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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 04:55 am

Tales of Sir Galahad

Obama’s premature coronation is the stuff of medieval morality tales

Untitled Document Once upon a time, in a distant land called Iowa, the media anointed U.S. Sen. Barack Obama crown prince of all the realm — well, at least, of all the Democrats. But half-a-week later, when the New Hampshire primary proved them wrong, they found another story to tell, something more along the lines of Cinderella and the glass slipper. So now in the conventional wisdom U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s star is rising and Obama’s is falling. Blame the demands of 24/7 commentary in an age of cable television and the Internet. That’s certainly part of the problem. But the basic problem has been around much longer — at least since the 14th and 15th centuries, in fact. Obama’s premature coronation did make a great story. When he won the Iowa caucuses, the media wrote Clinton off. She was too calculating, too mired in the politics of the ’90s, too whatever. The future belonged to Obama. He would bring hope to the weary land, sort of like Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail, and rescue us from baby-boomer negativity and partisanship. “Give me a break,” Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, told CNN. “This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
Clinton had it about half right, as he later acknowledged. Obama’s victory in Iowa was historic, and he has Dr. Martin Luther King’s gift of expressing the prophetic vision of the black church in a way that doesn’t frighten white America. For that alone, he is assured a place in our common history. But that wasn’t the story line I was seeing more often. It was more about Bill and Hillary’s negative media pops and Obama’s cooler, media-savvy “post-partisan” demeanor. In any event, a new story line was called for when Hillary Clinton won in New Hampshire. Peter Baker and Anne E. Kornblut of the Washington Post framed the new narrative in terms of a “boom-and-bust cycle that has helped define Hillary and Bill Clinton for the past 16 years. From defeat comes victory, from adversity comes triumph — it was a familiar narrative filled with moments of anger, grievance, and vindication.”
Something more like the old morality plays, in other words. In the morality plays of the late Middle Ages, a two-dimensional character named Everyman is led into temptation and evil ways until he’s saved by his better angels at play’s end. Sic transit. We’ve come a long way, maybe. At least now we can have a story of Everywoman whose political life is saved when she sheds a tear of authenticity during a New Hampshire photo op. But the story line is about the same. So as I read the Washington Post and the New York Times this month, I’ve been reminded of Sir Galahad, Cinderella, and the morality plays.
I’m reminded even more of something the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga said in a classic, but still surprisingly readable, book called The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Here’s his take on the chronicle of France and Burgundy in terms we might find familiar: “Although in reality the mechanism of government had already assumed rather complicated forms, the popular mind pictures it in simple and fixed figures. The current political ideas are those of the Old Testament, the romaunt [a verse romance] and the ballad. The kings of the time are reduced to a certain number of types, every one of which corresponds, more or less, to a literary motif. There is the wise and just prince, the prince deceived by evil counsellors, the prince who avenges the honour of his family, the unfortunate prince to whom his servants remain faithful. In the mind of the people political questions are reduced to stories of adventure.”
So now to those types we might add the young senator from Illinois who rides out to slay the dragons of partisanship and the wise queen who redeems her heritage when she finds the glass slipper of authenticity in the snows of New Hampshire. Or something like that. But of course the minstrels and Burgundian chroniclers who came up with the original types weren’t trying to cover the news.
Pete Ellertsen teaches journalism and cultural studies at Benedictine University/Springfield College in Illinois.
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