Thursday, November 20, 2008
I was thinking about what we traditionally call the postelection "honeymoon," of which President-elect Barack Obama is now in the second week. But what exactly is meant by the metaphor? As a starting point, I looked up the word in my well-worn Oxford English Dictionary: "The first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure (Samuel Johnson); originally having no reference to the period of a month, but comparing the mutual affection of newly-married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane; now, usually, the holiday spent together by a newly-married couple, before settling down at home."
First of all, who are the parties on the honeymoon? Is it the president and the public, the president and the opposition party, or the president and Congress? Are the media supposed to be on the honeymoon? If so, in what capacity? Are they reporting on the developments of the honeymoon like paparazzi, or are they participants? Is it ethical for journalists to be sweetly "relating" to a politician, or should they stay at arm's length, so to speak? Are we all on the honeymoon together, and is it voluntary or mandatory?
I have been on only one honeymoon, with my wife 24 years ago last week. It was very much voluntary, and I didn't need to fake my tender love and devotion.
But whether as an opinion journalist or as a member of the opposition party, my attitude toward the president-elect is utterly dissimilar to what I experienced on my real honeymoon. I didn't choose him; I don't trust him (if he knows of me, he doubtlessly reciprocates such sentiments); and I don't look forward to a long relationship with him.
What we all are really doing right now is biding our time. After all, when President-elect Obama hired Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff, it was not for the purpose of fluffing the pillows on Obama's and our matrimonial bed. To Emanuel, a pillow is more likely to be used for suffocating an enemy (figuratively, of course) than putting him at ease.
The only part of the metaphor I can relate to is the bit about "comparing the mutual affection of newly-married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane." By my calculations, that means that the honeymoon will be over by Dec. 4. In fact, already, my positive passions are feeling rather "wane."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the references to the political honeymoon metaphor started in 1655, when Thomas Fuller said, "Kingdoms have their honeymoon, when new Princes are married unto them." In 1795, Edmund Burke wrote, "Spain, in the honey-moon of her new servitude." And in 1867, Goldwin Smith said, "The brief honeymoon of the new king and his parliament."
In each of those early examples, the circumstances of the honeymoons are mandatory, begrudging and short. I think Burke's best catches the moment ("the honey-moon of her new servitude").
It is curious how the sexual metaphor -- with all its ambiguities -- is used often in politics. For example, British conservative Benjamin Disraeli criticized Prime Minister Robert Peel for reversing his position on free trade, in the following passage:
"There is no doubt a difference in the right honorable gentleman's demeanor as leader of the Opposition and as Minister of the Crown. But that's the old
story: you must not contrast too strongly the hours of courtship with the years of possession. . I remember him making his protection speeches. They were the best speeches I ever heard. It was a great thing to hear the right honorable gentleman say: 'I would sooner be the leader of the gentlemen of England than possess the confidence of Sovereigns.' We don't hear much of the 'gentlemen of England' now. But what of that? They have the pleasures of memory -- the charms of reminiscences. They were his first love, and though he may not kneel to them now as in the hour of passion, still they can recall the past; and nothing is more useless or unwise than these scenes of crimination and reproach, for we know that in all these cases, when the beloved object has ceased to charm, it is in vain to appeal to the feelings."
That's how I feel about President-elect Obama's sweet honeymoon words of passionate bipartisanship. I don't expect the sentiment to last past the first tussle. Even now I feel the cold stare of calculation in his eyes.
Actually, I prefer the metaphor of a president's first 100 days in office, which derives from the approximately 100 days in 1815 when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba, fought his way to Waterloo (where the Duke of Wellington defeated him), and was replaced as leader of France by Louis XVIII.
Whether the metaphor is to sex or war, in politics we can expect sparks to fly. The sooner the better.
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