Editor's note: An abridged version of "The Presidents" was published in the New York Times in 1992. Considering the spectacle of recent American presidential politics, we feel the piece is more timely than ever and that the unexpurgated and unabridged version deserves a life.
The electoral season! How delightful is it when the Quadrennium is in bloom and our particolored Presidents arrive to spangle the fields and factory floors! Welcome visitants they always are, low forms of existence though they be. "The Presidents are come!" the children cry and rush out to be hugged and kissed and have their photos taken with these singular creatures, half blind yet sensitive to the least hoot and twitter, elusive yet omnipresent, and, even when repulsive, endowed with such curious instincts and so diverse in form and structure as to attract the attention of the most jaded observor, even if only in self-defense.
"The Presidents are come!" Yes, it sends a thrill through the heart, whether of pleasure or of apprehension, to see, after the long dry years of stagnation and dormancy, the first one of the season sailing in on broad sylphic pinions in the cool slanted beams of a calm autumn morning, or else traversing the surface of the earth by those remarkable leaps and wriggles for which they are renowned. Some are gloriously bedizened, others naked but for a film of gelatinous flesh, so tightly stretched as to be reduced to an invisible tenuity; still others are soft, plump, pale, and woolly, or else a livid grey-green with hideous tail pustules, or tender, white, and tantalizingly delicate, and there are many, more familiar to the electorate perhaps, which are actually capable of altering their external shape and changing their spots and colors even as they busily slither, flutter and honk.
While it is true that the common consent of mankind regards most of these creatures with revulsion and abhorrence, and not without reason, inasmuch as many of them are more or less noxious, and some of them are terribly fatal to their fellows (monstrosities by excess are not uncommon), being rapacious and vindictive, treacherous and cruel even to their own kind, full of stratagem and artifice, highly venomous, lurking in darkness, endowed with curious instincts, feeding off excreta, and furnished with many accessory means for the capture and destruction of their opponents, it must nevertheless be remembered always that even these vile creatures are the handiwork of Infinite Wisdom, and so worthy of our admiration, however distant and guarded our scrutiny must, for our own safety, be.
Such scrutiny is invariably rewarded, for the Presidents are curious beings in many respects. Though more or less inactive for most of their lives, they are nevertheless very enduring; they respire little, are susceptible of hibernation, and can remain for a considerable time shut up in confinement so restricted as to produce astonishment. In their movements they are lazy and half-torpid, and yet are capable of sudden gestures, short and jerky and all too often lethal, even when perhaps not so meant. When not frightened or running for election or both, they slowly crawl along, with their tails and bellies dragging on the ground. They often stop and doze for a moment, with closed eyes and hind legs spread out. Many of these creatures bear highly curious appendages that resemble trumpets in form, and they emit incessant chattering sounds which simulate speech but which are mostly imitations of the cries of other species. When they take an antipathy to any one, they immediately show it. They suffer no rivals to approach them, but harass them ceaselessly, emitting rank screens of smoke and tearing from them the ballots that are their very sustenance. When a President has glutted itself, its crop, swelled by the votes which it has received, forms a voluminous projection in front of the neck; a fetid humor oozes from its nostrils, and it remains sunk in a state of stupid torpor until the electoral outcome is finally determined, generally at the far end of the alimentary canal.
If we were asked where throughout the world specimens were to be met with, we might reply, almost everywhere, provided only that voters, a necessary nutrient, be present; but even where such prey is scarce Presidents have been detected and have moreover, in their various mutations, thrived. Darwin in his famous voyage on the Beagle was much struck by the curious phenomena of distribution and survival which that voyage brought before his eyes, remarking that, while some classes die out as civilization spreads, others, like the Rats, the common Sparrow, the Presidents, the Cockroaches, some parasites, and so on, adjust themselves to the altered conditions, and prosper under civilization as they never did in former days. Warm and temperate regions with abundant moisture are the localities favorable to all the Presidents. They are said to live chiefly in ditches, especially those where stagnant and corrupt water has lain a long time, but they are also found in dung-heaps, caves, swamps, and other obscure and fetid locations, choosing secret places wherein to store up all that tempts their cupidity or excites their covetousness, whether in or out of the zoo.
