Being there, going nowhere

This post is inspired by several interviews with Governor Palin, such as this one. Or this one, with Katie Couric.

(Edited to add this link.)

But that’s not what I’m going to blog about. There are many excellent political blogs out there, featuring knowledgeable and skilled writers, some with their own original reporting. They have already covered it in great detail, much better than I ever could. Long live competence and professional expertise.

Instead, this is a book post. Suggestions have been made recently that anyone can be President. (Hey, some suggestions are better than others.) As it happens, the idea has already been examined in two novels, one of which is reasonably well known on this side of the Atlantic, the other less so.

The first one is Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, published in 1970. You might remember the 1979 movie based on it, starring Peter Sellers.

Chauncey Gardiner, a.k.a. Chance, is mentally retarded, does not know his own identity or that of his parents, and has spent all his life inside the New York mansion of the wealthy Old Man. He can’t read or write. He has no contact with anyone except for the household staff who bring his meals. His daily routine consists of tending the garden and watching the television. He is quite an expert on the intricacies of TV programming, but doesn’t understand the difference between TV and real life, having never experienced the latter.

When the Old Man dies, Chance is forced to venture outside the house for the first time ever. Not to worry, though. He soon finds a new benefactor, a Mr. Rand, who just happens to be an influential businessman and a good friend of the President of the United States. Both Mr. and Mrs. Rand take quite a shine to Chance, mistaking his calm demeanor and emotional detachment for experience and wisdom, and interpreting his utterances on gardening – the only subject that he is actually capable of talking about – as profound metaphors on politics and economy. Before long, Chance is introduced to the President, who likes what he hears:

[…] suddenly the President addressed him: “And you, Mr. Gardiner? What do you think about the bad season on The Street?”

Chance shrank. He felt that the roots of his thoughts had been suddenly yanked out of their wet earth and thrust, tangled, into the unfriendly air. He stared at the carpet. Finally, he spoke: “In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” He raised his eyes. Rand was looking at him, nodding. The President seemed quite pleased.

“I must admit, Mr. Gardiner,” the President said, “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.”

The President promptly quotes Chance in a speech addressing the ongoing economic crisis. I could very well imagine similar language in a political speech today; but would there be any substance behind it? Would we be able to tell? Roger Ebert has further thoughts on this in his review of the movie.

Chance, who now goes by Chauncey, becomes an instant hit. Before he can, er, blink, he is advising the President, dining with foreign diplomats, and doing rounds of network interviews. In the penultimate scene (of the book; the movie’s ending is slightly changed), Chauncey is apparently being considered as a vicepresidential candidate:

He waved his arms excitedly. “But just consider Gardiner. May I stress what you have just heard from a most authoritative voice: Gardiner has no background! And so he’s not and cannot be objectionable to anyone! He’s personable, well-spoked, and he comes across well on TV! And, as far as his thinking goes, he appears to be one of us. That’s all. It’s clear what he isn’t. Gardiner is our one chance.”

The second novel is the Polish bestseller The Career of Nicodymus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz. Dolega-Mostowicz is, basically, the Polish Sidney Sheldon. His books are decidedly low-brow, especially when he caters to the less discerning audiences (the drug fuelled sex orgy!!! – do I have your attention now?), but you can’t put them down once you start reading. He’s also a rather sharp observer of social and political life. Dyzma was published in Poland in 1932; there is no existing English translation that I am aware of, so I will have to try my own hand here.

Kosinski has been accused of plagiarizing Dyzma, and indeed there is rather more than a casual resemblance between the two plots. In both cases, the protagonist is a common man whose rise to fame and fortune is propelled by a stroke of good luck and aided by a rich benefactor unaware of his protegé’s identity and background. The benefactor’s trophy wife falls for the protagonist and initiates an affair. The protagonist continues to rise through the ranks, ducking questions and acting the part others have cast him in, all the way to the highest office.

