Pinning Down Protean Politicians

Menelaus and Proteus

Virtually all politicians duck and weave at times. The behavior comes from having to build a group of supporters across a wide variety of interests and needs, and it may be unavoidable in democracies. For instance, we saw the president ducking and weaving when, during the second debate, he gave a tangled answer to the simple question, “Do you favor an assault weapons ban?” I assume he probably does but didn’t want to alienate possible gun-favoring supporters.

But though politics may prompt candidates to be slippery at times, Mitt Romney has taken evasiveness to a whole new level. He reminds me of the shape shifting god Proteus.

We’ve witnessed a lot of shape shifting from Romney over the past four years. As I noted in Monday’s post, many of us have never seen someone who could so casually disavow one day a position that he had previously held—and shift to yet another position a week or month later. In the words of Charles Blow of the New York Times, “Mitt Romney has demonstrated an uncanny, unflinching willingness to say anything and everything to win this election.”

As a result, Blow’s colleague Maureen Dowd isn’t sure what foreign policy we would get from a Romney presidency:

If Romney gets to the Situation Room, will we see Cipher Mitt, the vessel of the neocons? Or will we see Moderate Mitt, chastising the hawks — who are eager to pick up where they left off bombing, in Iran and Syria — with a variation on the line he used about Al Qaeda at the [third] debate: “We can’t kill our way out of this mess”?

It’s impossible to know. Mitt may have made so many compromises to get the prize that he doesn’t have a true self anymore. And that’s the scariest thought of all.

Proteus, who makes an appearance in The Odyssey, is a sea god who can foretell the future. Menelaus, returning home from Troy, gets stranded in Egypt and figures he has offended some god. To find out what to do, he searches out Proteus but discovers that getting hold of him will be difficult. Proteus’s daughter Eidothea explains the situation:

He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks the silence.
When he does, he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:
Who is the god so hostile to you,
and how will you go home on the fish-cold sea.

Pinning Proteus down involves smelly sealskins and a lot of persistence. As you read Menelaus’s account, think of modern day equivalents for pinning down presidential candidates:

We came close to touch her [Eidothea],
and, bedding us, she threw the sealskins over us—
a strong disguise; oh, yes, terribly strong
as I recall the stench of those damned seals.
Would any man lie snug with a sea monster?
But here the nymph, again, came to our rescue,
dabbing ambrosia under each man’s nose—
a perfume drowning out the bestial odor.

So there we lay with beating hearts all morning
while seals came shoreward out of ripples, jostling
to take their places, flopping on the sand.
At noon the Ancient issued from the sea
and held inspection, counting off the sea-beasts.
We were the first he numbered; he went by,
detecting nothing. When at last he slept
we gave a battle cry and plunged for him,
locking our hands behind him. But the old one’s
tricks were not knocked out of him; far from it.

First he took on a whiskered lion’s shape,
a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar;
then sousing water; then a tall green tree.
Still we hung on, by hook or crook, through everything,
until the Ancient saw defeat, and grimly
opened his lips to ask me:

‘Son of Atreus, who counselled you to this? A god: what god?
Set a trap for me, overpower me—why?’

Menelaus could answer Proteus, like American voters a President Romney, “Because our future lies in your hands–that’s why.”

Menelaus and his men sound like the reporters who do all they can to get close to candidates—that’s the smelly part of their business—and persistently shout out questions. Sometimes they must sneak into private fundraisers with camera phones.

Even with Romney’s secretly recorded comments about 47% of Americans being moochers, however, we don’t know for sure what he plans to do if he is elected. As a result, we find ourselves, five days left before the election, having little idea what economic or foreign policy policies a President Romney would pursue. We find ourselves stranded on Egyptian shores of ignorance and will be enlightened only if he is elected.

That being the case, I guess this is one area where I’m willing to spend the rest of my life in the dark. To quote Thomas Gray, “If ignorance is bliss,’tis folly to be wise.”

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