Politics is a mug’s game, and by mug I don’t mean Donald Trump’s countenance that television would have me contemplate with scant respite. Mrs. Clinton looks more presentable, by which I do also mean electable, no matter which computer she used for whatever purpose. As for Bernie Sanders, the superannuated socialist, whose Vermont ill conceals his Brooklyn, and who uses his arms as if worked by a palsied puppeteer, I have my Harvard Ph. D. and no longer need free college tuition. And I would hate to have to look at and listen to him for four years: his voice and visage are even less prepossessing than Trump’s.
But oh, politics in general! I am in total sympathy with the fine but undeservedly forgotten novelist Anatole France, whose autobiographical hero in that delightful novel “Le Lys rouge” declares, “I am not so devoid of all talents as to occupy myself with politics,” an enlightened view insufficiently shared.
Politics is one of the four high-stakes games along with sport, showbiz, and finance, each gambling for fame, wealth, and power. Yes, power. Think how barely slapped on the wrist are our leading footballers who beat the daylights out of their wives or girlfriends. And just how many women did Cosby have to drug and fuck before the Law finally got interested in his case, and may now—or still may not—pay some attention.
Well, who is or was more famous than Madonna or Sinatra, Beyonce or Michael Jackson? Who is or was more widely known and revered than Michael Jordan or Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth or Serena Williams? Would any of them have any difficulty getting a reservation at the fanciest restaurants? Even without CDs or old movies that won’t go away, these celebs are likely to subsist after the kids no longer know who George Gershwin and Emily Dickinson were.
You may wonder why I don’t include literature or classical music among the major games. It is because their representatives require some effort to make themselves known, some reading or serious listening. And the fine arts require visits to museums and galleries, for which one has to be prompted, and that also requires some effort. That and serious music also demand some sort of input, postulating education and tradition, unavailable to the lower orders and having little mass appeal, I remember how shocked I was when I read about “concerts” being something in arenas and featuring pop stars rather than in concert halls with classical music.
Back to politics. There are many problems with it. Take, for instance, dishonesty, which feeds into politics, combining with hypocrisy in a dreadful duet.. “Just because I lie,” says the politician, “I don’t want others to lie to me; just because I am untrustworthy, I don’t want you to be so.” How hypocritical even we nonpoliticians are. Let the politician be caught in a bit of adultery and his career is over. So, naturally, he hides things and lies. The mistress in South America does not exist, nor does the money come by illegally. More lies. The only reason Bill Clinton was more or less able to get away with the Monica affair is that there was apparently no penetration, only fellation, which, as Bill was first to tell us, is not sex at all.
But politicians have to lie. What adult human does not have an Achilles heel, some lapse or misdemeanor in the distant past, that a muckraker or rival can dig up and blow up out of proportion? What politician can shrug off some false step a rival with an eagle eye and sharp-edged spade can somehow detect? How else can gossip columnists make a living? In France, to be sure, they are more civilized; there the married president or premier can have a fully recognized mistress and not be the worse off for it—perhaps even better.
The politician parades virtues that he does not in the least possess; he can appropriate illegal millions that he does not confide even to his pillow. Of course there are some honest politicians, sure enough; there are also some girls who are virgins, some men not prey to lust, some persons who find a stuffed wallet and somehow return it to the owner. Thus when the editor of the New Yorker praised his star contributor Dwight Macdonald for having a hand that once shook the hand of James Joyce, Dwight replied with something like “But you have no idea what other hands it has shaken since.” What with such honesty, no wonder that Dwight’s magazine, “Politics,” did not last long.
I forget which famous person said that, in the street, we should sometimes wink also at unpretty girls. To be sure, nowadays the unpretty feminist might slap your face. Moreover, today’s politician would do more than wink at, even sweet talk, a monster, so long as the monster might contribute to his campaign fund. I wonder, by the way, why today’s politicians no longer seem to kiss other people’s babies. Could it be out of a more advanced sense of hygiene?
