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Cut the Blather
From The New Criterion May 31, 2010.

In February and March and into the first week of April this year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington was presenting what it billed as two plays about leadership by the Bard, Richard II and Henry V, with the same actor, Michael Hayden, playing the title role in each. The gaudy display of Mr Hayden’s range in the representation both of failed and successful leadership won his performances plaudits from The Washington Post as "the most charismatic work in Shakespeare the city has experienced in memory" — which some might call damning with faint praise. But to underscore the local, political angle, the company’s brochure about the production, called "Asides," featured an interview with another charismatic figure, one William Jefferson Clinton, about his own thoughts on Shakespeare and leadership and, well, himself which he used, rather as Mr Hayden used his own opportunity to shine, to show off just a bit. Here, for instance, is the former President demonstrating his own love of Shakespeare by explaining for the benefit of those inexperienced as leaders and less insightful than himself the meaning of the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech from Macbeth:

Shakespeare had an indelible way of warning of the dangers of blind ambition, the fleeting nature of fame and the distinctive desire to equate personal advantage with public purpose and to justify any action, even murder, if it advances them. Giving in to such temptations condemns one to a tragic life "signifying nothing."

If I had read those words in a student’s essay when I was a teacher, I would have scribbled in the margin, "Cut the blather." Alas, blather is all that Mr Clinton seems to be capable of on this subject, as on so many others. Yet it would be pointless to blame him, since blather is presumably what the editor of "Asides" and the Company itself wanted from him in that space, just as it is presumably what the electorate wants in a public servant. Blather is the hallmark of today’s politicians because it is the best insulation from the dreaded "gaffe" which can destroy a candidacy or a career in an instant, and the ingrained fear of such a fate is doubtless the source of Mr Clinton’s own indelible way of converting Shakespeare’s acutest insights into banalities. Well, that plus the eagerness he shares with many another exegete these days to throw off the shackles of the text in order to touch upon his favorite subject, himself.

"Shakespeare intensified my fascination with people, politics and power," he writes. "He made me want to pay attention to what other people said and did, and to understand why some were guided by their better angels, while others were consumed by fear, hatred or greed. In the history plays, I found the characters more complex, and more in line with my own experiences. . ." I’ll just bet he did. But he also knows that the authenticity of a personal narrative of trial, hardship, suffering and ultimate triumph — and didn’t we get a lot of that from "the Man from Hope" back in the 1990s? — is the one thing that remains sacrosanct from the interference of the otherwise all-pervasive scandal machine. Thus he goes on to write of his defeat, as the incumbent governor of Arkansas, in the election of 1980, after which "I became the youngest ex-governor in U.S. history." This experience, he claims, enabled him to "identify with" Richard II who "had obviously ignored President Kennedy’s admonition" — hard to imagine how he could have heeded it nearly six-hundred years before it was given — "that ‘here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own’."

And, lo, only two years later, a certain youthful ex-governor had a second coming when, as he says, "the people of Arkansas gave me a second chance." You will not be surprised to learn that, as he seized upon this chance, he was once again inspired by the wisdom of Shakespeare "as I tried to develop the strengths of Bolingbroke’s son, Henry V, who inherited a weakened and divided nation from a father who proved better at deposing kings than being one." Henry’s victory at Agincourt in 1415 may therefore be compared to his own triumphant return to the Little Rock governor’s mansion in 1982, another unprecedented feat, since "no previous governor had ever been elected, defeated, then elected again, though several had tried." That’s not all he has in common with Shakespeare’s Henry either, since "those who fought with me then, many of whom did live ‘into an old age,’ still remember with pride their Agincourt when they too were ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ (and sisters!)."

Obviously, such bumptiousness with respect to the monuments of Western civilization is no new thing with Mr Clinton. David Maraniss’s biography, First in His Class, recounts an occasion when, after attending a performance of King Lear at Stratford-on-Avon in 1968, he spent the whole of the bus-trip back to Oxford in conversation with a fellow-student "relating [the play] to his life in different ways" and telling of "his eagerness to go back to Arkansas" and get into politics, inspired as he was by Lear’s "poor naked wretches" speech on the heath. Perhaps it takes a politician to be so lacking in any sense of self-irony that he could take the moment of Lear’s first nosing through the cocoon of his self-absorption as his cue to burrow even more deeply into his own. But it must be remembered that, like so many of his and my generation, Mr Clinton was also the product of what was called "child-centered education" and therefore expected not just Shakespearean plays but all kinds of things, including people, to be made "relevant" to his life as the price of being noticed by him.

