Tag Archives: Obama

All the world’s a stage, especially the halls of Congress

Cultural types who complain that the mainstream media never pay attention to the arts just haven’t been reading the news pages, where it’s theater, theater, theater, hour after hour, day after day.

Daniel "Black Dan" Webster, heartthrob of the political stage. Portrait: George Shattuck, 1834/Mational Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.No figure in history is more honored in our news coverage than the revolutionary Russian set designer Grigori Potemkin, and his ingeniously adaptable Potemkin Villages are inhabited for our entertainment purposes by similarly interchangeable Potemkin People.

Somewhere back there behind these pop-up people and prop-up set pieces a real world no doubt languishes, waiting for its moment to step into the spotlight and state its case that a little attention must be paid. Never mind. The comedy onstage is just too delicious to abandon for the dreary drama of the broken-down kitchen sink.

Herewith, program notes on just one new show in a typically hectic season:

A Comedy in Too Many Acts

“You lie!” the gentleman from South Carolina shouted as the President spoke and the greedy cameras rolled.

Henry Clay, political performer par excellence. Engraving: John SartainAnd the House came tumbling down.

On Tuesday, United States Representative Joe Wilson, Republican from the Sovereign State of Secession, was formally rebuked by his fellow inmates for breaking up President Obama’s speech to Congress on health care reform with an outburst of what appeared to be actual passion. Following the traditional pattern of this highly ritualized form of theater, Wilson than prostrated himself before the President in shame, apologizing for his transgression and begging forgiveness. According to the time-honored script the Wise Leader graciously absolved him, with a parting, “Go, and sin no more.”

But unusually — don’t you just love it when a performance breaks through the fourth wall, and we all get pulled into the action? — that wasn’t enough. The neat pattern didn’t address Wilson’s true crime, which was this: He broke character. He was performing in a comedy, but he adopted a tragic tone. That practically guarantees a bad review.

It’s not that Wilson acted like a horse’s behind. That’s standard operating procedure in Foggy Bottom. It’s that he did it with so little finesse. According to the traditions of Congress it can be a natural advantage to be a horse’s behind, but you’re supposed to emit your credentials behind your opponent’s back, not blow them in his face. Republicans in Congress immediately jumped into damage-control mode, accusing the Democratic majority that forced the rebuke vote of playing politics — shocking! — and suggesting that it’s time, as Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia so nobly put it, to “get on with the business of the people.”

John Randolph, fiery orator and erratic marksman. Wikimedia CommonsPerhaps the show’s most intriguing plot twist is the revelation, as the New York Times review puts it, that “House guidelines on the rules of debate say it is impermissible to refer to the president as a liar.”

This disclosure, late in the third act, strains credibility. As a member in good standing of the League of Tough-Guy Arts Observers I’m compelled to report that Wilson’s little outburst of jackassery simply can’t hold a candle to the ones you can find in the classics. One of our better theatrical critics, the historian David S. Reynolds, recounts several instances of supreme congressional jackassery in his book Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, including this sketch of Virginia Senator John Randolph, a hard-drinking goliath who regularly put the screws to President John Quincy Adams and others of his many enemies:

“In a high, squeaky voice, he delivered rambling speeches that sometimes lasted ten hours. Every fifteen minutes or so he paused to swig from a glass of malt liquor or a brandy-and-water concoction; he would go through several quarts in an afternoon. Well lubricated, he lambasted his enemies with abandon. He did not shrink from calling Daniel Webster ‘a vile slanderer’ or Edward Livingston ‘the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs.’ “

Once, Reynolds reports, Randolph’s abuse was so egregious that Secretary of State Henry Clay challenged him to a duel:

“Clay’s bullet ripped through Randolph’s white flannel coat without wounding him. Randolph’s hit a tree behind Clay. In a second round, Clay again missed Randolph, who raised his gun and fired into the air. The men talked and reconciled. Randolph joked, ‘You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay.’ Clay replied, ‘I am glad the debt is no greater.’ “

Ah, sighs Gus, the Theatre Cat. Now, that’s what I call acting!

Like so many political comedies, The Fall and Rise of the Sharp-Tongued Congressman ends with a mordant twist — a deus ex machina, if you will, setting everything aright and showering blessings on all the characters in the show. Again, from Carl Hulse’s review in the New York Times:

“The episode has become a political bonanza for both parties as Mr. Wilson and his Democratic challenger in the 2010 election, Rob Miller, have each raised over $1 million in the aftermath, and the two parties have benefited as well.”

Now, that’s a happy ending.

The bottom line: A pretty standard medieval morality play, with a veneer of coarse frontier comedy. Vividly drawn characters and some choice moments of burlesque, but a week from now you’ll be hard-pressed to remember any details of the plot.