But how many people nowadays really trust a politician? Certainly those foolishly cheering young students who think Bernie Sanders will get them a free college education, as if that weren’t just one of his many socialist pipe dreams. They could never make it through the House and Senate. Not in many more years than may be left him after the stress and strain of his unrequited candidacy.
Which somehow made me wonder what Will Shakespeare, one of the smartest judges of men ever (I wish English could match the German Menschenkenner) had to say about politicians. In “Henry IV, Part One,” Hotspur refers to his arch enemy Bolingbroke as “this vile politician.” In “Twelfth Night,” Andrew Aguecheek exclaims in horror “I’d had as lief be a Brownist as a politician,” thus referring to a follower of William Browne, one of the first dissenters from the Church of England, and so a kind of heretic. In “Hamlet,” the Prince contemplates an unearthed skull and remarks, “This might be the pate of a politician . . . one that would circumvent God,” in other words a lowlife who would outwit God himself. And Lear warns, “Get thee glass eyes,/ And like a scurvy politician seem/ To see the things thou dost not”—in other words, a liar. That is a politician: vile, heretical, godless and a liar.
To be sure, an author does not necessarily believe what a character of his says. But such recurrent obloquy, so sharply expressed , does suggest authorial agreement.
Or consider what a fine poet nearer our own time had to say, E. E. Cummings’s “A politician is an arse upon/ which everyone has sat except a man.” How nice of Cummings to spell ass the classic British way, though perhaps he did so merely to emphasize that he meant a derriere, and not just a rather harmless thing, a donkey.
Does anyone of consequence have much good to write about a politician? In the nineteenth century perhaps, but hardly later. Certainly no such encomium makes it into any of the known dictionaries of quotations.
I once acted in the Harvard Dramatic Club’s production of Jean Giraudoux’s wonderful play ”The Trojan War Will Not Take Place,” unfortunately in Christopher Fry’s inadequate version. He called it “Tiger at the Gates,” thus impoverishing even its title. The director asked me what part I wanted to play, and I said Demokos, the cowardly lawyer who could just as well be a politician. It turned out that Fry had stupidly omitted the Demokos scene, and so the director asked me to translate it and play in it.
Incidentally, The Harvard Crimson ridiculed my version of Ajax, “le plus mauvais coucheur parmi les Grecs,” which I rendered as “the meanest plugugly among the Greeks.” But I still stand by plug-ugly, which the dictionary defines as “ruffian, rowdy, tough.” Something the Crimson should have blushed for not knowing.
This Demokos, a corrupt international lawyer who could just as well be a politician, finds for the Greeks in a disputed matter until Hector politely admonishes him, and the wretch fawningly adjudicates in favor of the Trojans. Or, closer to home, consider what our Donald Trump is up to. He speaks out of every corner of his mouth (surely more than two) whatever he deems his particular audience wants to hear, and there is not even a Hector around to threaten him. He’ll remain adamant about a few things, but about many others he goes whichever way the wind blows.
Yet the whole display of current politics, Clinton excepted, is a vast joke, and I can only hope that future writers will score easy belly laughs by reporting the shenanians. These Demokosian twists and turns need to be immortalized as a warning to future generations. The appalling Ted Cruz and a few lesser losers shall not go unremembered and unridiculed, which I hope to live to witness.
One other thing I’d like to ascertain: what is it with the Donald’s hair? Can it be natural or is it, as it looks to me, an ill-fitting, inexpensive wig? If that is all he allows himself, what favors can the nation expect from him should he be elected? Bernie’s white fringe is, I daresay, his own, and may even serve him as a flag of justice. What is it that Barbara Fritchie says in the famous poem? “’Shoot if you must this old gray head,/ But spare your country’s flag’ she said.” Hillary’s hair seems at any rate her own, ample and rather nice. What lodges beneath that thatch we cannot always tell, and perhaps not always approve of, but it is surely better than any other hirsuteness now on political offer.