The last two summers I’ve been driving my mother around the country to visit old relatives. Last summer we visited her Jackson and Montgomery cousins in Des Moines, Iowa, and this summer it was the Bates family reunion in Maine and the Brewster Conants in Acton, Massachusetts. She tells me old family stories as we drive and we listen to Anthony Trollope novels.
My mother has long been a Trollope fan and now she has me hooked as well. On our most recent trip we listened to Trollope’s last and relatively short An Old Man’s Love (1884) and then launched into the formidable Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of the Palliser novels. I’m still listening on disk but my mother couldn’t wait and checked out the library copy as soon as we got back to Sewanee.
Prime Minister is very relevant to our current political turmoil. Or at any rate, it captures the centrist dream that opposing parties can be persuaded to peacefully coexist. The Prime Minister of the title is heading a unity government of Tories and Liberals—Victorian England’s version of Republicans and Democrats—and appears headed for success. After all, he has a great deal of integrity and is respected. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like politicking or schmoozing and refuses to engage in polite political fictions. As a result, he makes enemies out of people whom he could have placated and storm clouds begin to gather.
As I was listening to Prime Minister, I thought of the attacks on President Obama from columnists like Maurine Dowd for not being a shrewd arm twister like Lyndon Johnson or a smooth schmoozer like Bill Clinton. Somewhat like Obama in his early years, the Duke of Omnium prefers to stay above the fray. To be fair to the president, I don’t think George Washington himself could bring our country together today, but Trollope’s novel reminded me of the criticisms.
Here’s the Duke realizing that his wife’s highly successful parties appear to be accomplishing more than Parliamentary debate:
And now, gradually,—very slowly indeed at first, but still with a sure step,—there was creeping upon him the idea that his power of cohesion was sought for, and perhaps found, not in his political capacity, but in his rank and wealth. It might, in fact, be the case that it was his wife the Duchess,—that Lady Glencora of whose wild impulses and general impracticability he had always been in dread,—that she with her dinner parties and receptions, with her crowded saloons, her music, her picnics, and social temptations, was Prime Minister rather than he himself. It might be that this had been understood by the coalesced parties,—by everybody, in fact, except himself. It had, perhaps, been found that in the state of things then existing, a ministry could be best kept together, not by parliamentary capacity, but by social arrangements, such as his Duchess, and his Duchess alone, could carry out. She and she only would have the spirit and the money and the sort of cleverness required.
He complains about the situation to an old friend:
The idea of conquering people, as you call it, by feeding them, is to me abominable. If it goes on it will drive me mad.
One of the people the Duke could have placated with food is Quintus Slide, editor of The People’s Banner. Instead he rebuffs Slide when the latter tries to inveigle an invitation, and from then on the editor determines to bring him down.
I share with you Trollope’s depiction of Slide because it exposes the egotism found in too many media personalities. In fact, Slide goes after Omnium on grounds that are as baseless as the New York Times’ recent charges against Hillary Clinton. In the novel, the Duke sees his wife, against his orders, unofficially encouraging one Ferdinand Lopez, the novel’s villain, to run for a Parliamentary seat. Once Lopez understands he can’t count on the Prime Minister for support, he withdraws and complains to Omnium about his election expenses. The Duke sees his point and pays them, even though he doesn’t have to. Slide learns that money has been paid and is self-righteously indignant:
But certainly the thing must not be allowed to pass away as a matter of no moment. Mr. Slide had almost worked his mind up to real horror as he thought of it. What! A prime minister, a peer, a great duke,—put a man forward as a candidate for a borough, and, when the man was beaten, pay his expenses! Was this to be done,—to be done and found out and then nothing come of it in these days of purity, when a private member of Parliament, some mere nobody, loses his seat because he has given away a few bushels of coals or a score or two of rabbits! Mr. Slide’s energetic love of public virtue was scandalized as he thought of the probability of such a catastrophe.
It’s irrelevant to Slide that the Duke’s motives are pure and no one has been hurt. More important are the headlines to be made:
To his thinking, public virtue consisted in carping at men high placed, in abusing ministers and judges and bishops—and especially in finding out something for which they might be abused. His own public virtue was in this matter very great, for it was he who had ferreted out the secret. For his intelligence and energy in that matter the country owed him much. But the country would pay him nothing, would give him none of the credit he desired, would rob him of this special opportunity of declaring a dozen times that the People’s Banner was the surest guardian of the people’s liberty,—unless he could succeed in forcing the matter further into public notice. “How terrible is the apathy of the people at large,” said Mr. Slide to himself, “when they cannot be wakened by such a revelation as this!”
Slide publishes his findings and, while there is a small stir, the affair dies down. To make it bigger, Slide needs someone in Parliament to challenge the Duke. If he were operating today, he’s be a big advocate of the incessant Benghazi! committees:
Who was to ask the question? If public spirit were really strong in the country there would be no difficulty on that point. The crime committed had been so horrible that all the great politicians of the country ought to compete for the honor of asking it. What greater service can be trusted to the hands of a great man than that of exposing the sins of the rulers of the nation? So thought Mr. Slide. But he knew that he was in advance of the people, and that the matter would not be seen in the proper light by those who ought so to see it. There might be a difficulty in getting any peer to ask the question in the House in which the Prime Minister himself sat, and even in the other House there was now but little of that acrid, indignant opposition upon which, in Mr. Slide’s opinion, the safety of the nation altogether depends.
Yes, newspapers sell a lot more copies, television programs draw a lot more viewers, and blogs get a lot more clicks when there is acrid, indignant opposition. Some things never change.