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Turd Blossoms and the American Dream

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The American Dream is an elusive one and there have been many versions of it, some related to immigrants, some related to the middle class and some related to democracy. One of the most widespread versions, though, has a lot to do with cattle droppings.

What the Hell is a Turd Blossom?

US President George W Bush liked to nickname people he came across. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin 'Pootie-Poot' and New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd 'Cobra'1. Perhaps his most interesting nickname was for his senior adviser, Karl Rove, whom he called 'Turd Blossom'. There are at least three explanations for this nickname-

  • Legendary White House Reporter Helen Thomas claims that the name 'Turd Blossom' comes from the sound a cow pie makes when it hits the ground - the Blossom part being an onomatopoeia.

  • It may be a reference to the great spinmeister's ability to make spin 'flowers' out of 'turds'.

  • When cattle excrete, along with the normal droppings are often flower seeds, which will blossom from the poo into a flower - thus, turd blossom. The social connotation is that someone may be born in difficult conditions, but end up blossoming in society. Taking the name literally, though, it does make sense that flowers should blossom out of faeces - it's a fairly nutritious substance. One Researcher recalled this experience:

  • I stayed in a lovely RV park in a desert town called Moab outside Arches National Park in Utah two weeks ago. The park was full of lovely, healthy deciduous trees in full fall bloom. Considering that this was a desert environment, the trees were totally out of place. But then each RV campsite had a 'dump station' where faeces and other filthy waste could be deposited into a septic tank with drainlines extending out under the trees.

According to the Rove biography 'Boy Genius', Mr Bush gave this name to his adviser because Rove was getting too much media attention for Bush's taste2. Whatever the true explanation may be, this entry is concerned with the third in the list.

Paging Mr Alger

With this nickname, Mr Bush may well have coined a term for those great heroes of the American Dream who are able to stand up to the Dickensian squalor they are born into and rise to the Vanderbilt-esque higher levels of American society. It is an article of faith in the nation that with courage, optimism, perseverance and a good heart, anyone can be the next billionaire, the next President or really whatever they want to be.

You need not stay at the same economic position you inherited from your parents your entire life. Though there are classes, they are not castes and it's possible to move upwardly through them with relative ease. This is certainly true in theory, and often in practice. America is supposed to be a strict meritocracy - it has no nobility3. Patronage, nepotism and the spoils system are frowned upon. Some folks can truly blossom, even within such inhospitable conditions... the turd, as it were.

The man who did the most to perpetuate this theme throughout American consciousness was Horatio Alger. He was the author of numerous dime novels that all had the same plot line - a poor, but virtuous and hardworking boy performs an honest, or courageous act and is rescued from poverty by a powerful benefactor. Strictly speaking, being rescued because of pure luck hasn't got much to do with hard work - though the hero demonstrated that anyway. Nevertheless, Alger and the rags-to-riches, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps theme are now synonymous. He also helped to formulate the popular, if flawed, Hard Work Equals Success Equation that is ingrained in many American minds.

The Negative Side

An unfortunate corollary of the Hard Work Equals Success Equation is the Lack of Success Equals Not Hard Enough Work Equation. This philosophy says that people who are not successful just aren't trying hard enough or aren't fit for greatness. This has come to be known as social Darwinism, based on Darwin's principle of survival of the fittest.

Today, some scholars question if the American Dream is still a viable possibility for a large part of the populace. Nevertheless, the American Dream is still there for any determined turd blossom to come along and try to grab. Sure, it's harder in a society with low minimum wage and the social Darwinist attitude that leads the powerful to avoid helping the weak, but it's there.

There is another adverse effect of the American Dream. Because this dream is so widespread, just about every middle and lower class American believes that he or she will one day become fabulously wealthy. Naturally, this can't happen, but it doesn't really bother the poor man when he hears that the wealthy are getting wealthier while he gets poorer, because when he's the CEO of a major corporation, he's going to want that wealth.

