December 5, 2015.
Judi Dench as Paulina and Kenneth Branagh as one of Shakepeare's most dunderheaded leading men in a current London production of "The Winter’s Tale,” a play Shakespeare did not write as a lesson in political philosophy for 21st Century American candidates for President. Photo by Johan Persson via The New York Times.
Don’t know how it is with you, but one thing that really burns my brisket is reading a smug, privileged journalist who has what I’d regard as a dream job feeling sorry for himself because said dream job isn’t as dreamy as it could be. My brisket chars on both sides when that journalist’s way of solacing himself is to take what I regard as a dream vacation.
New York Times political correspondent Patrick Healy, in desperate need of a break from covering the presidential campaign, fled the cornfields of Iowa and the deep woods of New Hampshire for the theaters of London’s West End.
I had the theater of politics on my brain as I took a break from covering the 2016 presidential race to indulge in my favorite form of escapism: plays and musicals in London. Instead of listening to the same speech at three campaign events a day — candidates are just bad actors with flag pins — I wanted to lose myself to the heady dreams, hilarious squabbles and heartbreaking fates of a strong-willed scientist, a raging drug addict, a one-legged transvestite, a junkyard full of cats and other unforgettable souls. But I also came to the West End to feel a world apart — not just from the crude, improvised drama of the televised presidential debates, but also from the familiar haunts and customs of American theater.
All right. I’m in a bad mood. I’m resentful and full of envy. I’ve got a month-long break from my own dream job coming up but there are no great theater going experiences ahead for us Mannions coming up. If I’m lucky I’ll get to see The Big Short and The Force Awakens and lose myself to the heady dreams, hilarious squabbles, and heartbreaking fates of fallen Jedi and rising hedge fund managers. The most romantic destination on our travel itinerary is my in-laws’ house. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying Healy’s appealing for sympathy from the wrong guy. And there’s something in the tone of that paragraph that grates and it’s not the theater snobbery.
It’s the bit about his having to listen to the same campaign speech three times in a day and candidates being bad actors with flag pins.
The political press corps is lousy with prima donnas who think the whole process of electing the President is an amateur theatrical staged just for them.
If they’re going to be forced to sit through the bad acting and banal writing the candidates stumping should at least say something new, provocative, stupid, or outrageous or, best of all, make a “gaffe” to entertain them and give them something fun and sexy to write about so they don’t fall asleep at their keyboards when they go to file their copy or if they do cause them to have pleasant dreams full of whimsy.
Healy knows those repetitive speeches aren’t being delivered for his benefit. The candidates are speaking to voters and to three different sets of voters. They give the same speech three times a day because people in the crowds weren’t in the previous crowds to hear it before. For many people in the crowds, campaign rallies are entertainment. It’s what they have in place of lots of frequent flyer miles to cash in and tickets to opening night. He knows all this. And he understands. But it wears on an elite journalist of a sensitive nature and refined intelligence and he must seek replenishment.
Like I said. A bad mood.
Or maybe I was just put off from the start by Healy’s lede.
In the perfect stillness of a London theater, where audience members are savvy enough to stop eating candy during a big scene, Ms. Dench is delivering a master class in political gutsiness in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” As Paulina, the ally of a wronged queen, she is unflinching as she faces the jealous king Leontes, played by Kenneth Branagh. He hurls insults — “audacious lady,” “mankind witch,” “gross hag” — not unlike Donald J. Trump’s attacks on Mrs. Clinton and Carly Fiorina. But Ms. Dench doesn’t blink, which you can actually notice because of the intimacy of London playhouses.
Is there a candidate in this race less in need in a lesson in backbone than Hillary Clinton, let alone one from an actress playing a fictional character dealing from a stacked deck as she takes the audience’s side against one of Shakespeare’s least appealing and most dunderheaded leading men? I’d be inclined to think that was the basis of Healy’s point, that even someone with the iron spine of Hillary Clinton could learn a thing or two from Dench’s performance, if he hadn’t gone and paired her with Carly Fiorina. Clinton has yet to face Trump and hasn’t had to stand up to his bullying. Fiorina has and, although she maintained some dignity, I don’t think it’s generally agreed she got the better of him. So maybe Healy does think he’s giving Clinton needed advice.
But here’s the thing.
There’s more of a point to this post than me being a grump.
I have a bias.
The political press corps is notorious for writing drama criticism in place of analysis of policies and platforms. When they’re not covering politics as a game, they’re reviewing it as performance art. And Healy a star practitioner. And he works for the Times which is not exactly friendly to Hillary Clinton. My first inclination when I read this piece was to think that if Hillary showed the backbone Healy recommends, he’d find a way to give it a negative review.
The Clinton Rules would dictate it. One of those rules is that any quality journalists and pundits admire in all other politicians is suspicious, ersatz, or outright vicious when exhibited by a Clinton.
Peter Daou, co-editor of the blog #HillaryMen with Tom Watson, laid out the conventions of how those rules are applied with a distinctly sexist spin to Hillary in this post, HILLARY DECODER: THE MASTER GUIDE TO ANTI-CLINTON MEMES.
And it happens that back in 2008, Healy wrote one of the most egregious and salacious stories about the Clintons since the impeachment crisis.
Healy has seen Hillary show his idealized backbone and he has reviewed it positively.
Back in May. Here: Hillary Clinton Shows New Willingness to Tackle Risky Issues.
I try to get as much of my news from reading the newspaper. The world looks a lot different in print than it does in pixels. It makes more sense. But I still spend too much time online and way too much of that time on Twitter and things seep in. I generally like Twitter but it is a minute by minute demonstration of selection bias. And Liberal Twitter is often a closed loop, an echo chamber, and an ongoing experiment in confirmation bias and group think. Get your news and sense of how the world is spinning exclusively from Twitter and all you know isn’t what’s actually going on but what a bunch of people with your biases and prejudices are telling each other is going on. People don’t know things. They know what the people they follow know. And those people know what they people they follow know.
I know the Clinton Rules are real and in force. But I mostly see them in force through outraged tweets from people passing along what they learned from somebody else’s outraged tweets.
This is something to keep in mind when you go read Healy’s report from London for yourself, which you should do. It’s a fun piece, full of vicarious pleasures.
Just don’t let it fill you with resentment and envy like me.
And, by the way, Donald Trump is a lot shrewder, smarter, more conniving, wittier, more verbally dextrous, more conscienceless, and far meaner than Leontes.
Leontes is a jealous dolt and he’s outwitted and out-talked by just about every other character in the play. But he has a heart and deep down he’s basically a good man capable of admitting he’s wrong and asking for forgiveness.
But, as Hamlet says in his play of an antagonist much more formidable than Paulina faces down, Trump is a smiling, damnèd villain!
It’s going to take a lot more than well-acted backbone to get the better of him.