Work and Days

Obama as Greek Tragedy—Part One

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?

Cracks in the facade

That first interview with al Arabiya gave us a foretaste of two subsequent themes: the apology for what America had purportedly done, and what a Barack Hussein Obama, of postracial, postnational magnetism, could offer as redress. (At the time, a bewildered foreign student of about 21 asked me of all this apologizing abroad, “Why does Obama listen to those who trash America when most of them can’t even keep their electricity going, or their streets free of sh-t?”)

Did any of his advisors then warn our young Hippolytus to hush — and limit the apologies to a single occasion? (Or to remind him that a President is elected to keep his country safe and its interests paramount, not to be judged a Gandhi by a mostly corrupt global media).

Those of us who wrote about these telltale signs even then were suspected of racism, as our great leader pressed on with apologies, bows, crazy appointments, and a strange sort of split personality.

Mr. Barack

Obama I, for example, cynically embraced much of the Bush agenda that, just weeks earlier, he had branded as either unconstitutional or dangerous. We had seen that about-face with public financing during the campaign, but the shamelessness by which yesterday’s shredding of the Constitution suddenly transmogrified into (albeit quietly) a sober and judicious anti-terrorism tool was quite stunning. An Iraq lost to a “not working” surge that should be vacated by “March 2008” suddenly became a success due to Obama’s “winding down the war.”

In Animal Farm fashion, tribunals, renditions, Predators, wiretaps, and intercepts were now suddenly rewritten on the barn wall — as were the strictures against lobbyists. We got doctrinaire Chicago-style, take-no-prisoners sleazy politics — that saw everything from buying off those in the Congress with huge largess to predicating stimuli distribution of the basis of political fealty — as the signature of the greatest reformer and ethicist in presidential history.

And as a sop to the left, the base at least received false promises to close Guantanamo within a year, new euphemisms like “man-made disasters” and “overseas contingency operations,” and supposed promises to try KSM, the grand planner of 9/11, in New York (I wager that vow will be Guantanamoized).

And Dr. Obama

But then in a sudden fit, Obama II would appear as an extreme statist, far beyond what we had seen in the Democratic Party since Jimmy Carter and the first few weeks of the Clinton administration.

Thus came the wars against Fox News, the tea parties and town-halls, the promises of gargantuan new taxes, the mega-deficits, the ramming through of government-controlled health care, cap and trade on the horizon, and always that loony partisanship — at NEA a boast of a creepy sort of grants for obeisance and Obama as the new Caesar, at the Justice Department the dismissal of the voting intimidation by the Black Panthers, and the attack on the CIA, and abroad the constant blame Bush/reset button rhetoric.

The more observers warned Obama that this was hardly reaching across the aisle and bipartisanship, that Bush was not quite as bad as charged (cf. his successful anti-terrorism protocols, the winning surge in Iraq, and the good relations with Britain, France, Germany, India, and China), and that hypocrisy had reached new levels even for Washington (a tax violator at Treasury would enforce tax law shepherded through the Congress by an even greater tax violator overseeing Ways and Means), the more our Oedipus railed and shunned advice.

More on the second half of Obama’s tragedy in a few hours…

But, wait, a final thought: not since 9/11 have so many terrorist plots been uncovered in a single year. (In fact, over one-third of all the efforts to repeat 9/11 have occurred in 2009—just as the United States has made unprecedented efforts to renounce the prior war on terror, to demonize a prior President, to use euphemism, to bow and apologize abroad, to turn war into jurisprudence, and to reach out to the Muslim world. Perhaps our Oedipus can determine whether there is a connection?)