Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Bush as "Henry V"?

Scott Newstok has an essay critiquing the oft-drawn connection between George W. Bush and Shakespeare's Prince Hal/Henry V. I actually hadn't heard that parallel made, but Newstok collects copious examples, and it doesn't surprise me that someone thought of it.

Part of his article deals with the tension between history and Shakespeare. No amount of historical justification of Richard III ever will remove the public image of the man from the crippled, murderous schemer that Shakespeare brilliantly created. Shakespeare didn't just twist history for the sake of the plot, the way a modern Hollywood filmmaker might. He was engaged in deliberate mythmaking. He was giving England a sense of itself -- and its contemporary ruling dynasty -- as something great, sceptred, God-ordained. King John stands up to the Pope. Henry V defeats the French. Richard II illustrates the Slippery slope of a flip-flopping king.

Who's to say how much of that was Shakespeare's awareness of what would happen to his theater company if he didn't do that, and how much was his own political philosophy?

So is it wrong to use him the way he used his sources? Because modern Americans have as much need of national myths as Elizabethan Englishmen. We need them because they tell us who we are and what we stand for, and that tempers a great power by giving it a moral purpose. "Morality" is a bad word to a lot of the people who bash Bush reflexively, because they concede morals to the right -- as though "morals" equal Bill Bennett's hectoring. But a power without a morality is a far more dangerous thing than a power that believes it has to live up to some high, self-set standard.

Newstok mentions George Washington. To me, he's the grand exemplar of this in American history. Say "actor-president" and people think Reagan, but Washington played a role so thoroughly, and so perfectly, that people still think he was that regal, noble Roman hero. When you read the accounts of him written by his intimate circle during the Revolution, you see the American man -- vain, hard-driving, hard-cussing, clever in a farmer's ways. And you realize what he did, transforming his life as a gift to the new nation, to offer it stability.

He reached back to another historical myth to ease the delicate transition from military revolution to civilian administration: Cincinnatus, the Roman hero who, during a crisis, reluctantly accepted the dictatorship for six months, defeated Rome's enemies in six weeks, then resigned and went back to his plow. Now regarded as almost surely mythical, Cincinnatus was a real hero to the founders. And when Washington resigned from public life in 1783 after the great victory and returned to Mount Vernon rather than mounting the throne of the new nation, he was the marvel of the world, and he was behaving quite deliberately on the classical model. His peers recognized it. Washington became head of an association of Revolutionary War veterans -- the equivalent of today's American Legion or VFW -- called the Society of the Cincinnati.

In some small details of protocol, he erred on the side of royalty. No harm done; Adams and Jefferson tilted the balance carefully back. The danger of having no dignity at the top, no noblesse oblige, was far greater, and Washington made sure we had enough noblesse to realize the oblige.

He knew this new country needed myths. The American equivalent of Shakespeare's English history plays are Parson Weems' Washington fables: the cherry tree and the silver dollar skipped across the Potomac. Like Athens, we were a nation born without myths, we were missing in the catalogue of ships, so we invented a Theseus to fill the bill.

That's also why I think the trail Newstok blazes into "Republicans secretly are aristocrats" is a wrong turn. He writes that Henry V, the British royal hero with the common touch, appeals to the modern Right because the modern Right has a secret fetish for "the reality of aristocracy smoothed over by the rhetoric of democracy."

"Given this early American history of infatuation with regal trappings, maybe we shouldn't be all that surprised that there are some today who would favor thinking of the Bush family as a kind of dynasty, and that these royalists are thus understandably elated by the resonances with King Henry's story."

This seems to overstate the complex balance of powers in the early republic. The miserable experience of trying to fight the Revolution under the decentralized U.S. government of 1776-1787 taught men like Hamilton and Washington the importance of having some weight and authority at the top. The political writings of Montesquieu and Polybius, and the example of the ancient republics, taught them the essential importance of having a "mixed government," including the importance of having an aristrocracy with real power, to block the mudslides of the masses. You need not posit a secret yearning for crowns and dicators to understand the role of executive power in American history.

Also, isn't it odd to use this battering ram against the Right's supposed longing for "hereditary aristocracy" without mention of the Kennedys, the Cuomos, the Jesse Jacksons (père et fils)? I am not sure having a father who was run out of the White House is part of Bush's "advantageous familial circumstances during the 2000 campaign."

"What remains most galling about the loaded way in which the right insists upon the W/V connection is how deeply reactionary it is. The reductive reading of Shakespeare and the reductive reading of history are both lamentable, but perhaps inevitable in a sound-bite world."

But wait: what about Shakespeare's reductive reading of history? It seems to me that the "connection" of Bush's career to Shakespeare's play is genuine, in the sense that both attempt to turn history into national myth, with an eye to the interest of the current ruling party. If the modern pundits are invalidated, then so is Shakespeare. A lot of baby to throw out with the bathwater there. And I wonder where the anti-mythology of "Farenheit 9/11" fits in?

And I think it's borderline conspiracy theorizing to suggest that Bush backers are "using a cultural authority (Shakespeare) to bolster a political authority (the Bush regime) which, from its inception, has been short on, and even defiant of, the authority necessary to lead a democracy: the consent of the majority of the people."

I don't think the Henry V analogies are anything more than window dressing in the Dubya image. I haven't heard much of it; and I'd be surprised if it crops up at the GOP convention in anyone's speech. It's hardly a central pillar of his re-election program.

The suggestion that Bush's opponents hold up the historical Hal, a much more ambivalent character than Shakespeare's hero, every time Bush's friends make the comparison probably won't work. It misses the point of myth; it will only preach to the converted, and to the rest it will seem dreary balloon-popping.

I've spent more time than I care to recall trying to point out the falsehood of certain myths of word-origins. One of them (see below) is a supposed source of the sexual slur "faggot" that enshrines the male homosexual as a historical victim of persecution. I only can conclude that that is too important to let go of, for some people, even in the face of common sense and historical fact. I can tell you, no one will love you for it, and you won't put a dent in what it suits people to believe. People will invent or find new myths, not to hide from reality, but because to be human is to crave mythos as well as logos.

But I can certainly agree with the author in lamenting the passing of "a time, not so long ago, when politicians themselves actually read Henry V with some sophistication beyond crass self-promotion."

It seems to me the Bush-Hal connection works best on the level of the ne'er-do-well son who becomes a leader of men, which Newstok points out. Whether it's in the literal sense of his reformation from a youth described as "dissolute," or in the more figurative image of the hobbled and uncertain president of Sept. 11, 2001, gradually getting his footing and authority in the world. Though that version depends on your essential agreement with our present foreign policy.

I'd also be wary, in the current media milieu, of seeing a convergence of visions when a half dozen pundits reach for the same analogy to describe some news event. Could just as well be that they've all read the same one source that thought of it first, and borrowed the learned-sounding metaphor for their own talking-head performances without really thinking about it. I may be too cynical, but I'm almost inclined to favor that theory of the spread of the "Prince Hal in the White House" image.