The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde's earliest short story, tells the tale of an American family, the Otises, who purchase an old English country house -- Canterville Chase -- which they are told, is haunted . . . and indeed, it is. Nothing the ghost does scares them, though the family's twin boys, (known as "Stars and Stripes") who enjoy heckling him, do manage to scare the ghost when they erect a fake apparition for him to find. In describing Mrs. Otis, Wilde, dipping his pen into the epigrammist's inkwell, writes,
"She had a magnificent constitution, and a really wonderful amount of animal spirits. Indeed, in many respects she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language . . ."
Indeed, there are many differences in our shared language -- in matters of spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary and idiomatic expression. A couple of examples:
- Words ending in or in American English end in our in the British version, such as color, colour, humor, humour, flavor, flavour etc.
- To a Brit, Saturday and Sunday are the weekEND, while to an American it is the WEEKend.
- When a Brit refers to someone as "mean," it connotes a person who is tightfisted, not generous; to an American, it connotes one who is angry or bad-tempered.
- In America one drives a truck; in England, it is a lorry.
- Where a Brit would speak of something occurring "at the weekend," an American would use the preposition "on . . ." And most pertinent to this week's essay,
- Where in America political candidates run for office, in the UK, they stand.
The difference between running and standing for office is much more than a peculiarity of grammar; it represents a world of difference in both campaigning and governance. When one "runs," he or she is never in the same place from one moment to the next; as such, one tends to be cagey, evasive, and sophistical. On the other hand, when one "stands," he or she is, relatively speaking, in the same spot or place today as yesterday and hopefully tomorrow; the tendency here is to be coherent, consistent, and comprehensible. At the same time, there is a huge difference in the length time one spends "running" as opposed to "standing." In America we have devolved to the point where the entire nation is in perpetual campaign mode. It is absolutely mind-boggling that less than a month after the conclusion of the 2012 presidential election -- which for some began nearly six years ago -- we are already speculating on -- and giving major air time to -- who the major party candidates will be in 2016. On the Republican side, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has already visited Iowa; Governors Jindal and Christie have taken pains to make themselves more politically attractive by distancing themselves from Mitt Romney; as for the Democrats, Secretary of State Clinton has already been anointed the Democrat to beat. In other words, we run so hard and for so long that we've forgotten the importance of standing -- of putting an end to campaign season and getting down to the nitty-gritty of governing.
In trying to make heads-or-tails of two issues currently capturing a great amount of media time -- the so-called "Fiscal Cliff" and the trials and tribulations of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice -- it is good to keep in mind the perpetua expeditionem modus -- the "perpetual campaign mode" -- referenced above. If we were in the final days of an election cycle, perhaps we could understand why Democrats and Republicans are more concerned with who can score political points -- and who can receive political blame -- for either conquering or falling off that so-called "Fiscal Cliff." (I employ the adjective "so-called" because to me, it is far more of a declivity than a cliff; far more fodder for political posturing than the harbinger of a fiscal apocalypse.) But we are not in the waning days of a campaign cycle; we are supposed to be at the very beginning of a governance cycle; a time when the sharp elbows are supposed to have been packed away. This is supposed to be the time when one camp recognizes the other camp's victory and mandate, thereby granting it its props -- its right to avow that the programs and positions it ran on should be the basis for policy.
But no; we are still running. President Obama puts an offer on the table; it includes $1.6 trillion in tax hikes for the wealthy, about $450 billion in cuts to Medicare and $50 billion in stimulus spending. He knows full well that Boehner, Cantor, McConnell and the rest of the GOP leadership won't accept it; that's the way the game is played. What he does expect is for them to make a counter-proposal . . . which they have not. Both sides accuse the other of not being "serious," of playing politics with the nation's fiscal future. It seems that fixing the problem has become secondary to affixing blame for the fiasco which may well ensue. Instead of standing and governing, they are running and playing politics.
Then there is the issue of Ambassador Rice. Republican Senators McCain, Graham, Ayotte, Corker and Collins have all declared that in order to support Rice for Secretary of State (a post for which she has yet to be nominated) they will need more information about the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They accuse her of "playing partisan politics" and "deliberately misleading" the American people during her appearances on Sunday morning talk shows as to what actually happened in Libya. The fact that she -- like every other cabinet-level spokesperson in American history -- was limited to using only that which had been declassified is well understood by those attacking her. But from their comments, you would think what Ambassador Rice has ventured into a place where no adminisatration functionary has ever gone. Truth to tell, they had no problem when another cabinet-level woman named Rice (Condoleezza) mislead the House, Senate and American public about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These senators also know full well that the many as yet unanswered questions the tragedy in Benghazi aren't susceptible to simple overnight answers. And yet, they continue to pillory Ambassador Rice; not because it is in the best interest of the country or our foreign policy, but strictly out of a sense of political gamesmanship. Some have even opined that they are doing everything in their power to make sure that Susan Rice won't be nominated for Secretary of State in the hopes that President Obama will turn to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry -- thereby opening up his seat and making it available for the return of Scott Brown. And of course, making President Obama and the Democrats look bad is at the top of the agenda. This is nothing more than creating issues for 2014 . . .
When oh when does the campaign end and the governing begin?
Towards the end of chapter V of The Canterville Ghost, the apparition tells young Miss Otis what, in its estimation, would be ideal:
To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.
Then, almost as an afterthought, he tells her,
You can help me.
Back in the real world, what would be ideal is to let governance take precedence over politics. By standing -- not running -- for just a little while into the future, perhaps we can help one another . . . and the country we love.
-2012 Kurt F. Stone