Certainly, wherever else they might be found, they are nowhere more abundant than in America, civilization's gem and Nature's pride, as is widely acknowledged, especially by the gabbling and squawking Presidents themselves and by their keepers. In America, Presidents find a natural habitat, abundant in provender and mud and congenial to their notorious reproductive habits. They are not, here at least, an endangered species. Indeed well over fifty families or sub-species have been recorded, and it is probable that they are even much more numerous than this, as new discoveries are constantly rewarding the close examination of any particular locality with each new Presidential season. The Prickly, Candescent, Wind-Up, and Comatose Presidents are, for example, well-known, as are the Inflatable President (sometimes referred to, erroneously, as the Bouncing President), the savage Blueballed President, the infamously deviant Quincuncial (or Conical) President, and the nocturnal three-legged Oblique President with its heavily lidded eyes and skin resembling in consistence wetted parchment. Most readers would also recognize the common Abominable President, the Immaculate or Two-Humped President, the cave-dwelling Abstract President, distinguishable by its multiple stomachs, contractile bladder, and abyssal eyes which tend to disappear in thick scaly fleshfolds, and the once-famous Flesh-Colored President from those legendary times when specimens were still found in the wild, only later tamed in the national zoo, and then let loose to reproduce. Now most Presidents, of course, are zoo-born of stocks bred in captivity, and either spend their freed lives in the circus or are kept as domesticated house-pets and fed on perks and taxes.
The (possibly mythical) Flesh-Colored Presidents were said to have given birth to the Homuncular, Beggar Tick, and Revolving Presidents, as well as to have sired the predaceous Boundless Presidents, also known as the Join-the-Dots Presidents because of their tendency to lose their outline to their immediate surroundings. It was this asexual yet fecund family of Boundless Presidents in its various evolutionary permutations that gave rise in our own times, not only to the Mechanical, Abridged (or Bedside), Montage, and Cartoon Presidents, but also to the proliferation of multinational gathering and feeding stations and to intergalactic sporogenesis.
None of this, however, has altered for the better their reputation. It is not clear why Presidents should have been considered from the earliest ages as the symbol of stupidity and venality, and branded with a stigma of infamy which will always cast an odium on their name. Many, to be sure, are by nature of a despotic and combative temperament, irascible and quarrelsome, living by plunder and blood-shedding, destruction the sole object of their existence, but the innocent, which arguably outnumber the noxious and are merely ridiculous, share the disrepute, and are unjustly visited with the hatred and aversion due to their malific fellows. Nor is this popular prejudice against the entire species moderated, alas, by any evidence of natural grace and beauty. It is difficult to comprehend why Nature, while it has been so kind to the related families of Athletes, Gigolos, and Starlets, has stamped the Presidents with so ungainly a form, for most families of Presidents, it must be said, are homely creatures, their physiognomy at once disproportionate and peculiarly threatening, and, from their low facial angle, they do have a singularly witless appearance, making them objects of general repugnance and causing evil properties to be attributed to them.
But these much-despised beings are surely not so universally stupid or voracious as they are commonly said to be. In the present day it is really time to have done with all these timeworn rhetorical fancies which are in continual and complete variance with the results of science and observation, and to cry with the children: "The Presidents are come! Hooray! Don't get too close! But long live the Presidents!"
Copyright © by Robert Coover, 1992 and 2000
Robert Coover is the author of many novels, including most recently Ghost Town and Briar Rose. His first novel, The Origin Of The Brunists, was just reissued by Grove Press. He is also the author of numerous short stories, essays, plays, etc. His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; he recently received the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He teaches electronic and experimental writing at Brown University.