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February 24, 2003


JOHN Q. PUBLIC, 1912(?) – 2003

A Premature Obituary?

By Geoffrey Heller

John Q. Public died early this morning after a long and painful illness.

He was approximately 91 years old.

Authorities have thus far refused to disclose either the precise cause or the exact location of Mr. Public’s death. The deceased, however, is known to have been afflicted for many years with an especially severe case of encephalitis lethargica. The same affliction makes it unlikely for the deceased to have moved anywhere from the site of his last confirmed residence, a sanatorium near Lake Placid in upstate New York.

A lifelong bachelor and, indeed, something of a recluse during his latter years, Mr. Public leaves no known legitimate descendants — the vociferous claims of several prominent contemporary politicians to the contrary notwithstanding.

Born within six months either way of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, John Public — the distinctive “Q” came later — first attracted widespread notice upon the August 1914 outbreak of “the war to end all wars” (i.e., World War I). Photographs from that period reveal a patriotic spirit no less ubiquitous than infantile: now in Trafalgar Square waving the Union Jack, now at the Brandenburg Gate donning a miniature spiked helmet, now marching (or, rather, toddling) down the Champs Elysees to the (probable) accompaniment of the Marseillaise. How this prepubescent incarnation of seemingly kaleidoscopic nationalism could fly so quickly from one warring party to the next in the age before air travel remains a mystery, as does the original parentage of the child himself. Rarely, in any event, has an orphan of such uncertain antecedents found so many strangers eager to adopt him as one of their own. By 1917, even the United States, increasingly loath to open its borders to anyone whose name was not unmistakably Anglo-Saxon (or at least Anglo-Norman), was prepared to take in young Johnny Public — who as a de facto if not de jure American citizen would one day take in some of the most powerful members of his newfound “family,” along with a good many of his erstwhile “relatives” elsewhere.

That ironic turnabout, however, lay well in the future. Through the 1920s and into the following decade, young John Public kept a generally low profile. While from time to time he could be spotted at baseball games, movie palaces, speakeasies, and other venues popular with his larger, more amorphous namesake, the future icon of indiscriminate inclusiveness is himself invisible, for the most part, among the myriad individuals self-consciously striving to epitomize the epoch to which they all professed to belong. For the adolescent Public, as for the bulk of his contemporaries, the Roaring Twenties was a period of physical growth, social (mal)adjustment, and behavioral experimentation — a period, in short, of flexing that “power without responsibility” which a famous English writer once labeled the “prerogative” of prostitutes and press lords. (At the height of the Cold War decades later, it was charged that Mr. Public — by then, of course, a well-established Establishment Figure — had as a teenager been kidnapped by “Leninist agents” to serve the still somewhat shaky Bolshevik regime; but research in recently released Russian archives has thus far failed to corroborate this particular accusation against America’s former archenemy.) Nor did the onset of the Great Depression add much to young Public’s public stature. Though millions were united as never before in a common quest for economic salvation, economic hardship simultaneously weakened average individuals’ willingness to share the sought-after prosperity with anyone not quite as average as themselves. And John Public in the 1930s possessed neither the emotional nor the practical wherewithal to bridge these persistent demographic rifts through the force of his own exemplary unexceptionality.

Pearl Harbor proved the making of John Public. Whether — in common with so many of his adopted compatriots — he instinctively volunteered his services in the wake of the Japanese attack, or whether he was somehow coopted by the Roosevelt administration (via, say, a threat of deportation to one of the countless other countries — including Japan — which claimed him as a native son), remains a matter of dispute among historians. What is undeniable is the speed with which the outwardly nondescript Public — not yet thirty years old, and languishing in apparently contented obscurity since the heady days of the previous global armageddon — came to embody the fears and hopes, needs and desires, passions and aversions of the entire country (pacifists, Axis sympathizers, and diehard isolationist Republicans excepted). Like Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, only on a much wider scale, the face and figure of John Public could be seen everywhere a (white, Christian, American) man was in trouble: now exhorting the troops in the Pacific to show their Japanese foes even less mercy than the Germans, now reminding the folks back home that the slice of cheese or dollop of butter they sacrificed today would help fortify their boys in the field tomorrow, now at the side of the president himself urging him to be as “tough” with the Soviets as he was with the Jews. To what extent John Public actually changed the course of the war is a moot question: historical cause and effect are too complex to be explicable solely with reference to this or that individual, even one as protean as Mr. Public. But by war’s end policymakers, generals, journalists, diplomats, and Hollywood moguls were all toasting “J.P.” as the single most important contributor to Allied victory. So clamorous did the applause become, in fact, that its recipient felt constrained to adopt a middle initial — the better to sustain his firm denial whenever accosted with a demand to know if he were “THAT John Public.”

