Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I have gone dark today . . . except for writing this. It is a dark day for America and I have no interest in what that man has to say. There is no resonance of truth in any of his many boasts and claims. A liar, a narcissist, a sexual predator, a mediocrity of the first order as he respects no one more than himself. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got it right.
The new president (a lower case president to be sure) seems to bask in his ability to remain detached from the world we live in. He does not read or attend intelligence briefings. He considers it a badge of honor that he does not read books. He speaks in cliches, catch phrases, and self aggrandizing encomia. Soft skinned to the extreme, he cannot tolerate dissent or debate, maintaining he already knows everything he needs to know. So how can I celebrate the next chapter in the history of our republic when it looks more like an epilogue? And a sad and disheartening one at that. I cannot bring myself to acknowledge the pomp and circumstance playing itself out today less than three miles from where I sit in my home study writing this. I see no reason to celebrate.
Instead, I have just re-read “Les Amis du Président,” William Styron’s essay based on his July 26, 1981 account - “A Leader Who Prefers Writers to Politicians” - published in The Boston Globe after he returned home from attending the inauguration of French president François Mitterrand two months earlier. Styron (1925-2006) spent a great deal of time in Europe, especially in Paris, and was among the founders of the seminal Paris Review, in 1953. Mitterrand would later name Styron a Commandeur in the French Légion d'honneur. He was among seven writers . . . three of them American . . . personally invited by the newly elected President to be among the fewer than 200 in attendance for the actual ceremony at the base of the Arc de Triomphe on a gray day threaten by rain . . . very much like today here in Washington. He joined Arthur Miller, Elie Wiesel, Gabriel Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Yachar Kemal, as well as the widow of Pablo Neruda.. There were no heads of state, no diplomats . . . “very little pomp and circumstance.” Yet there were the writers!
Styron sat next to French European Commissioner Claude Cheysson (1920-2012), soon to be tapped as the new French foreign minister, at a luncheon at the Elysée Palace after the ceremony. When asked what he though of the invitation, Styron told Cheysson it was a rare honor; “Writers were very rarely accorded this kind of recognition, especially in the United States . . . and that it was fun to help celebrate this day with a president who was so obviously and passionately in love with the written word.” Mitterrand, in Styron’s eye, was “perhaps alone among the chiefs of state of our time, who cares for writers more than the members of any other profession – more than lawyers, more than scientists, more than politicians . . . . “ And when the new French president and his party processed down the broad boulevard Saint-Michel, on the Left Bank, on their way to the Sorbonne after the luncheon, he was accompanied by Styron and the writers invited to the ceremony. “A concern for culture and the intellect is not mere style with Mitterrand,” Styron writes. “But central to his being.”
As far as I can tell, not one Republican president has ever invited a poet to read at his inauguration, to celebrate the rich heritage and diversity of our nation. In 1961, John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost. Jimmy Carter invited James Dickey sixteen years later. Maya Angelou and Miller Williams were on the dais when Bill Clinton took the oath of office. Barack Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco. Once again there was no poet in attendance today. I would hardly expect one to show up even if she or he had been invited. Language, culture, intellect means nothing to the man now ensconced in the White House, a man who has called for the elimination of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities? He should not find much objection from the conservative Republican in Congress (is there really any other kind?). Instead, former US poet laureates Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will join American poets of every stripe and color to protest today’s inauguration with “Writers Resist” rallies around the country.
Finally, should not leaders of their peoples and nations be among the smartest people, the most engaged people their nation has to offer? I am reminded of John F. Kennedy, one of our more intellectually and culturally astute leaders, who while speaking at a White House dinner celebrating Nobel laureates, in April 1962, called the assembly “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Think back to Jefferson and our other revolutionary founders – Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Add to them John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. These men all understood how one governs properly. That said, there have been other presidents who were less than stellar – Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon. All of them mediocrities on their best day. In 1980, and again in 1984, American elected a mediocre movie star. Now they have elected the former host of a “reality” show with absolutely no government experience. No idea how governing really works. He is also the first president in 25 years without an advanced degree who seems only interested in himself. Americans seem to idolize celebrity over intellect. But are we prepared to pay the price for our failure to elect a qualified leader who understands the nuances of governing?
A mediocrity pure and simple now captains the ship of state. Should we not be raising the bar instead of lowering it? America certainly deserves better than it is got today.
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