A Few Good Presidents

I think we can all agree that so far this election season is the most insane in living memory. If this were a West Wing season, we would all be complaining that Sorkin was jumping the shark and creating only caricature Republicans to push his left-wing agenda. But it’s real. It’s all real. And whoever wins in November is going to get the keys to Air Force One for real.

The current political mess inspired me to reflect on some of our best political leaders – the fictional ones. Yes, before we had the catastrophic Selina Meyer and philanderer Fitz Grant, a few fake presidents were actually pretty good. I give you my favourites…

1. Laura Roslin, Battlestar Galactica

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Though perhaps not the most democratic leader, with only a reluctant acceptance of the set-term presidency that Lee instates, Laura Roslin leads a dwindling civilisation to a fruitful new life: the dying leader who leads her people to the promised land. That’s pretty good going.

The Secretary of Education who has the presidency thrust upon her after a nuclear attack wipes out everyone else in the line of succession, Laura Roslin navigates her new role with increasing adeptness as the series develops. She is dealt a terrible hand when she comes into power, and handles the near-total destruction of her people with grace and poise. She’s tough, though, more than proving herself capable of handling the demands of governing a race whose survival depends on her every decision (while her own survival deteriorates). As a leader, she is compassionate, she is pragmatic and she respects the people she represents. These are, in my humble opinion, the fundamental qualities of a good president.

Also – and I realise this may not seem particularly relevant but stick with me – she is an ace at flirting. Congrats to BSG for being the first narrative to get me invested in a middle-aged love story. No matter how adorable Admiral Adama is however, Roslin keeps her eyes on the prize always. She resists his charms, always focusing on her endgame: Earth. She selflessly puts her own happiness aside and endures about twenty different cruel plot twists that would make anyone else straight-up finish Gaius Baltar and comes out the other side a moral, uncompromised, revered president. Her legacy is so much bigger than her, and she always recognises that. She is single-handedly responsible for saving every life in that poignant wide-shot of a fertile land at the end of the series finale. (I guess that also makes her responsible for the Lil Wayne myspace page that’s advertised in the ‘100,000 years later’ scene, but we’ll let her off.) Without Laura, basically all the humans would have met their nasty end. Good job, Prez.

(FYI, “How long do you have to live, Karen?” was the original “What’s good?”)

2. Jed Bartlet, The West Wing

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Everyone’s favourite power-walking president with a penchant for national parks trivia and a subtle air of superiority, Bartlet has often been heralded as the liberal fantasy president. No one puts on their jacket with more flair than our man Jed. And that’s what you want in a president, right? Flair? Well, he also has the best administration of any White House narrative – a charming band of idealistic lawmakers ready to make a difference and talk fast doin’ it.

Highlights of the Bartlet administration include: appointing Bill Adama Roberto Mendoza, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, and the first female Chief Justice, seeming to successfully negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, his not-so-secret (or real) plan to fight inflation, that one time he rocked the debate, and probably other things involving jobs and education and, hang on, did they ever follow through on that idea about making college affordable? Or curing cancer? Anyway, point is, he did a lot of good, lefty things and said a lot of good, lefty things. Perhaps most iconic was his ‘Dr.’ Jenna Jacobs smackdown on the issue of homophobia:

Martin Sheen elevated Aaron Sorkin’s writing every time he was given a speech and together they created one of the most memorable, compelling characters on television. Bartlet was a reminder of what a president could be during the bleak days of the second Bush presidency. He revived people’s interest in the political narrative. Flawed, but so charismatic and so affable that you couldn’t help but love him.

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So, Biographies Are Wild

Let me start with this: I have never been a particularly avid reader of biographies. Prior to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, I can’t recall the last one I read. But all of a sudden, my participation in the Women’s Lives Club’s year of women’s biographies means my bookshelf is raining life stories. (I think I’m going to need a bigger bookshelf.) As a newbie to the world of biographies, I thought I would share my somewhat disorganised thoughts on the topic. More specifically, I wanted to reflect on the immediate intrusiveness I’ve felt in this process. For reasons I’ll attempt to make clear, this sudden immersion into the worlds of other people, as told by different other people, has made me far more distrustful of the form than I ever expected.

To put it bluntly, it seems to involve the total invasion of a person’s existence. Imagine having your story appropriated by someone else. I’d never really considered how insidious that could be. To lose control of the narrative of your own life seems a frightening prospect.

As supplementary reading to the book club, our fearless leader Rachel Syme suggested Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. In it, Heilbrun references Roland Barthes’ view of biography as offensive because it entails, as Barthes puts it, “a counterfeit integration of the subject.” Heilbrun concurs, suggesting that, “In choosing among biographers and biographies, we choose among counterfeit integrations.”

The biography I’m currently reading for the Women’s Lives Club, The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, opens on an essay from Ted Hughes that was written as the foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, and in it he says, “I never saw her show her real self to anybody– except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life”. Less than a page in and I was already thrown off-kilter by those words. “Her real self”. It made me think about my “real self”, the idea that anybody has a “real self”, one true identity from which any deviation is just that: a digression from the authentic person. Why can we not be understood as more than one thing? We are more than one “real self”, aren’t we? But can a biography account for that?

