In which I re-cast the 2016 presidential contenders as their literary counterparts.
Before the weekend I had Bush playing Ignatius J. Reilly. His shuffling campaign had all the promise of a college-educated person pushing a hot dog cart around the Big Easy. Bush may be out, but it still seems appropriate to open the exercise with an homage to John Kennedy Toole’s classic treatise on the awfulness of humanity: the endless episodes of debate, the roguish demagoguery and grandstanding, the low-class dirty tricks and empty promises… all these conspire towards the feeling that watching the campaigns is like watching live picaresque. And there’s this: if Jeb is Ignatius, then Barbara gets to play his New Orleans po’ white trash mum, a deserved justice for the way she insulted the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
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Cruz and Rubio
I pair Tweddle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum as the King and the Duke from Huckleberry Finn, each trying to out-rascal the other with no regard but for their own comforts. I also see in them the creations of Charles Dickens. The anxious, uncomfortable, thirsty Rubio is like a schoolboy: more facts in his head than his tongue can keep up with. He’s an orphan lost in the adult world, an Oliver Twist: “Please sir, may I have some more?” And as one Washington Post commentator described Cruz, he’s Uriah Heap from David Copperfield: “Oily, obsequious, conniving, insincere… a real creep. And he cheats.” Just ask Ben Carson.
He’s that character you can’t remember from that book you didn’t read for that college course you’re not sure you finished and keep waking up in a sweat at 2 a.m., panicked that you don’t actually have enough credits to graduate.
Joseph. From the Bible. Which is how he knows the pyramids were built by himself to store grain, and not to bury the pharaohs as is commonly accepted. To this physician I say, “Heal thyself.” I think he may have swallowed a very large Bible.
He turns everything said about him against the person who says it. For that, Trump may be called He Who Must Not Be Named. But doing so gives him more power than he deserves. There’s nothing magical or mysterious about Trump, after all. He’s base. He’s crass. He’s a blunt object. He’s Roald Dahl’s Mr. Wormwood, a dishonest, intellectually-depraved used car salesman more likely to watch television while eating dinner—pizza, with a fork—off a tray on his lap than to develop rational policies or cavort with world leaders.
Let’s keep gender out of this. Gender—like all demographic attributes—neither qualifies nor disqualifies a candidate for my vote. It would be just as sexist to vote for HRC because she is a woman as it would be not to vote for her because is a woman. It is offensive and absurd to suggest, as did another former secretary of state, that women, particularly young women, should vote for HRC because she is a woman. Hillary’s position on this kind of thinking is a most deceitful corruption of the right to choose for oneself, a gross infringement on personal liberty, and proof that she is more Politician than Honest Broker.
But this is a casting call, not a political rant. The point being to keep gender out of the equation. So I considered casting HRC as a character out of Hemingway. And not one of the hair-shortening ones, but Jake Barnes, with his particular problem, or that cuckold Francis Macomber. But it didn’t seem fair to hang Bill’s sins around Hillary’s neck, and anyway there was this conversation the other day with Scott Pelley of CBS:
PELLEY: You talk about leveling with the American people. Have you always told the truth?CLINTON: I’ve always tried to. Always. Always.
PELLEY: Some people are gonna call that wiggle room that you just gave yourself.
CLINTON: Well, no, I’ve always tried —
Tried to tell the truth? Always always? Tried?
Star Wars fans everywhere know what Yoda would say in response to this equivocation. Try not. Do. Or Do not. There is no try.
For trying, if not outright lying, HRC is cast as Marc Whitacre, the great fabricator from Kurt Eichenwald’s account of a duplicitous cooperating witness in The Informant! Somewhere in his bones, Marc Whitacre just has to lie. And I get a similar feeling about HRC. That whatever comes out of her mouth will be the thing that is most politically expedient at the time—whether its about sniper fire in Yugoslavia or squeamish responses regarding her super duper double top secret personal/work email server—what she says reflects what others want to hear, and not what is most true to her core values.
Which brings us to the last candidate.
Ok, he might be Don Quixote tilting at windmills, or a bit of a madman—Willy Wonka, say. But at his core—and he has a core—he’s an old hippy with New York roots hoping to bring sanity to a grossly lopsided economic model. And that makes him easy to cast. Walt Whitman:
The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty, but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds — where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough — a modest living— and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.
The bottom line
Looking back over the entire field, I see no complete package. No matter what principle you apply to the occasion, no matter what you seek in your next president, be it economic justice at home or sound policy overseas, a sense of humility and service, wisdom and creativity, ability and transparency, it is clear that the literary figures outlined here are lacking in strengths and composed of weakness. It leaves me only to shake my head and wonder that this great nation, 350 million people strong, cannot produce a single one among us who represents the totality of our decency and moral compass. That there are no Yossarians to warn us of encroaching insanity or Randall Patrick McMurphy’s to show us the way out of the madhouse.
The best we can do is vote with our hearts knowing that America deserves much, much better.