Fried argues persuasively that despite the textbook caricature of Barton as a mindless booster for business, he accepted the need for an affirmative, if limited, government. Historians, Fried suggests, have too often overemphasized Barton’s apologetics for corporate America and his portrait of Jesus as a salesman, forgetting that he identified with the GOP’s liberal wing. “At least 70 percent to 80 percent of the institutions and laws” of the New Deal, Barton correctly argued to party-mates, “will have to be continued even under a Republican administration.” When GOP leaders recruited him to fill a vacancy in the House in 1937, Barton agreed, regaining for his party the traditionally Republican seat that represented New York’s East Side. “We in the advertising business know more about people than politicians do,” Barton crowed, in a candid summation of his worldview.
In Congress, Barton made a name for himself, even as he continued, as was not uncommon then, to work for BBDO. Soon, pundits mentioned him as a possible presidential candidate, and in 1940, GOP leaders tapped him to run for the Senate. Although he had been an isolationist in the 1930s and even made some sympathetic remarks about Mussolini, his anti-war stance more closely resembled the liberal than the reactionary one; by 1940, with the Nazis in Paris, he muted his anti-war views substantially. Like many Republicans, he ran instead on the argument that rewarding FDR’s pursuit of a third term by violating the taboo against three-term presidencies would mark a dangerous step toward unchecked executive power. It would amount, he said, to nothing less than “the end of freedom.”
FDR fought back by depicting the Republicans as dangerously nave about Hitler’s designs. In a speech in Madison Square Garden in October 1940, the president assailed three Republicans who the year before had opposed his request to lift the arms embargo on Europe: Minority Leader Joseph Martin, New York’s Hamilton Fish, and Barton. Stringing them together in a sing-song phrase to the cadences of the nursery rhyme “Winken, Blinken and Nod,” he mocked “Martin, Barton, and Fish.” The crowd loved it and began chant-ing the phrase, and subsequent audiences echoed the mantra as a taunt. Though hardly the critical difference in the fall races, the focus on the GOP’s isolationist tendencies helped FDR repulse Wendell Willkie’s challenge. By reducing Barton’s support among New York Jews and other liberals distrustful of any dissent from the president’s staunch anti-Hitler line, it also may have contributed to Barton’s loss to the incumbent Sen. James M. Mead. The irony was rich: Barton the master copywriter stung, if not undone, by a clever jingle. Although he would later advise Tom Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower, and BBDO remained the Republicans’ favored advertising firm, Barton’s political career had reached its apogee.
What, then, to make of Barton’s politics? Fried laces the book with references to positions he took throughout his career and notes that they often seemed contradictory. Barton equivocated on the New Deal. Mildly anti-Semitic or pro-Hitler remarks sat uncomfortably in his record next to apparently sincere professions of religious toleration. His denunciations of America’s imperial aspirations–he opposed the Marshall Plan, for example–made no mention of his own work for the United Fruit Company (BBDO came up with “The Chiquita Banana Song”). Barton supported Republicans as diverse as Eisenhower, Robert Taft, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon. Although Fried fairly pegs Barton as a liberal Republican, he never plumbs the substance of Barton’s politics in enough depth to reconcile these disparate opinions. The closest he comes is to call Barton “eclectic,” or to emphasize “the priority he cherished for the individual”–too weak a thread to unify these sundry views.
At bottom, the thinness of Barton’s political beliefs, as seen in this fine book, may reveal that he was simply not a serious political thinker. Though he spent much of his career serving presidents and the Republican Party, ultimately, politics were secondary for him. Like automobiles and cigarettes and even Christianity, political leaders and views were interesting to him as commodities to peddle in pursuit of a bland vision of the good life–not as causes in which to fervently believe. It’s surely the case that today’s sneering critics of Washington overestimate the fickleness of our leaders and underestimate the depth of their convictions. But to the extent that there exists some merit in viewing politics as a superficial contest of photo opportunities, sound bites, slogans, and images, hatched by Madison Avenue’s savviest cynics, it is a development for which Bruce Barton deserves no small share of responsibility.
David Greenberg is a professor of history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. He is writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge for Henry Holt’s American Presidents series.