Illustrations, from top, all from Wikimedia Commons:

Daniel “Black Dan” Webster, “vile slanderer” and leading man of the 19th century political stage. Portrait: George Shattuck, 1834. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Henry Clay, fearsome performer in the political theater, always up for a good stage duel. Engraving by John Sartain.

John Randolph of Virginia: Prodigious feats of provocation on the congressional stage. Artist unknown.

The inauguration: a high-flying day to remember

Our neighbor Barb had a bunch of people over this morning to watch the inauguration ceremonies, and the mood was festive: Coffee and bubbly for breakfast will do that.
But it wasn’t just the refreshment. There was relief, and anticipation, and — OK, yes — hope. A sense that, as another neighbor, Karen, put it, “now we can have our flag back.” And indeed, she and her husband Ted had hung theirs on their front porch. Inspired, my wife followed suit. Beats all those years we’ve had the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag folded in the bedroom drawer.

What struck me most during this long but compelling (and by the looks of it, very cold) morning was that the power of language has reasserted itself at the center of our national conversation.
Like Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. and his model, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama speaks with a plain but lofty straightforwardness. He assumes a certain level of intelligence on the part of his listeners, an ability to follow an argument. He was gracious in victory, which might be a tougher task than being gracious in defeat. He talked down to no one, but encouraged everyone to look up. When he spoke to a particular constituency it was not, as is usual with politicians, with an air of pandering or cynical duplicity but with a measure of inclusiveness and respect. And he melded, as no other politician I can think of since John F. Kennedy, the descriptive and inspirational aspects of language: a vision, yes, but also a caution that realizing a vision requires hard work. Obama’s pie is not in the sky. It’s grounded, practical, sustaining. And if it’s his recipe, it takes a lot of cooks.

I have no illusion that miracles will be worked. Barack Obama waves no wands, and he will make mistakes — probably a lot of them. He is only, it seems prudent to remind some of his more fervid followers, human. But he represents in so many ways the best of what being human means. And by loving and respecting language — by being able to articulate both his own goals and his vision of what our vast and intermingled culture can and ought to be — he helps all of us articulate our own roles in the body politic.

I’ve long believed that Abraham Lincoln is one of the tiny handful of genuine literary geniuses the United States has produced.
In the beginning was the word, and it created reality. Oratorically, Obama is is no Lincoln, at least not yet: For clarity and conciseness and passion tethered to intelligence, nothing can match the Gettysburg Address. But clearly, from a literary point of view, Obama is in the Lincoln grain. He has the gifts to be, in the Lincolnian sense, a citizen artist. And it’s been a long time since the White House has seen the likes of that.

So, let the flag fly. Maybe this time, we can look at it as a promise and not a provocation.

Ashland report: Hedda in the headlights

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, Jeff Whitty’s festive romp through a field of razor blades, brings to mind a couple of things. The first is the flap over the now infamous New Yorker magazine Obama cover illustration, the one that takes the various racial and incendiary whispers about the presidential candidate and his wife and gives them visual form. It’s clearly satirical, and clearly potent: It hits with merciless accuracy at precisely the points of fear and loathing that the dirtier fighters among Obama’s opponents are eager to exploit.

Yet, here’s the funny part: Obama’s camp itself, the presumed beneficiary of this political counterthrust, has found it necessary to protest vigorously against the images, even though the candidate undoubtedly understands their satirical point. Funnier yet: Obama’s opponent for the presidency, John McCain, has also found it necessary to protest, even though he surely understands the difference between satire and actuality. (Do the candidates truly believe that Swift wished to eat children?)

Now that they are presidential candidates, Obama and McCain find themselves the main characters in a pre-scripted drama. They are the guardians and servants of the nation’s images, and it becomes more important for them to respond to the illusion of reality than to reality itself. The script says, Americans don’t talk about such things. So the candidates, no matter “left” or “right,” must protest: To do less would be to place themselves outside the devoutly desired center of the let’s-pretend debate. And so they become the not-Obama and the not-McCain, fictional characters in a ritualized national drama that they can’t escape.

The second thing that Whitty’s comedy, playing in the Angus Bowmer Theater of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, brings to mind: Jasper Fforde‘s sly comic novels (The Well of Lost Plots and several others) about Thursday Next, a human investigator of crimes and misdemeanors among the vast pages of fiction. In Fforde’s universe, fictional characters have an actuality of their own, even though they operate under severe constraints: They find it difficult, for instance, to speak without employing quotation marks and a liberal sprinkling of explanatory “he saids” and “she saids.”

Continue reading Ashland report: Hedda in the headlights