Sunday, March 02, 2008

Election-season reading

Election season is a lot like Lent. It's a clash of ideals and pragmatics, where all the vices come out on display, partly because of the fierce effort to, at best, keep them at bay and, at worst, to hide them from the view of others. It's a time when people on one side of the aisle are tempted to uncharitable judgments against people on the other side of the aisle -- or, for that matter, their own side of the aisle.

Elections, like Lent, bring out the best and the worst in us. The best -- an honest and frequently sacrificial effort to bring good government to the people, as our Church calls us to pray several times a day:
Have mercy, O Lord, upon our president, and all in civil authority, and save them, together with the armed forces of our country. Give them peace and continual victory over injustice and evil in all places. May they keep Your holy Church secure, that all Your people may live calm and ordered lives in Your sight, in true faith and prayer, with godly deeds.

The worst -- a naked grab for power. The problem is -- and here's the reason so many good people want to hide under their pillows until it all goes away -- it's hard from the inside to see where public service has become a power grab, and it's hard from the outside to see when what appears to be a naked power grab might be a sincere act of public service. And vice versa.

So when I was browsing through my county library and found a copy of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men on CD, I picked it up because, having lived in Louisiana, I knew a little about Huey Long, because Robert Penn Warren had been a poet laureate of the United States and I was interested in how a poet would handle a novel, and because I had been comparing the populist governor and aspiring president to a certain candidate in the current race.

The reading has been even better than I anticipated. Warren, the poet, catches the rhythm of southern speech without even a tinge of purple. He shows the process of good intentions for public service turned to a naked grab for power. The reader, Michael Emerson, does the voices like someone who has lived all his life in Louisiana.

For a look at the political process that's uplifted just by the art of telling, as well as the reality that very little really changes from cycle to cycle (of course, the stakes are higher than we think; it's just that they're always higher than we think), I highly recommend this one.

UPDATE: OK, I'm stunned. The Michael Emerson who reads the book as if he's never been outside of Louisiana is the same Michael Emerson, born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who plays the creepy Ben Linus on Lost. I've moved beyond impressed at his acting ability to awestruck.

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