Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Trollope and politics

I picked up Anthony Trollope's Phineas Redux (1874) this week primarily because Trollope's careful plotting and Victorian confidence seemed like the perfect way to break, at least temporarily, the hold that Roberto Bolano's fractured narratives has exerted on me in recent weeks. What I didn't expect was that it would fit so nicely with another book I was reading, John F. Harris's The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House (2004). I grabbed The Survivor off my shelf the night after Obama's victory, and I've been reading it slowly ever since, ten pages here and there, as both a way to familiarize myself with the challenges Obama faces in shaping an administration and a reminder of the distance we've come--for both good and bad--since the last time a Democrat occupied the White House.

Harris's account is detailed and impressive, giving the reader a ringside seat at the often asinine battles of the mid-nineties, while also offering a memorable portrait of the complicated and frustrating man at their center. What's most striking, however, is the way it brings home the constant personnel churn of political life. I tend to think of political change as slow-moving, with the same Congresspeople holding office year after year, but the reality is that following politics is somewhat like following baseball: watch long enough, and you'll see every piece of your team replaced, but the process moves so slowly that you'll barely notice. When Clinton took office, his party's power was still anachronistically rooted in the South, and relatively conservative figures such as Sam Nunn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan had the power to make or break his agenda. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the entire map has changed: Obama's majority, while broad, is based in the Northeast and Midwest, far less reliant on any fractious conservatives.

That sense of constant change, of politicians in and out of office, is what makes The Survivor resonate unexpectedly with the first chapters of Phineas Redux, the fourth in the series of Palliser novels, Trollope's insider account of the workings of British government in the mid-Victorian era. When last we saw Phineas, in Phineas Finn (1869), he had resigned his seat over a question of principle and retreated to his Irish estate. His political career was over, we thought, as did Finn himself:
He had told himself over and over again that that life which he had lived in London had been, if not a dream, at any rate not more significant than a parenthesis in his days, which, as of course it had no bearing on those which had gone before, so neither would it influence those which were to follow.
But the political sands are always shifting, and as Phineas Redux opens, Finn is offered a chance to stand once more for Parliament. He jumps at the chance, for once bitten by the dramatic world of government and the attractive social whirl of London--at that point, essentially the capitol of the world--he's flat-out bored by his rural isolation in Ireland:
There are certain modes of life which, if once adopted, make contentment in any other circumstances almost an impossibility. In old age a man may retire without repining, though it is often beyond the power even of the old man to do so; but in youth, with all the faculties still perfect, with the body still strong, with the hopes still buoyant, such a change as that which had been made by Phineas Finn was more than he, or than most men, could bear with equanimity. He had revelled in the gaslight, and could not lie quiet on a sunny bank. To the palate accustomed to high cookery, bread and milk is almost painfully insipid. . . . After five years spent in the heat and excitement of London society, life in Ireland was tame to him, and cold, and dull. He did not analyse the difference between metropolitan and quasi-metropolitan manners; but he found that men and women in Dublin were different from those to whom he had been accustomed in Dublin. . . . When in London he had often told himself that he was sick of it, and that he would better love some country quiet life. Now Dublin was his Tibur, and the fickle one found that he could not be happy unless he were back again at Rome.
Phineas's enthusiasm and naivete as he restarts his political life are, surprisingly enough, occasionally echoed by Harris's account of Bill Clinton in the early days of his administration. Master operator though Clinton was, in his early days he was nevertheless frequently surprised and even overawed by the intensity of the White House: everything in Washington was just so much bigger and more complicated than Arkansas, far more so, it seems, than he had ever expected.

It will be interesting to see whether any further similarities arise; surely Finn, at least, will have the Victorian good sense not to sleep with any interns. Meanwhile, after reading Phineas's lament, can you blame a certain media-hungry governor from Alaska for not wanting to simply settle back into the quiet duties presented by her far-flung state?

No comments:

Post a Comment