“Beware the fury of a patient man.” This line from John Dryden’s Absolom and Architophel occurred to me as I was listening to President Obama’s speech this past Friday. Sounding angrier than I’ve ever heard him, the president talked about how he had been “left at the altar” when House Republican Leader John Boehner walked out of their negotiations about raising the debt ceiling. Obama is noted for his calm—he’s too calm in the opinion of some on the left—but he wasn’t calm this time.
In the opinion of Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s policy wonk, Boehner walked out when he realized that he didn’t have the votes in the radicalized GOP to countenance any tax increases, even though Obama (to the consternation of many in his own party) was offering far more spending cuts than tax hikes. Rather than lose face, perhaps Boehner tried instead to embarrass the president.
My question is whether the drama in Dryden’s famous 1681 political satire has any predictive value when it comes to our budget impasse. Let me explain.
Absolom and Architohel is a satiric allegory about the rebellion of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, reputedly an illegitimate son of Charles II. (Autobiographical aside: Bates lore has it that we are descended from Monmouth, which is how my father Scott got his name. We’ve never been able to prove this, however.) Monmouth was popular with the people, in part because, unlike Charles’s brother James, he wasn’t Catholic. Since Charles only had illegitimate children (Queen Catherine was unable to produce an heir), James was in line to become a Catholic king over an Anglican nation. Monmouth agitated to establish himself as Charles’s successor. At the time the poem was written, Monmouth counselor Shaftesbury was in prison for high treason, providing Dryden the occasion for his poem. Several years later, when James ascended to the throne, Monmouth led an open rebellion and was defeated and executed.
Dryden was opposed to Monmouth’s efforts and retold the story in terms of the Biblical story of King David and his rebellious son Absolom. In his version, Charles II is King David, Monmouth is Absolom, and Architophel is Shaftesbury. Despite Absolom’s rebellion, David has a soft spot for him and gives him every benefit of the doubt before finally taking action against him.
Now for the parallels. King Charles was a mild and compliant king whom many thought they could push around, and some see Obama in this way as well. Obama has caught people off guard with unexpected strength of spine, however (think of the killing of Bin Laden), and Dryden’s King David makes a similar case for himself. His mildness, David says, should not be misinterpreted as weakness. He may have been yielding so far (think of Obama’s concessions), but his “tenderness of blood” is not from fear (“I am not good by force”). In fact, it takes more manly strength to bear up against offenses than it does to lash out. With Absolom’s rebellion, however, enough is enough. Since his foes have “divert[ed] my native course,” it’s time for the king to be a king. Here’s David delivering his version of Obama’s Friday speech:
Thus from his royal throne, by Heaven inspired,
The godlike David spoke; with awful fear
His train their Maker in their master hear.
“Thus long have I, by native mercy swayed,
My wrongs dissembled, my revenge delayed;
So willing to forgive the offending age;
So much the father did the king assuage.
But now so far my clemency they slight,
The offenders question my forgiving right.
That one was made for many, they contend;
But ’tis to rule, for that’s a monarch’s end.
They call my tenderness of blood my fear,
Though manly tempers can the longest bear.
Yet since they will divert my native course,
‘Tis time to show I am not good by force.
And then, further on,
Must I at length the sword of justice draw?
Oh curst effects of necessary law!
How ill my fear they by my mercy scan!
Beware the fury of a patient man.
Law they require, let Law then show her face;
They could not be content to look on Grace . . .
The law in Obama’s case would be the safety of the republic. Of course, since he is not a king like Charles, he can’t simply put down the Republican opposition, as Charles puts down Monmouth. There is a chance, however, that he could invoke the 14th Amendment and raise the debt ceiling on his own. (The relevant section reads, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”) After all, everyone except for rightwing ideologues and pandering presidential candidates acknowledges that it would be an economic disaster for the government to miss payroll and fail to pay its debts.
Some, including former President Clinton and several prominent law professors, have been urging Obama to take this route. So far Obama has resisted, so if he plans to use it he’s hidden it well. But maybe he’s just being like Dryden’s King David, letting the Republicans reveal their intransigence before taking decisive action. Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish says that Obama is master of the “meep meep” strategy, a reference to the Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote cartoon where everything seems in place to defeat Roadrunner only to spectacularly backfire. Will the Republicans overplay their hand and end up like Wiley, holding a stick of dynamite or caught beneath a falling weight?
Whatever the case, this is the strategy that King David recommends:
Then let them take an unresisted course;
Retire and traverse, and delude their force:
But when they stand all breathless, urge the fight
And rise upon them with redoubled might :
For lawful power is still superior found,
When long driven back at length it stands the ground.’
Right now the U.S. is in the midst of a riveting drama given that there’s so much at stake. In Dryden’s poem, there’s a happy ending that involves God nodding His approval to King David and restoring order:
The Almighty, nodding, gave consent;
And peals of thunder shook the firmament.
Henceforth a series of new time began,
The mighty years in long procession ran;
Once more the godlike David was restored,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.
Will the nation be saved and will Obama (we won’t call him godlike) outflank the Republicans and be reelected? Or do you see the parallels as reinforcing the idea that Obama is some kind of imperial president (as rightwing pundits keep claiming)? I suppose that both America’s left and right could use this poem to bolster their cases. In any case, by providing us with a narrative that approximates current events, Absolom and Architophel reminds us that we constantly resort to narrative to understand the world.
So what story do you apply to the debt ceiling crisis? Who are your heroes, who are your villains? Whatever our politics, can we at least agree that we want a peaceful resolution and that we have to work together to get it?
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