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Obama as Greek Tragedy—Part One

January 4th, 2010 - 11:47 am

The Self-centered Protagonist

The blueprint of a Sophoclean or even Euripidean tragedy is pretty straightforward. A confident, cocky tragic hero for about the first 600 lines of the play exhibits unconstrained exuberance as he takes on the world.

For an ancient fawning, first-half-of-the-play Greek chorus, read instead a contemporary Chris Matthews, Newsweek, or the New York Times.

The early Oedipus basks in his great wisdom and reason that had solved the riddle of the murderous Sphinx and saved the city. Creon in the Antigone assumes he is the personification of law, order, and stability, a savior regent after the prior mess.

Even in Euripides’ Bacchae, young King Pentheus boasts about his kingly powers and youthful determination to corral the Bacchants—as he sets himself up for a gruesome fall. Early Hippolytus is a sanctimonious puritan, a sort of insufferable prude (who of course will be falsely accused of fornication). Jason in the Medea prances around as if his dumped wife will agree that it was a wise idea for him to have married a younger, wealthier, and Greek princess. With all these personalities, the first person pronoun “egô” is commonly employed. They know at first no self-doubt. They have no clue that what brought them to such heights are the same characteristics, at the right occasion, and with a tad more hubris, that will ensure their fall.

Beware of Nemesis

During these displays of hubris, the flawed characters are warned by various seers, by close associates, and by the sometimes fawning/sometimes anxious chorus that something is not quite right. They are supposed to check their excesses in time. They are advised to seek the golden mean, calm down, and avoid nemesis. But how can they really, when it is all such fun, this being full of oneself that heretofore has brought them so easily so far?

(Not to be partisan: Somewhere around early May 2003, with sky-high ratings, the quick toppling of the Taliban and Saddam, and at the zenith of his popularity and confidence, George Bush may well have assumed that Iraq would ipso facto lead to more dominos falling — even beyond a Syria terrified and about to leave Lebanon, Dr. Khan soon to be arrested in Pakistan, and Libya about to cough up its WMD program. These were the ‘smoke ‘em out’, ‘bring ‘em on’, and ‘mission accomplished’ days. But after the insurrection and 4,000 dead in Iraq, by 2008 Bush’s greatest encomiasts conveniently flipped into his greatest critics, and his once most fawning lieutenants wrote the most lurid tell-all books. After his crash in the polls, I found a great deal of dignity in Bush in 2008-9, especially in the way he ignored vicious hatred, ordered the surge, did not tar his opportunistic former supporters, and in general showed a wisdom and philosophical side not found in 2002-3. He was more an Oedipus at Colonus that Oedipus Rex)

And Now The Second Half of the Play

We’ve just about finished Obama’s first 600 lines. Do we remember a year ago when his various aficionados lamented that the poor Constitution required a lame-duck continuance between election and inauguration, and thus America had to suffer nearly three months of the hated Bush before the Ascension?

Those were heady times of tingling legs, the President as a “god,” schoolgirls singing of the great one, and instantaneous Nobel Prize nominations. Valerie Jarrett cooed (literally) about the prospect of recruiting the brilliant activist Van Jones. To suggest that the nominations of Tom Daschle, Timothy Geithner, Bill Richardson, or Hilda Solis were antithetical to the entire Obama reformist campaign was heresy or worse. Did Obama think all this would continue for eight years? Did he think al-Qaeda would put away their IEDs because his middle name was Hussein? Was Putin awed that America had elected an African-American? Did Chavez hang on every Harvard-Law-School-Review “hope and change” banality?

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