Prez Keeps Head While Others Lose Theirs

 Giuseppe Sabatelli, “Uberti at the Battle of Serchio”

It seems ages ago that Republicans were celebrating Mitt Romney’s decisive debate victory over the president. This week it was Democrats who were cheering as Obama staged a comeback. Meanwhile, shifting polls have sent partisans into wild bipolar mood swings. We (I include myself among the partisans) are like those “thoughtless mortals” that Alexander Pope writes of in Rape of the Lock:

Too soon dejected, and too soon elate . . .

I was certainly elated by Obama’s debate performance Tuesday night, just as I was dejected by his performance two weeks earlier. Following the first debate, I had wondered whether Obama’s listlessness was caused by depression. Was he in the grip of Grendel’s mother? 

I said in that post that, if Obama grasped the sword of idealism–his deep belief in social equality–he would emerge from whatever funk he was in. Others counseled versions of the same. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy said that the president needed to plug into his vision of hope and change again.

It appears that Obama grasped that sword. As a result, those of us who were waiting in agonized suspense, like Beowulf’s followers as their leader descends into the depths to battle Grendel’s Mother, are now breathing huge sighs of relief. For the time being, Obama has emerged triumphant from the waters.

It’s interesting how the two different sides have responded to the debates. In a very wise column, the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne quoted a friend from a nonpartisan polling outfit:

“When you give conservatives bad news in your polls, they want to kill you,” he said. “When you give liberals bad news in your polls, they want to kill themselves.”

This actually sums up the two kinds of anger that I describe in How Beowulf Can Save America. There is the anger that goes on the attack (the monster attacking the hall) and the anger that sinks into itself (the monster retreating into its cave). When Obama lost the first debate, Democrats sank into gloom. When he won the second (and when Joe Biden won his debate), Republicans attacked everyone in sight: Obama, the moderator, the people asking questions. As I say in the book, whether anger is cold or whether it’s hot, it takes a hero to stand up to it.

In Obama’s second debate, he started out, a bit like Beowulf when first engaging with Grendel’s Mother, by lashing out with his sword. His adrenaline was pumping and he was quick to strike. This doesn’t work on Grendel’s Mother and it didn’t work in the debate. Eventually, however, the president found his bearings and became cool yet forceful. “Please proceed, Governor,” he said as Romney walked down a Libya trap of his own making. Throughout the evening, the GOP candidate had difficulty moving beyond blustering.

In other words, it was as though Obama took heed of Kipling’s famous opening stanza from “If”:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise . . .

The New York Times’s Gail Collins was impressed by Obama’s bounce-back:

One of the things I look for in a candidate is rebound capacity. A president is going to screw up. But how good is he at mounting a comeback? On that count, Obama’s performance was stellar. Whoever we elect in November will make mistakes, maybe terrible ones. But will he be befuddled and defensive, or will he figure out what went wrong and fix it?

Tuesday’s debate told me that this is a guy who knows when he’s underachieved. He doesn’t fall into a funk or obsess – he just figures out how to do better. That’s a really good sign, and not just for his campaigning skills. Anybody who’s wondering whether a second term could be better than the first can look at Obama’s performance in the second debate and take heart.

Along these lines, I conclude with a poem that reader Ellen Collington posted as a reply to my fears about Obama being in the grip of depression and doubt. It is one of the best poems written by Edward Rowland Sill, a minor 19th century American poet, and it has obviously been influenced by Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur.” Unlike Arthur’s final fight against Mordred, however, this battle has a happy ending. The sword that a coward throws away becomes the means by which a prince transforms defeat into victory.

I think Ellen sent the poem to rally Obama supporters (including me), who began behaving like cowards when the battle turned against their leader. (New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat gloated about “liberalism’s glass jaw” following that debate.) But Obama, rather than being panicked by their/my fear, used the occasion as an “opportunity.” As Sill puts it, “Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,/ And saved a great cause that heroic day.”


By Edward Rowland Sill

THIS I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:–

There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;

And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged

A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords

Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner

Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.

A craven hung along the battle’s edge,

And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel–

That blue blade that the king’s son bears, — but this

Blunt thing–!” he snapped and flung it from his hand,

And lowering crept away and left the field.

Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,

And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,

Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,

And ran and snatched it, and with battle shout

Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,

And saved a great cause that heroic day.

The battle, of course, still has three weeks to go. There are undoubtedly several twists and turns ahead that will test our mettle. May we be warriors through it all.

This entry was posted in Kipling (Rudyard), Pope (Alexander), Sill (Edward Rowland), Tennyson (Alfred Lord). Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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