The same quality is in evidence in Ken Gormley’s account, in his newly published and hyperbolically titled book The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr (Crown, $35), of what the ex-president now regards as "one of the greatest miscalculations of his entire presidency." Was he, perhaps, referring to his failure to take seriously the terrorist threat or to retaliate for the various terrorist outrages that occurred on his watch? Was he even referring to the injudicious sexual escapade which resulted in his impeachment — the subject of Mr Gormley’s book — and the subsequent weakening of his presidential authority and America’s prestige in the world? No. The mistake was his agreeing to renew the independent counsel law which had been used to pursue scandal inquiries against his Republican predecessors. In short, he gave his enemies a weapon to be used against him. "I was as guilty as anybody," he says. "I signed [the law]." There’s a confession for you! He doesn’t even think to draw the thinnest of veils over his naked belief that the good is what’s good for Bill Clinton and the bad — that which he might feel regretful about or guilty for — is what’s bad for Bill Clinton. But, to be fair, there has been no shortage of voices telling him, since the impeachment struggle, that he was entirely in the right and his enemies were entirely in the wrong. There is another irony in the fact that so many of these voices come from the media who were once so eager to ferret out every detail of his sordid sexual shenanigans on the implicit but seldom-stated grounds that the polity, or perhaps democracy itself, was threatened by them. The idea was ridiculous, but Republicans, for a quarter of a century past the principal victims of the media’s scandal-hunting, were so relieved to find the shoe on the other foot for a change that they made the egregious but understandable mistake of joining the pack in full cry after foxy old Bill. The result was a legitimization of the media’s scandal-mania which was to be employed against themselves again but with unprecedented ferocity after they recaptured the White House two years later.

Today, as Mr Clinton’s interviews with Mr Gormley show, the media’s role in l’affaire Lewinsky is all but forgotten, as is the relevant precedent of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991 which are barely mentioned in Mr Gormley’s 800-page book. Instead, the whole miserable business is seen — and not entirely without reason — as some kind of misbegotten crusade by Kenneth Starr and the Republicans to bring down a progressive president. This particular version of events must seem particularly compelling today because the usefulness of scandal, and the media’s cooperation in promoting it, as a tool of progressive politics is being tested again in relation to the tea-party movement, a spontaneous uprising which threatens the agenda of an even more progressive president. Unsubstantiated stories of racial taunts and violent or threatening behavior have been spread by Democrats and uncritically repeated in the media. There is some evidence that activists have attempted, so far without success, to provoke such behavior, and to fabricate it when it hasn’t occurred.

Well, what else could we expect? The media and the Democrats whom they overwhelmingly support have lately had eight years of practice in opposition to President George W. Bush with almost nothing to say against him or his conduct in office except what is deemed to be scandalous. The American people could be excused if they have now got the idea, after the Bush years, that the only way to oppose a politician in office is to blacken his character and accuse him of corrupt or criminal behavior, just as the only way to support him is to elevate him to the godlike status President Obama still enjoys in most of the media. That’s also why, now that they own the White House and are in the majority in Congress, the Democrats still have so little to offer in reply to Republicans’ or tea-partiers’ substantive criticisms save for — what else? — more scandal, which shades into the putative scandal of right-wing stupidity in being unable to understand the ingeniously engineered blessings to be expected from the current administration’s health-care insurance reforms.

Strident voices on both sides of the political divide seem to begin from the assumption that the other side cannot be allowed simply to be wrong or mistaken in judgment; they must also be secretly malicious if not criminal in their efforts to thwart their opponents and knowingly introduce disastrous or immoral measures of their own. Put that way, who could believe anything so preposterous? Yet it is the underlying assumption of the media’s scandal-culture, now adopted by politicians as their own. I can’t help wondering if the real scandal isn’t that the media themselves don’t believe their own rationale for the politics of scandal, pursued by them relentlessly since the 1970s and increasingly to the exclusion of less sensational coverage of politics and political life. That rationale is that, without their constant probing behind the deceitful public façade erected by governments and other powerful institutions, all manner of corruption and wickedness would thrive in our public life and democracy itself would be endangered — a note which is sounded again every time some venerable news organization goes out of business or loses so much money that it looks as if it might go out of business.

But I have no aptitude for scandal-hunting myself and think it much more likely that force of habit and the atrophy of genuine political debate is what lies behind the media’s reflexive recourse to scandal narratives. Frank Rich, who seems to be a permanent inhabitant of scandal heaven, recently wrote a column for The New York Times titled "No One Is to Blame for Anything," by which he obviously intended ironically to say that somebody is to blame for everything — the scandal-monger’s credo. His rogues’ gallery of blamees included the Pope, Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Charlie Rangel, David Paterson, Rod Blagojevich, Tiger Woods, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner and — wouldn’t you just know it? — George W. Bush. So many scandals! And in every case the accused have perversely insisted on defending themselves or, if obviously guilty, failed to give apologies that meet the exacting standards for apologies of F. Rich. He was particularly exercised by the inadequacy of the apologies on offer except in the cases of David Letterman and Barack Obama. The latter’s task seems to have been made easier, however, by the fact that, in Mr Rich’s view, he had little to apologize for.