But that’s where the similarities end. Being There is a meditation on the superficiality of political life; Dyzma is brutal commentary on our less-than-dignified ways of securing political power and holding on to it. Chance is a blank page, an innocent who’s suddenly thrust in the middle of events he doesn’t understand. His responses are copied from the TV shows he’s been watching. Dyzma, on the other hand, is far from innocent. When we first meet him, he’s an unemployed former small-town clerk trying to find a job in the big city. As he returns, hungry and penniless, to his dingy apartment after yet another unsuccessful job interview, he picks up a letter accidentally dropped by a courier. It turns out to be an invitation to a diplomatic reception. Unable to deliver it to the addressee, he first ignores it, but then reconsiders:

He took it out of the envelope and read it again. […] He glanced quickly at his tuxedo. A reception… Food, plenty of food, and it’s free. […]

He stood still for a moment.

“What can they do?”, he thought. “The worst that can happen, they kick me out. But, surely it will be crowded enough…”.

He took out the shaving instruments and started to get dressed.

And who can blame him? As he accepts room, board, and a high-paying job under false pretenses, then proceeds from one deception to another, we still see him as the clown more than the villain. But then the story takes a much darker turn. On the one hand, Dyzma’s “success” goes to his head and corrupts him – and he’s never been an angel to begin with. On the other hand, his past life catches up with him and his enemies threaten to expose his identity. There are people who need to be silenced by any means necessary, including blackmail, torture and murder. Dyzma’s not at all immune to guilt and pangs of conscience, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

Dyzma is uneducated and a little bit naive, but at least he understands his shortcomings. He purchases an encyclopedia, a dictionary and a handbook of good manners, takes pains to study them at nights, and spends a few hours in the library most days. He doesn’t necessarily enjoy doing so, but he knows that he has to be able to at least fake an education. He also relies increasingly on his trusted con artists advisors. Here we see Dyzma as the President of the National Agricultural Bank:

Although the [Polish House of Representatives] committees were still deliberating the bill, there was no doubt that both houses would pass the government’s proposal without major revisions.

Dyzma did not concern himself with any of this, as it was all handled by Wandryszewski and Krzepicki.

The latter turned out to be invaluable. He enthusiastically took up the assignment, and since he was clever indeed, he carried out everything he wanted, always hiding behind the decisively said,

“That’s what the President requested.”

At first, Wandryszewski and others, none too happy about Krzepicki’s micromanagement of the tiniest details, asked Dyzma whether he had indeed decided so and not otherwise, but Dyzma, although he didn’t always even know what was going on, would invariably respond,

“If Krzepicki says so, then that’s how I have decided and that’s all.”

The country rolls fast towards a massive economic crisis. The Prime Minister and his government submit their resignations; the nation seeks a strong and trustworthy leader to replace him. In the final scene, Dyzma is offered the position. He asks for half an hour to consider the offer:

“Sir,” started Krzepicki, seeing that his boss was leaning towards a favourable decision, “well, I have an idea. Right after we take office, we should travel to London.”

“What for?”, Dyzma asked indignantly.

“What for? To seek a foreign loan, nobody else would be able to get one, but you have such fantastic contacts there. Many of your Oxford classmates must now be highly positioned in England. What if you, sir, could secure a loan?”

Krzepicki didn’t understand that he had just shot down his own wishes.

Nikodym furrowed his brow and waved his hand at Krzepicki to silence him.

“Yes,” he thought, “I forgot completely about that… As the Prime Minister I’d have to receive ambassadors… Perhaps even travel to Geneva. I could bring an interpreter, but then everyone would figure out that I speak no languages save Polish… And that damned Oxford… And what do I need it all for, anyway?”

He rose. Nina and Krzepicki watched him nervously.

“I have decided,” he made his voice sound absolutely decisive, “that I do not accept the Prime Ministership.”

“But, sir…”

“No discussion! I do not accept and that’s it. Fertig!”

I would like to leave you with this happy ending.

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