Bernie Is Peter Pan, Hillary Is Wendy

"Peter Pan" (1953)

“Peter Pan” (1953)


I was teaching James Barrie’s Peter and Wendy yesterday in my British Fantasy class and, in spite of myself, found myself drawing connections with the presidential primaries. At one point, I came to the startling conclusion that Bernie Sanders is Peter Pan and Hillary Clinton is Wendy.

Peter goes charging into the fray, Wendy cautiously keeps the home fires burning. Peter grapples with pirate ships, Wendy reads stories to the boys and makes sure they take their naps. Peter wants never to grow up whereas Wendy knows that she and the boys must return to England and engage in the far less glamorous process of maturation. Peter is a charismatic leader, Wendy is a stay-at-home mom.

A version of this drama gets played out in the Darling household. Mr. Darling is loud and impetuous but the women—which is to say Mrs. Darling and Nana, the St. Bernard nanny—keep everything running on an even keel.

I read an article somewhere arguing that Hillary, as a woman, will always be at a disadvantage when competing against men because we expect women to be more grounded. They have less latitude than men to engage in soaring rhetoric about, say, the audacity of hope. Hillary acknowledged as much in Wednesday’s debate when she said, in a moment that gave many women viewers a thrill of recognition,

I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama. So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can…

The title of Barrie’s book indicates that there are two protagonists, and readers divide over which one they prefer. Speaking for myself, I am put off by Peter’s cockiness and am drawn to the more pragmatic Wendy. I am also rooting for Hillary.

This in spite of the fact that I once described myself as a Marxist and a socialist. I campaigned, many eons ago, for Eugene McCarthy (in 1968) and George McGovern (in 1972). I was shocked by how easily both candidates were buried, which helps explain my current caution.

Now I am content with small victories. While many Bernie supporters have been disappointed with Barack Obama, I am ecstatic that he has been able to accomplish as much as he has. All I ask of his successor is that she or he consolidate his advances in health care, climate change, bank regulation, immigration, Iran, Cuba, same sex marriage, and the Supreme Court. Anything more I will regard as gravy.

In short, I have become dubious of grand promises that can be fulfilled only with the aid of a sweeping revolution. From what I’ve read about Hillary’s African American supporters, many of them feel the same, as do the columnists I am drawn to: Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore of New York Magazine, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, Jonathan Capehart and E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly, Joan Walsh of Nation, Amanda Marcotte of Salon.

Barrie is very ambivalent about mothers, seeing them as holding children back, even though they are necessary. As he puts it, “All children know [that mothers will serve as a buffer for them] and despise them for it, but make constant use of it.” Many politicians, meanwhile, feel they can say anything, counting on someone else to clean up after them.

Kevin Drum says that Hillary, despite her reputation for being slippery, actually has trouble giving slippery answers. Indeed, her reputation being untrustworthy arises in part from her honesty. Here is Drum explaining her “tap dance” Wednesday night about whether she would stop the deportation of any illegal immigrant not charged with a criminal offense:

It’s pretty obvious that Hillary is doing her best to tap dance around this. If you were watching, you could almost hear the gears grinding in her head. She desperately doesn’t want to give a yes-or-no answer—probably because she knows perfectly well that this isn’t a yes-or-no question—but it’s obvious Ramos isn’t going to give up. So she’s making calculations in real time about whether she can afford to provide an ambiguous answer in front of a Latino crowd on national TV, or if she should just cave in and make a Shermanesque statement.

Part of this calculation, of course, is that Bernie Sanders is standing right next to her, and she knows that Bernie will have no trouble with a Shermanesque statement. He thrives on them. And that will appeal to Latino voters. Grind, grind, grind. So eventually she gives in and flatly promises never to deport anyone without a criminal record.

Which, as we all know, is almost certainly an impossible promise to keep. And Hillary hates that. She knows what the legal and political realities are, and she hates having to pretend they don’t exist. But this year, we’re running an election where reality doesn’t matter. A big chunk of both Democratic and Republicans voters flatly don’t care if policies are realistic. They just want to know what a candidate feels.

This is what I meant last night when I said Hillary tends to be honest to a fault when discussing policy. It’s ironic, given her reputation. In this case, I doubt that she wants to deport children. Her intentions are every bit as good as Bernie’s. But she can’t stand to pretend that that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately, this is not the year for policy honesty. If Hillary wins, it will be in spite of her honesty, not because of it.

It’s hard for policy wonks to be inspiring. Obama may be the exception that proves the rule.

But having said this, I will be thrilled to support Bernie if he is the nominee. Peter Pan, after all, successfully slays Captain Hook, despite his lethal slashes–which in the GOP’s case will come in the form of intense red-baiting. I know many of my students are very excited by Bernie and I admire their idealism. Perhaps they are right, perhaps this is a time to take a big chance.

I acknowledge the possibility, in other words, that I am a grown-up Wendy, cowering in the shadows as Peter calls upon her to return to Neverland. Here’s an excerpt from that painful scene:

And then one night came the tragedy. It was the spring of the year, and the story had been told for the night, and Jane was now asleep in her bed. Wendy was sitting on the floor, very close to the fire, so as to see to darn, for there was no other light in the nursery; and while she sat darning she heard a crow. Then the window blew open as of old, and Peter dropped on the floor.

He was exactly the same as ever, and Wendy saw at once that he still had all his first teeth.

He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.

‘Hullo, Wendy,’ he said, not noticing any difference, for he was thinking chiefly of himself; and in the dim light her white dress might have been the night-gown in which he had seen her first.

‘Hullo, Peter,’ she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. Something inside her was crying ‘Woman, woman, let go of me.’

I am no longer the carefree McGovern supporter I once was and no longer believe that we can fly. But for all my skepticism, I’ll keep my window open and I will trust my childhood self to Peter as Wendy trusts her daughter to him. If we cautiously kept our children forever cooped up in their bedrooms, there would be no adventures.

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