or ingredients for a twentyfirst century Shakespeare 2 (see also portrait)
This evening I will be joining three close friends who happen to be American to celebrate, in the words of one of them, the departure of the worst president ever. All my other American friends think of him the same way, although force of journalistic hedging habit prompts some to insert “one of” before “the worst”. And then, if my Tokyo friends have managed to stay awake – we are running 14 hours ahead of Washington – their attention will turn to the pomp and circumstance taking place over there. What they will see, as must occur to everyone else in the world watching the inauguration, is rather unlike the manner in which elected heads of government, as distinct from royal successors, take over in other countries.
What an odd contradiction between principle and practice. We should remember that the whole idea of monarchy is resolutely rejected as a matter of principle by almost all Americans who think about these things; the American Revolution was, after all, triggered and justified by revulsion against the arbitrary exercise of power by America’s colonial overlord, King George III of England. When in 1789 James Madison wrote the Constitution, he wanted to make sure that no tyranny could be established by a president who could not be held to account by placing himself above the law. Yet the president of the United States is treated in a way and surrounded by such pomp that the proverbial Martian visiting earth would have no difficulty fitting him into the emperor category.
Could it be that the American nation requires a king-like figure to function politically? Many clues would indeed seem to indicate this. The eighteenth century founders appeared to have had an inkling of it as they toyed with titles such as “His Elective Majesty”; Washington came up with “His High Mightiness” and John Adams presiding over the Senate, later to be the second president, suggested: “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same”. In our times, at least from the presidency of Richard Nixon onward, the unofficial term “Imperial Presidency” has been common enough in serious political commentary. What has happened to the American presidency conforms to the experience of countries that are large or for other reasons difficult to keep unified in their purposes. Their top rulers rather easily gain the attributes of a king or emperor, regardless of how they rose to the top. Mao Ze Dong in China – not a democracy – and Indira Gandhi in India – known by common cliché as the world’s biggest democracy – illustrate the tendency.
One of the main questions in the area of the, as yet, politically unknown Obama is what he will do with the extra discretionary power that his predecessor has bequeathed to the office he is about to enter, power without precedent sanctioned by a fictitious war, which in the absence of an impeachment has not been formally nullified. The next question is whether Obama, if he is the wise and decent politician many, including myself, believe he is, will require power akin to that of pre-democratic monarchs if only to repair what George W. Bush has broken.
There is much to be repaired, as all appear to agree. We may safely predict that the causes of a world order overturned in the first eight years of the twentyfirst century will be a source of horrified fascination for historians and sundry scholars for at least a century to come. How could it have been that at the moment when, for the first time in history, one country gained unchallenged reach over the length and width of our planet the ultimate use of that power was placed in the hands of an utterly incompetent and incurious president? How come that in that same country, which thought of itself as the greatest democracy on earth, its much praised “checks and balances” installed to stop officials with monarchal or dictatorial ambitions ceased to function? What sickness caused the breakdown of broadcasters, newspapers, and the opposition party as preservers of political health? And why did governments of its earlier friends and allies remain mostly mute when its rulers tore the fragile but reliable fabric of diplomatic networks and agreements asunder? Where to find the analogies for helping us to understand it all?
When we think of power not on a leash, we usually think first of royalty and emperors, and of what we have heard about the ways that they came to dwell on the verge of madness. Playwrights have long dealt with this, but the scale of the reality inspiring them with the intrigues and tribulations of courts and the anguish they caused outside the palace was always much smaller. The realms of kings in Shakespeare or Schiller had other realms on their borders even when these were not visible in the play. The realm of George W. Bush has been borderless, Putin, Hugo Chavez or Ahmadinejad were no competing kings, there were no significant kings or princes anywhere in sight.
