In an episode of “The West Wing” recently rerun by NBC, Ainsley Hayes, a Republican lawyer, is hired by the fictional Democratic president, played by Martin Sheen. She accepts a job out of a sense of “duty” but begins to question her decision to work for Democrats following a day of insult and ridicule.
Then Rob Lowe’s character, a White House speechwriter and former recording secretary of the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society, realizes what duty means to Ainsley. He and the rest of the senior staff serenade her with the famous “H.M.S. Pinafore” refrain: “In spite of all temptation to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman –” The episode concludes on a note of reconciliation, acceptance and, well, an exaltation of duty.
How ironic it is we Democrats (“we” meaning myself and, presumably, most of my readers — my deepest apologies to those who choose other political affiliations) now find ourselves in the position of Ainsley Hayes. We may not work in the White House, but we are citizens of a country governed by a president whose policies are largely repugnant to us — and who was elected under troublesome circumstances.
Aaron Sorkin, the playwright-turned-screenwriter who created “The West Wing,” demonstrated uncanny foresight in citing “H.M.S. Pinafore” to illustrate the place of steadfast duty even in the face of unfair misfortune (a reference he chose months before we knew America was to be sent back to the Bush Leagues for four years).
Though cynics and critics of the highest order, Gilbert and Sullivan were also British and proud of it — class absurdities, pompous formalities and all. Their operettas are, as Rob Lowe puts it, “all about duty.” But more specifically, they are about striking that elusive balance between cynicism and reverence, criticism and loyalty, opposition and duty — a balance that is the backbone of constitutional democracy.
We Democrats have many ideological problems with the Bush Administration. We feel bitter because more voters agreed with Al Gore’s positions than George W. Bush’s on issues ranging from taxes to guns to abortion to environmentalism. Still, here we are one month after the inauguration, watching Bush and his minions lead us down several policy paths that are both wrong and unpopular, spinning inequitable tax cuts, renewed oil drilling and other right-wing tripe in a manner designed to make it all disturbingly palatable to the center.
Bush, a man reassuringly comfortable with himself and painfully uncomfortable with his new job, promised to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office. He was correct that those attributes needed to be restored; he was wrong when he proclaimed himself the best instrument of their restoration.
It has been said many Republicans envision Bush II as a sort of modern-day Prince Hal. A character based on the real-life King Henry V of England, Prince Hal is the star of three Shakespearean histories set in the 15th century: “Henry IV (Parts I and II)” and “Henry V.”
In “Henry IV (Part I),” King Henry IV faces a rebellion led by the Earl of Northumberland and his well-regarded, gallant son, Hotspur. The matter of Hotspur is particularly troubling to King Henry because his own son, Prince Hal, is a wayward youth who spends his days patronizing taverns and associating with Falstaff, the play’s comic relief.
Republicans especially like the part where King Henry, in need of a loyal, capable son to face Northumberland and Hotspur, summons the prince. Hal, newly-infused with a sense of duty to country, crown and family matures rapidly, stands beside his father and slays Hotspur in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Prince Hal later becomes a King Henry in his own right and rules wisely and effectively.
Shakespeare’s histories, of course, were not based entirely on historical fact. Yet the image of a redeemed Prince Dubya works for those who see any scion of a ruling family as fit to lead merely by right of birth. Strength of character, they say, passes from the father to the son, which is why the path from a DUI in Maine to the Oval Office seems so natural to them. They are fashioning fiction just as Shakespeare did — the primary difference being that The Bard was aware of his fiction’s fictitiousness.
The lesson here: Seeing President Bush as those who voted for him do is necessary if we are to serve as loyal and critical members of His Majesty’s Opposition. If a pirate (of Penzance) can yield in the name of Queen Victoria, then surely Garry Trudeau can remove the quotation marks he places around the word “President.” West Palm Beach may be sunnier than Shrewsbury, but the winners of each battle choose to glean the same lessons of loyalty, entitlement and hereditary character from their victories.
We Democrats are wasting our time attacking Bush’s legitimacy and fitness to lead, principles in which the Republicans harbor pseudo-religious faith. Acting the part of a sore losers paints a most unflattering image of our party and our values and accomplishes little beyond visceral satisfaction. We may see Bush as a usurper, even a lightweight, but he is still the president, and we remain, in a loose, transatlantic sense, loyal Englishmen.
John Schochet is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.