A Sad Sequence of Collisions

Cynthia Wachtell: Make Motor Vehicle Safety a Priority

At the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama shared a pithy car story calculated to remind Americans of her husband’s humble origins. Long before he was president, she recalled, he drove a car so rusted out that she could “see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side door.” Mitt Romney, whose father was president of American Motors Corporation, made a different point during a speech in Detroit last winter: “I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually.” Stories about the Romneys’ cars — and the dog that rode atop one — have proved welcome fodder for late-night comedians.

Cynthia Wachtell
Prof. Cynthia Wachtell

However, there is another type of car story, one that’s anything but funny. This story broke through the debate on Thursday night, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in response to an anecdote about Mr. Romney’s generosity toward victims of a car crash, reminded viewers, haltingly, of his personal loss 40 years ago: “My wife was in an accident, killed my daughter and my wife, and my two sons survived.”

To a surprising extent, tragic car crashes have defined the lives of American presidents and vice presidents — both Democratic and Republican — of the past two decades. Consider this:

Bill Clinton’s father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., died in a car accident in May 1946. Mr. Clinton was born three months later.

Laura Welch, the future wife of George W. Bush, ran a stop sign in 1963. The driver of the car she struck, her high school classmate and friend Michael Douglas, died at the scene.

Barack Obama’s father was in three serious accidents, and died in the last one, in 1982. The future president was 21.

In 1989, Al Gore’s 6-year-old son, Albert Gore III, ran into a street following an Orioles game and was hit by a car. He was thrown 30 feet and nearly died. Read full article at The New York Times

Dr. Cynthia Wachtell is an assistant professor of American literature and director of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Yeshiva University. She is the author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 (Louisiana State University Press, 2010). The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Yeshiva University.

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