The sad thing about many high school English literature readings is they are assigned too early in life for many students to fully appreciate. Works like Crime and Punishment, Lord Jim and especially The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are all about sin and expiation, themes perhaps imperfectly grasped by teenagers whose consciences are still developing. For examples, why the heck should an old sailor barge into a wedding party and harass the guests with his shipboard stories?

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.

High school kids aren’t old enough to be the Ancient Mariner. But pundits are. Peggy Noonan’s recent piece The Daydream and the Nighmare comes closest in spirit to the Rime in any article of late.  She seizes the reader by the hand and regales him with a tale of albatross, possession and a ship driven by ghosts.  The albatross in her tale is president Obama and the vessel is the Ship of State.

I don’t know if we sufficiently understand how weird and strange, how historically unparalleled, this presidency has become. We’ve got a sitting president who was just judged in a major poll to be the worst since World War II. The worst president in 70 years! Quinnipiac University’s respondents also said, by 54% to 44%, that the Obama administration is not competent to run the government.

Like the derelict in Coleridge’s poem the Ship of State careens around, never making port, as if on some three hour cruise destined run for 98 actual weeks on TV. Yet the weird thing, Noonan says, is that even as Obama’s ship draves on, there is no apparent object to its wanderings.  It seems driven by some malignant compulsion:

But I’m not sure people are noticing the sheer strangeness of how the president is responding to the lack of success around him. He once seemed a serious man. He wrote books, lectured on the Constitution. Now he seems unserious, frivolous, shallow. He hangs with celebrities, plays golf. His references to Congress are merely sarcastic: “So sue me.” “They don’t do anything except block me. And call me names. It can’t be that much fun.”

In a truly stunning piece in early June, Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Jennifer Epstein interviewed many around the president and reported a general feeling that events have left him—well, changed. He is “taking fuller advantage of the perquisites of office,” such as hosting “star-studded dinners that sometimes go on well past midnight.” He travels, leaving the White House more in the first half of 2014 than any other time of his presidency except his re-election year. He enjoys talking to athletes and celebrities, not grubby politicians, even members of his own party. He is above it all.

Perhaps the adjective Noonan is looking for is “artistic”. She writes, “you get the impression his needs are pretty important in his hierarchy of concerns.  All this is weird, unprecedented. … He’s waiting for history to get its act together and see his true size.” This is reminiscent of another great man. When Nero’s end came his judgment of himself was “qualis artifex pereo” — ‘what an artist dies in me’.

Noonan notes that Obama seems to himself too great for his country, too great for the world, too great for the Age.

“The world seems to disappoint him,” says the New Yorker’s liberal and sympathetic editor, David Remnick.

That’s what it looks like from inside the White House. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a professor at the Naval War College, describes what it resembles from outside the Oval Office. He calls it “The Stumbles Doctrine”: the process of getting into trouble, “hold my beer” style without the slightest coherent idea what you’re doing.

The problem, in the end, is that the United States appears to be stumbling into a policy of confronting and containing Putin’s Russia without the necessary commitments or frame. If this was a deliberate choice—and over the past several months, the Obama administration seems to have embarked on an ambitious program of “triple containment” (Iran, China and Russia)—then it does not seem to have made adequate preparations. If, on the other hand, this is an unexpected and unwelcome development, then it does not seem to be doing all that it could to indeed provide Russia with the “exit ramp” from the crisis. Without knowing how we got into this imbroglio, it may prove all the more difficult to find a way out.

A Red Line with Russia here, a Red Line with China there and pretty soon you could be talking real Red Lines.  It’s so eerie that Noonan actually seems scared. So she’s going around telling the story of the albatross to anyone who will listen.

The unspoken mesage in Noonan’s piece is ‘how can this be happening? When is this nightmare going to end? I mean this could be dangerous!’  We’ve been conditioned to regard problems as things ‘someone’ will fix. In the movies Dudley Doright cuts the heroine loose from the tracks in the nick of time. But in Coleridge’s universe, as perhaps in real life, we only recover after the loss of an arm or some fingers. At best the train leaves enough for the surgeon to patch together again.

The nation’s intellectual elites made a big vanity purchase in 2008 and the damage from that purchase cannot wholly be undone. Peggy Noonan herself endorsed Barack Obama in 2008.  She then wrote glowingly of him:

He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.

That collective purchase is going to leave a mark.  The payment’s due. David Leonhardt of the New York Times fears that “teenagers today may grow up conservative” because of their experience with Obama, a world where the synonym for poverty, unemployment, war and stagnation is “liberal”. History is funny in that way. It doesn’t let one off the hook. Kids a hundred years hence are going to learn that this generation screwed up. This generation threw it all away. It can’t be hidden in the talking points. Perhaps this is as it must be, so posterity can hold us up to be negative role models. 

‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.

An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

And what a bill it is: the price for all the babies tossed into the dumpster, money borrowed and wasted and the lies we told ourselves. It’s forced on us if only because there are no private vanity purchases where selecting men who control nuclear weapons are concerned — only smart buys and stupid ones — and this was a stupid buy. As any high school student might have told you from the Cliffnotes cheat sheet on Crime and Punishment,  suffering is part of the price of redemption, not just for yourself, but for everyone.

All at once he bent down quickly and dropping to the ground, kissed her foot.  … ”What are you doing to me?” she muttered, turning pale, and a sudden anguish clutched at her heart. He stood up at once.

“I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity,” he said wildly and walked away to the window. … ”you have destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing. Isn’t that fearful?”

Perhaps the saddest thing about Obama is what Dostoevsky points out. They exchanged it all for an empty suit. The elite traded their heritage: the greatest country in the world for a bowl of pottage that held nothing. That’s what really hurts. How many would now be glad to have what they threw away?

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew.

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o’er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

There’s a long way to go. Past the tides of wanting something for nothing, beyond the desire to be hip above all and clear of the unaccountable compulsion to speak in vocal fry tones; past the rocks and shoals of things to come which no one can be sure of surviving.

It’s a long voyage before we round the headland and glimpse the harbor. Until then we are bound to sail the seas in the ship Life-In-Death, or as it is now called, Hope-’n-Change.  But all voyages end at last and there is honor in redemption, victory in survival.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be the Ancient Mariner. Well here’s our chance.


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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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