Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!                                                                                                 –Richard II

There are many things to say as we watch the collapse of one of the world’s great political parties play out in real time. Let’s begin by going back to the last time the U.S. of A. experienced a party realignment comparable to this one. The realignment, like most other relatively recent big social changes in this country, took place in the 1960s.

In the year 1960, the presidential election pitted the incumbent Republican Vice President – Richard Nixon – against a young, handsome, articulate son of one of the nation’s wealthiest families. This particular son was not supposed to be the family’s political standard-bearer (that role belonged to the eldest), but World War II changed a lot of things for a lot of families. The Kennedy’s, even with their great wealth and prestige, were no different.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was optimistic, energetic, and beautiful on screen. Richard Milhous Nixon was unattractive, somewhat creepy, but highly qualified. The result of the contest was one of the closest and most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. Kennedy won, barely, and to this day many are convinced that votes, especially in Chicago, were bought or stolen.

Kennedy’s presidency is a strange one to describe. The beautiful man with his beautiful wife and beautiful children captivated the sentiments of many, but accomplished little tangible domestic reform. Abroad, there was the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also the Bay of Pigs debacle. His administration is remembered more for its captivating rhetoric and great dreams deferred than any legislative or diplomatic accomplishment.

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What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.

From the Archive

I stumbled upon this 2004 Ryan Lizza profile of Senate candidate Barack Obama done for the Atlantic. It followed his famous convention speech in support of John Kerry and it’s pretty weird after ten years. There’s even a quote from then-Congressman and now Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel, (he was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff). It’s easy to read too much into it with that 20/20 hindsight, but Lizza does a great job here. Somehow it makes us remember the genuine appeal that was there while hinting at some of the future pitfalls. It’s not too long and worth a read.

A Little Nuance Into the Brothers Koch

American Conservative‘s Justin Raimondo has an excellent review of a new Daniel Schulman bio on the Koch Brothers, otherwise known as the Game of Thrones plutocrats out to take over the country. Of course that’s partly true. The brothers’ net worth is over $100 billion and they have poured millions (perhaps billions eventually) into financing libertarian politics in this country. One of them even stood as Vice Presidential candidate in the 1980 election.

However, against this New Yorker article and the constant emails an Obama voter is destined to receive from political action committees (there’s even an anti-Citizens United group named after them), this injects some nuance. These people have become enormously successful for reasons, and though we might wish that enormously successful people would have different values, it’s undeniable that some of the values we distaste are contributors to their enormous success. Realizing this forces us beyond righteous condemnation of individuals toward a more thoughtful analysis of the societal forces that created them.

They also failed spectacularly. They threw pretty much everything they had at Obama in 2012 and he won reelection pretty handily for an incumbent in a not-so-great economy. Rumors of oligarchy, or least an oligarchy under their control, were greatly exaggerated.

“The Definitive Take on Obama’s Second Term” by David Bromwich

The latest attempt to write history as it’s happening comes from The London Review of Books. It’s hard to know what to make of it. As observers and thinkers we naturally make connections and see patterns in events. We form these into narratives and this is how we understand. But when do we start manufacturing our narratives and imposing our own order onto chaos? At what point are things too complicated to make sense of and best left undefined until hindsight grants us 20/20?

David Bromwich is an English professor at Yale University, the author of a book about British political philosopher Edmund Burke, and has a long history of political commentary at various highbrow publications. While impressive, absent from this resume is any hands-on front line work in the business of politics. This makes one wonder just how much weight to give some of his claims about Obama’s presidential style. As he says: Continue reading