Be that as it may, the postwar years saw the apotheosis of John Q. Public — and not merely as an entry in the dictionary. Reporters sought his views on everything from atom smashers to Barbie dolls to capitol punishment; advertisers solicited his endorsement — free or otherwise — of their products; government office-holders of all political stripes regularly invoked his name in support of measures under attack by less favored members of the electorate. Nor, it must be emphasized, was John Q. Public himself a passive participant in this seeming exploitation of his persona. On the contrary, his very malleability rendered him an ideal spokesman for a society where differences of opinion or taste or purpose were as much a part of the landscape as the chameleon in New England. Any stance he might take one week could be abandoned the next, with nobody being the wiser — or, at any rate, prepared to risk the consequences (e.g., loss of office) a demonstration of their newfound wisdom might incur. No wonder Life magazine titled its — admiring — 1957 profile of Mr. Public: “Move Aside, Lon Chaney! Here’s a Man of MORE than a Thousand Faces!”

A comparable article could probably not have been written ten years later. Growing divisiveness over Vietnam, civil rights, the respective merits of heroin vs. marijuana, and other vital issues of the day led to larger cleavages (i.e., within the American polity) unbridgeable — or so it appeared — even by so consummate a master of consistent inconsistency as John Q. Public. Yet Mr. Public’s public standing remained high enough to allow him to retain the ear, the respect, and the confidence of groups across the occupational, generational, and ideological spectrum. The White House may have been at daggers drawn with the Fourth Estate, parents may have thought their children revolting and vice versa, integrationists and segregationists may have kept their distance from each other — but all were as one in insisting that John Q. Public was indeed on their side of the barricades. Thus the turbulent sixties ended (ca. 1974) with Mr. Public once again the supreme symbol of a unity from which none were excluded save the incorrigibly unique.

Symbols, however, are prone to outlive their usefulness, to be discarded once whatever they symbolize either no longer exists or, conversely, exists in such plenitude as to obviate all need for any “external” representation thereof. The 1980s in the United States witnessed a rare conjunction of BOTH phenomena, a newly earnest solicitude for the first person singular flourishing alongside an equally impassioned determination to make all one’s neighbors as oneself. Caught between these competing yet complementary forces, John Q. Public became superfluous. Though he continued to draw crowds on Capitol Hill, in the anterooms of Madison Avenue, and at American Legion outposts around the country, general neglect gradually impelled Mr. Public to withdraw from the public arena entirely. His last public appearance was at a patriotic rally outside Oswego on 12 September 2001 – a rally at which Mr. Public was verbally assaulted for not bellowing the national anthem as lustily as everyone else; only his obvious age and frailty saved the octogenarian warbler from more tangible signs of hostility. Such is the gratitude that democracies from time immemorial have been wont to bestow upon those who most nearly exemplify the democratic ideal.

One may, of course, legitimately wonder how many would have noticed John Public’s absence or presence at ANY point in his career. Seldom has a figure of such widespread and protracted renown left so meager a record of personal identity: there is no birth certificate, no school diploma, no driver’s license, no library card, no bankbook, not even a single photograph to accompany the present obituary. Interviews, it is true, abound, but — like the periodic references to Mr. Public in presidents’ and other ostensible leaders’ memoirs — they are too contradictory to permit a definitive assessment of their subject’s character and thinking, while rumors of a massive “tell-all” autobiography remain unsubstantiated. Someday, no doubt, an especially enterprising sociologist, political scientist, anthropologist, and/or gossip columnist will attempt to piece together the full story of this remarkable individual who paradoxically transcended mediocrity by embracing it. Yet in the final analysis John Q. Public’s name and fame rest on a foundation far more durable than the printed word — the same foundation that lent immortality to Shakespeare’s “poor player.” For few indeed have been able to vent greater “sound and fury” than an aroused Mr. Public — and fewer still, we daresay, could match Mr. Public in achieving so much of such lasting insignificance.

Burial services for the deceased will be private. A fund has been established, however, to erect a monument to Mr. Public at one or another of the literally innumerable localities where he was active. Interested parties may send their tax-deductible contributions to: The JQP Memorial Foundation, c/o Vox Populi, Inc., P.O. Box 666a, Grover’s Corners, NH, 01212.