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Friday, October 15, 2004


The (Executive) Mansion

It must have been even a little sad: the man who had already been beaten in advance by the very medal which wouldn’t let him quit. It was more than just sad. —William Faulkner, The Mansion

She sat next to me on the flight from Athens to New York on September 30, on her way home, to Salt Lake City. She’d spent almost three months in Athens, working for the Olympics, and those 14-hour workdays hadn’t allowed her to see, or enjoy, much of Athens, never mind attend any of the competitions. She wasn’t, however, unhappy about that (par for the course, she said, and she knew the course well, having worked for the Olympics in Salt Lake City), just anxious to make the connecting flight at JFK that would speed her toward her house and two dachshunds.

By the time we were over St. John’s, Newfoundland—and long after she’d opted to watch and then thoroughly enjoy Shrek II, despite seeming to be an intelligent, reasonable adult—it was apparent that my seatmate would make her connecting flight and be in the air on her way to Utah during the first presidential debate. Not that the debate mattered to her, she said, although she then mentioned that if she weren’t in transit, she’d have watched the standoff on Fox, her favorite news channel (which she declared to be the most unbiased station in the US—and, yes, fair and balanced—and which she had missed in Greece). Indeed, a Fox program had convinced her, sometime before leaving Salt Lake City, that Dubya was the foreign-policy, national-security-first man for the White House, despite Kerry’s military service and medals. That the Republicans have consistently tried to tarnish both—despite Dubya’s own paltry service record—meant nothing to her; after all, she had learned from Fox months ago that Iraq was not another Vietnam. It was another Guadalcanal.

So, Kerry, apparently, had fought in the wrong war. And Dubya was fighting the right one, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, everywhere. He knew—knows, my seatmate told me—who the enemy is.

How prescient Faulkner, I thought once again, as I’d been thinking for weeks since reading The Mansion. In one of the novel’s tangents, there’s an election campaign—not for the White House but for a congressional seat—between the eminently corrupt, vote-buying Clarence Snopes and a Second World War-decorated veteran named Devries, a colonel who’s lost a leg in battle and hasn’t a chance of winning simply because he happens to be the right person for the job (and isn’t a member of the insidious Snopes family, the bane of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county). Devries’s tin leg, like Kerry’s medals, becomes an object of pure dismay as the former colonel (literally) stumps about, bracing it to stand so that he can address his audiences—“rationalising [sic] for the votes which he already knew he had lost, while trying to keep all rumor of the chafed and outraged stump out of his face while he did it”—until even his supporters wish the election were over, “the debacle accomplished, wondering…how they themselves might end it and set him free to go home and throw the tin leg away, chop it up, destroy it, and be just peacefully maimed” (p. 612, all quotes from the second Library of America edition, 1999).

Clarence Snopes doesn’t even have to buy off voters in this election: he just intimates that Devries has become inordinately attached to the African American troops he led in battle and that, once elected, the veteran will undoubtedly and as a matter of course support legislation to overturn the barriers between whites and blacks. That’s it for Devries. Snopes emerges as the county’s choice without so much as announcing his candidacy because of his capacity “to unify normal—you might even say otherwise harmless—human baseness and get it to the polls” (p. 609).

After three years of rollercoaster high alerts and insidious fear-mongering, two wars, and a disastrous occupation of Iraq that has led to nothing but continual violence and ill-omened instability, the invented cause upon which Dubya’s reelection campaign rests—and which the American electorate appears to have convinced itself is not only real but established as fact—is the threat of perpetual terrorism. National security is the Republican banner, furiously waved by an intransigent administration headed by an unrepentant incumbent who (according to the 9/ll commission and his own chief of counterterrorism) ignored signs, no matter how urgent, of the one impending act of terrorism to become an accomplished act of terrorism on US soil, and then invaded and occupied a country that had nothing to do with the executed act of terrorism. Do two wrongs make a right? Does it matter? What good is bravado if you’re embarrassed by it?

Bravery, of course, is another matter. It can be questioned, even upended: witness Kerry’s war experience, the “swift boat” affair, the medals and ribbons Kerry tossed or did not toss away. Dubya’s bravado, meanwhile, remains unwavering, unassailable, and, if the New York Times poll today (October 6) signifies anything, deeply resonant: Kerry trails Bush—even after that first debate—on the issue of who has developed a clear plan for Iraq (31 percent to 39 percent) and regarding voters’ confidence to make the right decisions to protect the US from another terrorist attack (39 percent to 51 percent). It’s even more than just sad, for life isn’t fiction: idiocy, in fact, can be tragic.

But idiocy would not have been Faulkner’s word, nor even “stupidity.” Indeed, those in The Mansion “innocent enough to believe still that demagoguery and bigotry and intolerance must not and cannot and simply will not endure simply because they are bigotry and demagoguery and intolerance” aren’t lunatic or stupid, they’re just wrong:

They’ll always be wrong. They think they are fighting Clarence Snopes. They’re not. They’re not faced with an individual nor even a situation: they are beating their brains out against one of the foundation rocks of our national character itself. Which is the premise that politics and political office are not and never have been the method and means by which we can govern ourselves in peace and dignity and honor and security, but instead are our national refuge for our incompetents who have failed at every other occupation by means of which they might make a living for themselves and their families; and whom as a result we would have to feed and clothe and shelter out of our own private purses and means….They can’t beat him. He will be elected…for the simple reason that if he fails to be elected, there is nothing else he can do that anybody on earth would pay him for on Saturday night….(p. 608)

But those voters in The Mansion are also lucky. In one of the funniest passages in American literature—one that would have had Mark Twain slapping his thigh and snorting—Clarence Snopes, appearing at a voter-packed picnic, is bested by a meddler bright enough to get a couple of kids to rub switches cut from a dog thicket against the back of Snopes’ pantlegs and then shoo the stray dogs from the thicket. The dogs, of course, find Snopes, and in full view of everyone not only begin to piss on him, but also continually mark him even as he beats a long path back to his car and out of political life. For Snopes withdraws not only from the picnic, but from the race: not even Mississippi, as Faulkner wryly puts it, would allow itself to be “represented nowhere by nobody that ere a son a bitching dog that happens by cant tell from a fencepost” (pp. 616-617).

But life isn’t fiction. John Kerry won’t win this election because of his war service, nor should he; but, frighteningly enough, he might lose it in part because he served his country. Come to think of it, Kerry could lose the White House even if someone got a pack of stray dogs somewhere along the line to mistake Dubya for a fencepost—Fox News, after all, would surely accuse the Democrats of a plot to demean the high office and prestige of the presidency.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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