Portraits of Greatness

by Jennie Kaufman

It’s good for a man to get off on his own. America is all about independence—our national holiday is even named Independence Day. When it comes time for a boy to be a man, he ought to see his country, and without being led or nagged at or otherwise “molded” by parents or girlfriend or even frat brothers. When he steps into the voting booth, he steps in alone.
So last year, when I found myself cast adrift by yet another woman, causing Mom & Dad to ooze disappointment and turning my posse into a pack of raving idiots, I seized my opportunity. As a guy who has always seen clearly, I knew what I must do: I went to Mount Rushmore.
Holy crap! Do you realize the size of those mugs? I stared and stared and it wasn’t enough; I couldn’t absorb it. I needed more.
 
It was the end of summer, 2003. I had never been to this part of the country. Most of us have not, am I right? Yet when I stood in front of Mount Rushmore it struck me in the most visceral way that this was my country—that the West is always present in the heart of every American, subconsciously. The huge swath of conquered territory gives each one of us, like it or not, a deep sense of entitlement. Unless one is a Native American, of course, from whom the land was stolen and pillaged with catastrophic thoroughness—but, let’s face it, their demographic is hardly politically intimidating, so the generalization stands.
The idea took hold of me that this land, this “South Dakota,” must have more insight to offer, if only I would pause. For Mount Rushmore to be a mere random occurrence seemed most unlikely. By cause or effect, this state surely must harbor more images of great American statesmen.
And the Spirit did guide me to Potato Creek.
 
A likeness so remarkable needs no further identification.
I spoke with the artist.
She was in her early 20s, with red pigtails and freckles. She wore a flannel shirt with bits of hay sticking out of the pocket, dungarees, and no shoes.
“Whatever he did, as president—I’m not defending his actions, and I’m not honoring him, no matter how much it may seem. I wanted to present him as a man like any man. He does deserve that much.”
I hesitated. She was so sincere, with a voice like blueberry pie. My body pressed forward, yearning to agree. But my mind—curse it all!—could not go along.
“He doesn’t deserve that much,” I cried out in a strangled tone. “He deserves more—he deserves much more! You should honor him—no matter what he’s done. You should make a body out of cornstalks. You should slaughter your prize cow to buy silk with which to make him a top hat, a cravat, tuxedo lapels. Make hands for him, and buy him a fresh Coke to hold every day, winter and summer. He is not a man like any man—wench, are you mad? He was the President of the United States of America!”
I stumbled on, perhaps delirious. Was it a toxin leaching from the soil? Was it some sort of Superfund-resistant emission in the air? My chest was tight, and I felt drunk—the kind of drunk you still feel the next day, when you realize that whether it is now Friday or Saturday is an arbitrary question and not something you can ever know for sure, job responsibilities notwithstanding. All I knew was that I was driven—most assuredly in the passive voice—to seek the presence of more Presidents.
The little town named Wood? Surely here. For half an hour I tottered up and down Main Street, croaking “Carvings? Presidential carvings?”
I drove slowly by the school. A helpful police officer stopped to question me. “This is Wood,” I insisted from my driver’s seat, pointing down.
“I’m gonna take you to the station house, beat the living crap out of you, cut off your balls and make you eat them,” he replied.
“I just—want—to see presidential carvings,” I said.
He considered me. “You mean, graven images?”
I nodded. I could feel the pool of saliva start to slip over my lip.
“Ain’t none here,” he said, “but if you head down the road to Rosebud, you’ll find something.”
I thanked him profusely and left town.
Forty-five minutes later, I was parked across from the local branch of the First National Bank of South Dakota, staring at a 20- x 30-foot landscape blooming with the region’s secret collection of wondrous floral hybrids. I’ll tell you a secret: there was no money in that bank. This was the true wealth. I could hardly believe my eyes. Nixon in a bed of roses (or whatever)—I was catapulted back in time to a moment before cynicism!
Although you have not been to South Dakota, I think you’ll understand when I say that Richard Nixon can be a tonic to the soul. I hauled up my slack jaw, I wiped up or swallowed my drool, I found an ancient Wetnap in the glove compartment that worked just fine, with a little spit, to clean my hands and face. You see, what I did at this point in my journey was accept the miracle. Accept the excitement. Accept the fact that my insides would turn to mush several times over the course of a day. This was an opportunity to experience our nation’s history in my blood, and in my heart, and in my bowels.
I pushed on.
Unfortunately, but understandably, I was not allowed to collect photographic evidence from my next stop, Hidden Timber. What I saw there was absolutely astonishing: using dental records, scholars have re-created not just the authentic pants that each president wore, but the authentic size and shape of each erect penis beneath them.
Yes—catch your breath. I had to, too.
Going far beyond remedial questions such as “Did Calvin Coolidge dress left or dress right?” (look in your heart: you know the answer), here I was presented with a wealth of data begging for correlation to any number of things. Even a brief visit was unavoidably thought-provoking. For instance: has no one ever noticed that every single American president, without exception, has been male?
 
Recording copious notes on my minicassette as I drove, stopping frequently to cry, laugh, and urinate, to step out of the car and feel the land—South Dakota!—beneath my feet once more in seemingly endless paroxysms of wonder—I made my way through images respectful, imaginative, heartfelt, in Pukwana, Armour, and Fedora. And then I reached Nunda.
You must understand my condition at this point, although you have never been to South Dakota. For days I had been living a life that suggested more than anything that I wasn’t alive at all—but rather that I was traversing the halls of Heaven (American wing). It truly seemed greater than life itself. But I was almost to the border of Minnesota, and I knew that my journey was almost over.
I stopped at the café in Nunda. I sat in a booth and had a hot dog with ketchup and mustard, cottage fries, and an ice-cold Budweiser. The sensations of earthly being began to return to me. I savored them intensely as I realized the lesson of my odyssey—only now could I truly understand how blessed, how incomparably blessed, I was to be an American in America.
I went to the museum, tense with expectation for my climactic vision. The walls of a great oval room were lined with wax statues, oil paintings, and pencil portraits—utterly familiar images of each president in the most dull and ordinary style. Alongside were speakers from which each president orated. One by one, in apparently random order, they shouted their parts, sometimes in their own voices—“Ich bin ein Berliner”—or, in the case of earlier leaders, in the voice of a specially trained documentary voiceover artist. The effect was disorienting, for presidents of yore, like children of yore, are to be seen and not heard. Who knew Benjamin Harrison was possessed of such conviction?
The longer I stood, the more the voices seemed to grow in intensity. The issues, troubles, and triumphs of our great nation writhed with the passionate debate of the centuries. I trembled in their glory.
Suddenly, a large green clod-footed apparition burst into the room and lumbered to every speaker in turn, yelling, “Nunda! Nunda! Nunda! Nunda!” until the voices of the presidents were silenced, shrouded in history once more.
I was stunned.
Nunda, Nunda, Nunda, Nunda?
I looked down at the brochure in my hand and learned that the apparition, or “Nunda monster,” was played on a rotating basis by Fred Murphy and Jeanette Sorensen. It seemed to be a bit of a lark for Fred, but Jeanette had an impressive background in dinner theater, and I think it was she I was observing, so vehement were her Nundas.
After visiting the restroom, which was quite clean, as most of South Dakota’s public restrooms are, I got into my car and left the state forever.
I never thought of myself, before that dizzying week, as a presidential groupie. Honestly, I don’t know what took hold of me. I only know that for a while there, I believed, and it was beautiful.

Photo of Mount Rushmore by Laura Stewart; other photo illustrations by Jennie Kaufman.