The demand for public apology to a media and a voyeuristic public who themselves can have no claim to having been injured by the behavior being apologized for smacks of the Stalinist show trial and, like it, proceeds from historicist assumptions. If scandal consists of impeding, however trivially, the revolutionary juggernaut in its inevitable progress, then everyone has a stake not only in removing such impediments but in seeing to it that they acknowledge themselves as such. That’s what seemed to me, at any rate, to be the impulse behind so many of the attacks on Pope Benedict. The evidence of real wrong-doing on his part seemed almost as slight as the demand for his self-abasement on its account was strident but, as much of the commentary in the media made clear, his real sin lay in his standing at the head of an institution with such retrograde ideas about sex — among other things.

"In the New Testament," wrote Maureen Dowd, Jesus is surrounded by strong women and never advocates that any woman — whether she’s his mother or a prostitute — be treated as a second-class citizen." Mind you, it would have been hard for Jesus to "advocate" such a thing as second-class citizenship even if he had wanted to, since the concept would have had no meaning in first century Palestine. There were no second-class citizens because there were no citizens, only Roman subjects. Yet this dubious assertion of Jesus’s feminism leads on immediately to the bald if incomprehensible claim that "negating women is at the heart of the church’s hideous — and criminal — indifference to the welfare of boys and girls in its priests’ care." Hard words! Even if true, they do nothing to inculpate the Pope in any fault apart from that of disagreeing with Maureen Dowd as to what might constitute "negating women." Presumably she is in possession of a Clintonian-grade self-absorption that would regard this as fault enough.

To those who do not share her politics, such stuff must take on an almost ritualistic quality, the result of having to pretend that the rights and wrongs of her argument with the church and its 2000 years of tradition are much more perspicuous than they are. The business of scandal can leave no room for moral doubt, and the media may feel less offended by the scandal itself than by their quarry’s failure to play the scandal game. That was the impression I got from an article by Michelle Boorstein in The Washington Post headed, "Lack of Vatican communications strategy on scandal baffles pope's U.S. defenders." It seems that the Pope and those sleepy old cardinals in the Vatican have not only been guilty of God-knows-what derelictions with respect to pedophile priests. Now we learn from the media themselves that they have been dilatory about putting into action a "crisis management" team of skilled PR operatives to deal with the media’s own publicity campaign against them.

Does this count as another scandal to be laid to their charge or is it a sort of adjunct of the first? Does the Vatican’s failure to seek out and employ a top PR firm to try to deflect the media’s attack seem to the media like some kind of corroboration of its failure to seek out and destroy pedophile priests back in the 1970s and 1980s? Ms Boorstein’s piece sounded like a plea for the Church to give the media scandal hunters better sport. What do they think they’re playing at for Peter’s sake? If they don’t know how the game is played, there are plenty of well-established consultants, especially in America, who could be at their service, instead of which "there is [a] sense that U.S. expertise is going largely untapped by the Vatican," she writes. "‘Over the years, there has been frustration [that] we're not consulted,’ said Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac. American supporters of the pope say he should pay more attention to his — and the Church's — image.

Image, eh? Is this an example of the media’s own mask slipping? The very idea of "image" implies something manufactured: a façade to hide the reality beneath. Not coincidentally, the media depend on just this model of reality: the "image" or façade that is the public face of those with whom they deal and the supposed reality beneath that public face, which is what the media promise to their consumers in order sell newspapers or advertising. Without the other side’s playing its part in the scandal game and assiduously attempting to repair and burnish that all-important "image," the media will be unable to do their job of tearing it down in order to reveal the shocking secrets that eager readers and watchers are sure must lurk beneath. No wonder Michelle Boorstein feels the need to gin up the Roman Catholic Church to put more effort into the task of image-repair which has devolved upon it.

I have no wish to go into the allegations against Pope Benedict, which have led some to call for his resignation and others, including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, to propose themselves to take on the job of "arresting" him when he comes to Britain later this year. We might feel more confident about the veracity and the seriousness of their charges if, like the House Republicans vis vis Bill Clinton or the Democratic opponents of the tea parties, they were proceeding from someone who didn’t already despise him for other reasons. But disinterestedness is hardly to be hoped for when the aim of the scandal-monger is not really the exposure of wrong-doing but the accomplishment of a political objective by other means. And those most inclined to pursue the scandal in this case, as in so many others, rarely bother to make any effort to hide their own interested motives — in this case the desire to remove the roadblock to progressive change that they see in the Roman Catholic Church. Scandal there may be, but it is hard to see how we can ever know for sure when the progressive scandalologists who are making the case are so obviously full of hatred for those they are making it against.




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