Family roles, myths seize a bigger stage in new politics
Source: The San Francisco Chronicle 01/17/2007
Change is stressful for any family, the experts say. Marriage, job loss, the birth of a child, divorce, a relative moving in or out, a kitchen remodel -- anything can shift the dynamics, alter delicate balances of power, forge new behaviors, new metaphors, new pathways of negotiation. When the family has 300 million members and is fighting a war half a world away that most of them don't believe in, the problems and challenges multiply madly.
Ever since America underwent its major home makeover in the midterm elections last fall, there's been plenty of sorting out and labeling of the new players and products. Much of it, interestingly, has taken on the forms and metaphorical trappings of family dynamics.
Nancy Pelosi's election as speaker of the House may have been the logical culmination of a political career, but it was also carefully marketed for the values that Pelosi brought to the job as a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother. Every Pelosi photo op, it seemed, had more children of all ages in it than the previous one. Over in the Senate, incoming freshmen Jon Tester (a Montana rancher) and Jim Webb (an ex-Marine and former secretary of the Navy from Virginia) were emblematic of the brawny new "Alpha Male Democrats," as the New York Times dubbed them, flinty Marlboro men minus the cigarettes. The new majority party was cannily having it both ways, as a family that blended warmth and toughness, maternal wisdom and a healthy measure of testosterone.
At the country's most famous home address, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., President Bush has been behaving more and more like a man in need of some serious family counseling. His cherished "surge" of 21,500 American troops in Iraq had pundits flinging out competing images of dysfunction. Several said it was like a couple trying to save a doomed marriage by having a baby. As for the administration's growing pique with the intractable Iraqis themselves, Maureen Dowd mused recently that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and new Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte regard them as "irksome" cousins who have overstayed their welcome or ungrateful children who "leave the playroom a mess."
Politics isn't just personal anymore. It's about the ability to place and define yourself as part of a family, an embracing social structure with a larger unifying purpose. Bush, who rode to power seven years ago on a family-values tailwind that repudiated Clintonian laxness and turpitude, has become the image of a man alone, clinging fast to his failed policy as he teeters on the brink of full-fledged divorce from a Democratic-controlled Congress, from public opinion and even from his own party. Bush in 2007 is a baleful, solitary figure to contemplate.
The English writer W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) would have understood this purposeful mingling of politics and family perfectly. In a long stream of novels, plays, short stories and nonfiction, the author of "Cakes and Ale," "The Razor's Edge" and "Of Human Bondage" returned again and again to the theme of marriage and divorce as forums of power, money, deception, self-delusion and self-assertion. It was politics, in other words, in the most elegant and elemental way.
Maugham is a minor writer who seemed destined for obscurity 40 years after his death. But he's undergoing a timely 21st century rediscovery. His play "The Constant Wife," a 1926 comedy of manners about a woman declaring her economic and erotic freedom from a faithless husband, was revived by the American Conservatory Theater in 2003 and on Broadway in 2005. Now ACT has another Maugham-on- marriage play up and running; "The Circle" (1921) continues through Feb. 4. A fine film adaptation of Maugham's 1925 novel "The Painted Veil," starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as an unhappily married couple facing each other down during a cholera outbreak in China, is in theaters.
Seen one way, "Veil" is the more serious, overtly political work. Played out against the menace and human suffering of cholera, with the dramatic Chinese mountainscape as a backdrop, the story has a kind of bleak, tragic grandeur. "This is going to get much worse," Walter (Norton) warns Kitty (Watts) at one point, as the ravages of disease, the gruesome realities of 1920s medicine, the corrosion of English colonialism and the couple's loveless marriage and barren living conditions eat away at them.
"The Circle," by contrast, seems blithely, hermetically sealed. Cocooned inside a luxurious house in Dorset, the characters dress for luncheon, quibble over card games and idly debate the authenticity of an antique chair. Crisis arrives in the form of an older couple who return to England 30 years after an adulterous escape to Italy. Time has turned them into weary comic caricatures of impassioned lovers. One (Kathleen Widdoes) is fat and frivolous; the other (Ken Ruta) is a bitter old man with ill-fitting dentures. The closest thing to a political plotline involves a sexless cold- fish husband (James Waterston as Arnold) whose only real concern about his pretty young wife's plan to leave him is what effects a scandal might have on his future in Parliament.
But Maugham, a homosexual who spent 12 miserable years as a married man, didn't need a larger external world to enhance his subject. Marriage was a minefield in its own right, a realm of treachery, vanity, smiling malice, glimmers of altruism and kindness and acres of stifling suffocation. The power of both "The Painted Veil" and "The Circle" flow from that single source, albeit along different streambeds. Politics, for Maugham, was fundamentally personal, and the personal intrinsically political.
"I did not marry you because I loved you," he once wrote his wife, Syrie, in a letter, "and you were only too well aware of it." That's a line that's repeated, with chilly frankness, by the adulterous Kitty to her husband in "The Painted Veil."
"The Circle," expertly directed by Mark Lamos, moves in a lighter and more satiric vein. But the comedy is shot through with a deep skepticism about romance, marriage and family. "I owe everything to my father," says Arnold, referring to a man (Philip Kerr as Clive) who dismisses his ex-wife as "tinsel" and now amuses himself with women in their 20s. Later on, when Clive schemes to save Arnold's marriage by endorsing the infidelity of his son's wife, the deceit backfires without his realizing it. The lovers and manipulators alike are captives of their own illusions.
Late in "The Painted Veil," Kitty and Walter finally forgive each other their failings and are granted a single night of authentic physical passion. Shortly after that, one of them is dead. But it's finally not Maugham's suave cynicism about human affairs that seems attuned to our own family-inflected politics of the moment. It's his clear-eyed realism about the stories people tell themselves and the damage they can do. "It was silly of us to look for qualities in each other that we never had," Walter tells Kitty. That cautionary line hovers over the film and reaches out to us directly.
As the myths of the Bush era dissolve and America moves to remake itself, we need to think more carefully than ever about the qualities we see -- or think we see -- in our leaders. The American family is a warm and inviting notion, and politicians are eager to invoke the rhetoric and images that surround it. Whatever stories we decide to believe, from Congress and the presidential candidates lining up to run in 2008, let's hope we'll do it with our eyes, ears and minds wide open. "