Life Imitating Art?

Alan Zendell, June 6, 2017

During the tumultuous weeks in 2003 leading up to the second invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush trotted Secretary of State Colin Powell out to present evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction to the United Nations. Whether or not Powell knew at the time that the information he was presenting was false, he later went along with the National Security Council’s decision to support the invasion, even though he was opposed to it.

When, with much of the world media reporting that the evidence of WMDs might have been faked, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged the UK’s support for the invasion, three members of Blair’s government resigned in protest. They knew how to act when their honor was besmirched.

When Bob Woodward interviewed Powell for his book, The Commanders, he asked him why he hadn’t resigned as well. Powell said he’d have fallen on his sword for nothing and ruined his career. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the Brits.

We’re not in a shooting war now, but we face an equally serious situation. Last week, we watched President Trump succumb to the swamp politics of special interests who wanted the United States out from under the environmental restrictions of the Paris Accords. What was less widely reported, was that the only two members of his Cabinet who had earned bipartisan respect and support, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were strongly opposed to the decision but were overruled by Steve Bannon.

Many people thought Mattis and Tillerson should have resigned in protest. If it wasn’t enough that the sound counsel of the two most important people in the Cabinet was ignored on an issue that threatens all of us, the spectacle of these two competent advisors being overruled by a craven political hack like Bannon might have been the tipping point. Given all the controversy and confusion caused by the President’s unhappy relationship with the truth over the Russia investigations, I can only guess how difficult it is for them to remain in the government.

I don’t know whether Powell did the right thing fourteen years ago, and I can’t imagine what goes on the minds of Mattis and Tillerson. Neither seems like the sort of person who is either easily bullied or overly concerned about his career. I want to believe that they both think they can do more good within the government than outside it, but how many such incidents will it take to tip the balance the other way? Today, our ambassador to China resigned in protest over our withdrawal for the climate accords. It’s a start.

If these questions weren’t so serious in real life, they’d make for great entertainment, the kind of thing that successful television series thrive on. My curiosity was piqued when I heard Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the stars of Netflix’s House of Cards talking about the new season, which was released last week. In its first four seasons, the show featured ever more outrageous acts by an unscrupulous Congressman scheming his way to the White House. Ms. Wright commented that the current season topped the previous ones, but that the writers were now stumped about what to do next. The antics of the Trump administration made it tough to be more outrageous than reality. Spacey lamented that the White House may have better writers than he does.

That’s quite a statement, since the fictional President Underwood does things that make the audience gasp in every episode. I had to see for myself, so I began watching season five, which was scripted before anyone knew what the Trump administration would be like. Ironically, in episode two, when the president somehow outdoes himself in his unrestrained lust to hold on to power, the fictional Secretary of State tells the equally fictional Vice President that they have to do something to stop him.

“What can we do,” says the Vice President, whose backbone and integrity have been suspect for two seasons.

“We can resign,” the Secretary of State tells him. “If we do it together, people will listen.”

Were the writers prescient? Is it accidental that whatever President Underwood does, we have no trouble picturing Trump doing the same things? I’m almost afraid to watch the next few episodes. It’s the same feeling I get watching the news every morning.

Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?

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