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January in Books

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I always endeavour not to make New Year’s resolutions. Come on. They’re so mainstream and I’m so edgy. Actually, no. I just feel like they’re predestined to fail. It becomes the talk of February to discuss what a terrible job everyone’s done with whatever optimistic resolutions they made.

For 2016, though, I really wanted to make a conscious effort to read more books. I’m hoping that I can conclude each month with an informal roundup of my reading material. Thus far I have made my way through the books listed below, I’ve opened my Twitter up to recommendations and, on a 3am whim, I joined an online book club devoted to biographies about women. I’d call that a successful start.

Without further ado, I give you January’s selections…

 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Taking on a book that could double as a doorstop is always a little intimidating but my escalating interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical persuaded me this was a must-read. After all, Hamilton’s life had to be pretty damn epic to warrant a three-hour Broadway musical. Assumption correct. The man is non-stop.

The biography opens with a prologue entitled ‘The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow’, introducing us to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, in the latter years of her life, before we meet the man himself. In a particularly moving quote, Chernow describes that,

 [Eliza] frequently grew melancholy and longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton,” as she invariably referred to him. “One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while,” said one caller. “When the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost to all around her. There was a long silence, broken by the murmured words, ‘I am so tired. It is so long. I want to see Hamilton.’”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? It left me wondering what kind of a man can have inspired such devotion in Eliza, a devotion, it turned out, that was not exclusive to Eliza but extended to her father, her sisters, and Hamilton’s many friends and mentors. It seems as though everyone who encountered Hamilton either became a faithful admirer or a potent enemy. If there existed an in-between, it didn’t make the biography. There may not be a more polarising political figure from the period. However, Chernow does not choose an enemy to open and close this biographical epic, but the woman who perhaps loved Hamilton most of all. The story of Eliza’s later years swiftly leads the reader into the accounts of Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent childhood, where the genius of the man quickly begins to emerge against a bleak backdrop. It didn’t take long for me to catch onto the hype. If only the unfortunate Aaron Burr had too.

It struck me that Chernow’s narrative structure, or perhaps simply the chronological sequence of events in Hamilton’s life, reflects that of the two-act ‘Into The Woods’ model. We spend the first half in the fairytale of Hamilton – he goes from an impoverished orphan living in obscurity to a self-made hero of the American Revolution, the adoring husband to Eliza and George Washington’s right hand man – until the transition into the second half begins his undoing, where the truth of Hamilton’s vices and a more cynical reality come into play. His life, both public and private, is dismantled until – spoiler alert! – he’s staring death in the face as he stands facing his long-time rival Aaron Burr, duelling pistol in hand, in Weehawken, New Jersey on that fateful morning of July 12th, 1804.

It’s hard to be concise when reviewing the life of a man who was anything but. My overriding feeling when reading Chernow’s biography was one of contentment – that Eliza’s desperate hope to ensure her husband’s legacy has been fulfilled. One of the most poignant moments in the musical comes during ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ as Hamilton, whose preoccupation with his legacy has defined him, raps, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” It leads neatly into the following song’s ultimate assertion: “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life, she notes that scholars have “lately written about how much of what passes as history is in fact evidence from the prevailing or established opinion of the age”. For so many years, it was Jefferson and a succession of Democratic-Republican leaders who controlled Hamilton’s narrative, painting him in the worst possible light. Two hundred years later, the Hamiltons are finally gifted a belated happy ending. Ron Chernow, an outstandingly comprehensive and devoted biographer, has recovered details of this impressive founding father’s many achievements that have laid the foundations to enable Alexander Hamilton’s success story to reach the masses.

As well as enriching the central Hamilton narrative with supplementary anecdotes, Ron Chernow’s biography offers fascinating nuggets about other characters such as Peggy Schuyler, Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler Church, George Washington, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette and the Hamilton children. Simply put, it’s a must-read if you love the musical.

 Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

A friend suggested I read this in the wake of my sudden Star Wars enlightenment. I have to say, for a book that begins with a death, goes on to explore the dark side of celebrity, discusses drug addiction and bipolar, all before eventually concluding with PTSD, it’s a really funny read. That’s Carrie. (What a life!)

Reading Wishful Drinking was like sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, but in book form. It’s a short and sweet collection of memories from Carrie’s unusually eventful life. Now, I accept that “sweet” might seem an odd descriptor given the weight of many of the issues explored, but the openness with which every anecdote is retold makes you feel like you’re having a fun bonding sesh with your old bud Carrie Fisher. I didn’t even know I had an old bud Carrie Fisher! How thrilling. Now she’s chilling with me on this hot, sandy beach and telling me about growing up as the daughter of America’s sweethearts, and we’re laughing because, according to George Lucas, there’s no underwear in space, and she’s opening up to me about past loves and heartbreaks, and before I know it, the sun’s gone down and I’ve been so swept up in her stories that I haven’t even picked up my beach reading – except, oh wait, I’m not actually on a beach and I’ve been reading the whole time.

What I’m saying is, you’ll read this and like Carrie Fisher. If you don’t then, well, you’re weird and you don’t deserve to be Carrie Fisher’s beach bud.

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