15 July 2008

Mysterious story

A friend who was here for dinner handed me a book of stories by E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories. There was a post-it note on the cover that asked, “What is your conclusion about the last story, 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden.'?"

We're leaving for a trip shortly, so I read it tonight, and here's my answer.

You and I are not among the "configured gentlemen" (p. 146) who are "configured to win..." So the story may seem non-sensical.

But, it picks up on a theme that Doctorow has been working on for some time.

That theme is that the guys running the country for the past 7 and a half years are the "configured gentlemen." They do whatever they want to do and they get away with it. In his story, they can cover up the discovery of a child's body on the White House grounds and stop almost any investigation of it. I think he's asking, "What else have they done and covered up?"

In 2004, Doctorow wrote, "The Unfeeling President" for CommonDreams, an internet newsletter.
"I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

"But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.

"He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

"But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be...

"But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest 1 percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the quality of air in coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a-half benefits for overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them into the professional class.

"And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to our democracy is choking the life out of it..."

A 2004 article in the Washington Post, recounted how Doctorow was booed and cheered at Hofstra University when he said in a commencement speech that President Bush and his supporters were liars and that just because someone important said something didn't mean you shouldn't question the veracity of the statement.

That article went on to mention this story:
"Over a cup of coffee with skim milk, Doctorow wanted to talk about his own stories. One story in the new collection, 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden,' is about arrogance of power in the White House.

"The daughter of a Texas tycoon who supports the country's unnamed president tries to bring attention to bad policies by staging a mock crime at the White House. In one eloquent soliloquy, the daughter speaks out against those who run the country. 'Oh Lord . . . they always win, don't they. They are very skillful. It didn't come out quite as we planned -- we are such amateurs -- but even if it had, I suppose they would have known how to handle it. I just thought maybe this could restore them, put them back among us. It would be a kind of shock treatment if they felt the connection, for even just a moment, that this had something to do with them, the gentlemen who run things.'

"'If it is a good story,' Doctorow said, 'it will work 15 or 20 years from now no matter who is in the White House.'...”

Just last month, Doctorow wrote in The Nation magazine:
“In the domestic political fantasy life of these past seven years finds us in an unnerving time loop of our own making--in this country, quite on its own, history seems to be running in reverse and knowledge is not seen as a public good but as something suspect, dubious or even ungodly, as it was, for example, in Italy in 1633, when the church put Galileo on trial for his heretical view that the earth is in orbit around the sun.”

Doctorow seethes with the anger I can't find. I'm just discouraged and despondent. I'm not one of the "configured gentlemen," and I've known it all my life.

As the old joke goes, George Bush was one of those guys born on third base who grew up thinking he'd hit a triple. I am one of those guys who was born on second base and grew up thinking I'd lucked out to get a walk and reached second on a throwing error. I haven't been tagged out yet, and in some ways I've reached third base. In other ways, I'm still leading off from second.

Enough of that. The story is a good one. If the rest of the book is as good, I'll borrow it when I'm back from vacation. If you've read it, write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

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