I made a plea in jotting #7 for assembling ingredients for a twentyfirst century political playwright. Well, many traditional theatrical themes have been right in front of us, if we cared to see them in our newspapers. Center-stage stood a protagonist wreaking havoc through willful, thoughtless and selfish conduct. But it is perhaps better that he not be made the dominating character. There were powers behind the throne and at least for much of his reign, a usurper. A very old theme stares us in the face: that of the weak king and his very powerful courtiers.
There is no question that our future playwright can connect with confreres of all ages through the ancient theme of corrupted Kingship. George W. Bush has shown plenty of evidence to be possessed of monarchal ambitions and delusions, and presents an ideal example of rule at the top gone bad. The wastrel son of a dead king is an analogy has been nagging away in many a mind almost from the moment that he reached the official pinnacle of American politics.
With monarchy comes the concept of dynasty. Here the case of George W. Bush, son of an earlier president, appears to bring analogy and reality close together, especially considering that Republican circles were in all seriousness discussing the chances of his brother, Jeb Bush, of becoming a future presidential candidate.
We have been faced here, clearly, with very corrupted democratic representation, far removed from what the framers of the American Constitution wanted to regulate. A possible drama could start with the Republic in a state of relative innocence, and trace the course of a peculiar corruption that resulted in the American president to a theoretical position above the law. The legal confirmation of this actual trend only began to reveal itself in the winter of 2005/2006. When George W. Bush signed a law in December of 2005, one which carried an amendement explicitly outlawing torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by American personnel, anywhere in the world, he issued a “signing statement” that declared his right to ignore this law whenever he thought that interrogation techniques require torture.
Shortly after that, and after his openly confessing to have committed an impeachable crime in the form of illegal electronic eavesdropping, his courtiers told the nation about the principle of the “unitary executive”, which supposedly gives the president room to do anything he sees as necessary for protecting Americans, under circumstances that he himself may choose to call war.
Only weak voices from the Democratic Party, and more emphatic voices from only a small band of commentators had to point out what Americans until shortly before then had taken for granted: that the power of their government is bound by laws that also the president must live by and uphold. In other words, what Bush’s courtiers were trying to establish was a the negation of a sovereign people as the permanent source of government authority. The American president was to hold ultimate political authority above and beyond the law.
George W. Bush fits the imagery of the wastrel son of a departed king so well that a playwright will have difficulty not to turn him into caricature. There can be absolutely no doubt that he would not have had the slightest chance of occupying the top position in the American government if his father had not been president before him. Family connections and the largest “war-chest”, the millions necessary to win from rivals in primary and national elections, were indispensable. As was the fact that the kingmakers of the large rightwing in the Republican Party had first to notice him, the chances of which would have been zero had they not worked with his father.
We can be sure about the accident of his birth being the absolutely sole reason for where he was, because the departing president simply did not have qualities of his own that would have brought him even remotely within the vicinity of where politicians are groomed and chosen.
George W. Bush actually not groomed at all to be president. President Bush II of the United States was created out of almost nothing. His creator, Karl Rove, a skilled strategist who discovered him as an opportunity for his own purposes, made him Governor of Texas and subsequently president, rather much like the manner in which Hollywood movie moguls in a time gone by created stars out of nobodies without any talent. Since it is not unimportant to remember what we are saying goodbye to in the midst of all the attention lavished on President Obama, here is a portrait (and in pdf form) of this unfit president that I wrote in 2002-03.
Talking about playwright ingredients: the devious Rove and his machinations form a saga by itself and are worth a separate play. Since his creation the George W. Bush we got to know was carefully nourished. At first entirely dependent on Dick Cheney, the official president did not in his first six years made his major political decisions on his own; and was led, prompted and scripted in a job far beyond his abilities. In the beginning, when he clambered on the throne, this was only suspected, a matter of conjecture, of educated guesses; but eyewitness accounts of what went on in his palace and circumstancial evidence left no more room for any doubt about it. Dick Cheney will perhaps be the most intriguing protagonist in the play we are waiting for. He, more than anyone, has been responsible for what Obama is now asked to repair.