Lastly, on a positive note, there is an argument to be made that the worse the conditions are, the more determined one may become to 'blossom'. The greatest men and women of any American age fiercely greeted adversity and obstacles with strength and spirit. Being born a turd may can have many other implications for the powerful - they may be more inclined to help the downtrodden once they've ascended through the ranks.

A Selection of Turd Blossoms

To be a self-made man (or woman) in America is something to be proud of. It shows that because you only have yourself to thank for your success, you must have done something right. The following is a (by no means complete) list of some of the more interesting turd blossoms in American history.


Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indian isle of Nevis, and lost both of his parents (neither were particularly wealthy) at an early age. He proved himself to his neighbours, and they sent him off to America to study. From there, he proceeded to make friends and impress people continually, until he became acquainted with a gentleman named George Washington. As an aide to Washington, he proved himself to be so useful and intelligent that Washington allowed him to take up the premier post of Treasury Secretary in the first American administration.

Benjamin Franklin was the tenth son of a soap-maker, so he wasn't born into any luxury (though he was probably a very clean child). Of course, his incredible intellect helped him rise to become one of America's premier statesmen and greatest innovators.

Born in a Log Cabin

Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson were both US Presidents born in log cabins. Lincoln's family had a fairly unsuccessful farm in Kentucky, and he went off on his own to Illinois, where he arrived without enough money for shelter and had to sleep in the same bed as a friend. With his brilliant mind and determination (notably in the field of politics, he lost more elections than he won) he rose up the ranks to become one of America's greatest Presidents. Jackson was born in a small settlement in the Carolinas and worked to become a successful lawyer, planter, soldier, politician and eventually President.

Jackson and Lincoln are each considered a 'man of the people', which appeals to 'the people', who just happen make up most of the electorate. In this way, it helps to rise out of adversity in politics because you get to be a 'man of the people', and know what it's like to live in terrible conditions (of course, it's fairly easy to pull a William Henry Harrison and invoke the log cabin image and claim to be a man of the people even though you were born into a wealthy Virginia planter family).

Lincoln, one of the great orators of his time, said this to an Ohio regiment during the Civil War:

I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright - not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.

The Gilded Age

Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller were masters of industry in the 19th Century (or robber-barons). Carnegie dealt in steel and Rockefeller in oil. They had similar origins; Carnegie was born without distinction in Scotland and Rockefeller had humble beginnings in New York state.

Carnegie emigrated to America in 1848, and took a small job in a railroad company. From there, he managed to impress his superiors so much that he was promoted, and managed to get his hands on that precious commodity of commerce - capital. He scraped together enough cash to open a steel mill in 1875 and, by the end of the century, he was bought out for the whopping sum of 480 million. Being a grateful Turd Blossom, he gave away much of his wealth to good causes, and ended up as one of the major benefactors of libraries and the arts in America.

Rockefeller was born in New York state in 1839. His mother instilled in him the 'Protestant work ethic', while his father was basically a conman4. Rockefeller managed to get a job in Cleveland, Ohio and, like so many before him, he proved himself and went up the corporate chain until he eventually had the means (and, it must be said, mindset) to corner the oil industry. Like Carnegie, he ended up being a great philanthropist.

Modern Era

Oprah Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi into a very poor family at a time when African-Americans were harshly discriminated against. She managed to get a start in television in Tennessee, before relocating to Chicago, where she gained national exposure. Today, she is regularly rated as one of America's richest and most powerful people.

Sam Walton managed to pull himself out of a poor rural existence during the Great Depression to become the richest man in the world at one time by founding the Wal-Mart department stores.

Bill Clinton was born in a rural Arkansas town famed for its watermelons. He grew up in poor conditions, but by demonstrating leadership and intelligence, he got a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and a start in politics. He worked hard in politics and governing, until he managed to get elected President of the US - twice.

1She has had some choice words and names for Mr Bush over the years.2'Turd Blossom' is possibly a way of taking Rove down a peg... it's probably closer to 'Cobra' than 'Pootie-Poot' in that way.3Ignoring the Kennedys.4Some say that with his father teaching young John about cheating people out of their money helped the future entrepreneur develop his unscrupulous business practices.

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