Jeb! Agonistes: An Unsettling Parallel

Gregor Smukovic, "Samson"

Gregor Smukovic, “Samson”


Kudos to blogger Andrew O’Hehir for once against invoking Milton in a Salon article about contemporary politics. Two weeks ago I commended O’Hehir for comparing the disruptions of the rightwing Freedom Caucus to Satan waging self-destructive war against Heaven. (If the Freedom Caucus and Satan suffered alone it would be one thing, but they take the rest of us down with them.) Over the weekend O’Hehir conjured up an even more impressive Milton reference: the sight of Jeb Bush disintegrating right before our eyes is like the protagonist of Samson Agonistes.

Milton wrote his closet drama towards the end of his life. Blind himself, he identified with Samson, whom we see during his captivity. The play brings to mind Milton’s famous sonnet “On His Blindness,” composed many years earlier, where Milton complains, “Doth God exact day labor, light denied?” His consolation was that “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

Although blind, Milton never really waited and he would go on to compose Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. His Samson wrestles with his wasted potential until realizing that he can become an early version of a suicide bomber. Brought into the Philistine palace to be mocked during a great feast, he pulls down the pillars, killing far more of Israel’s enemies than he ever did when he could see.

Referring to the older Bush brother as “Jeb! Agonistes,” O’Hehir says that Bush resembles

the enfeebled and self-pitying Samson, at least as depicted in John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, after he’s had his hair cut off and his eyes gouged out. His God-given strength has turned out to be an illusion, and the supposedly indomitable warrior finds himself “Blind among enemies, O worse than chains.” Milton’s chorus intones, “Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)/ The Dungeon of thy self,” subjected “to th’unjust tribunals, under change of times,/ And condemnation of the ungrateful multitude.”

I don’t know if Bush in fact feels a dungeon to himself, but he certainly doesn’t look as though he’s having fun. He seems peeved that people aren’t more grateful that he is running and only vaguely aware that the times have changed since he last ran for office. As far as his Delilah—who is it that gains his confidence only to steal his strength?—some are pointing at his protégé Marco Rubio.

Viewers saw Rubio eviscerate Jeb in Wednesday’s debate, prompting Jason Linkins of Huffington Post to wonder, only partly in jest, if Bush gave away his powers in a strange ceremony in the Florida state house when he was governor. Apparently Bush bestowed upon Rubio “the sword of Chang” when the latter ascended to Speaker of the House. Linkins cites Joseph Campbell in arguing his case but, before I get to that, let me pause to note Linkins’s use of Oedipus:

Something has gone wrong with Jeb Bush. You’ve seen it: The uncertain posture. The way he seems to want to just die in this Vine where he is made, by off-screen tormentors, to don a hoodie. And the look in his eyes! An uncanny combination of longing, fear and resignation — it’s the look you imagine Oedipus had when he realized that Tiresias was right and that he’d screwed the pooch (a pooch that was his mom). Only Oedipus, he got to rip out those jellies and just get on with it. Bush’s downcast visage is now permanently locked in place as each dreary day passes, seemingly without end.

If one is going to invoke Oedipus, I think Bush may have more in common with Oedipus’s father, who claims precedence on the road and is killed by a young and arrogant Oedipus refusing to give way. But back to the sword. Linkins asks,

What if Jeb’s warrior essence in fact came to the erstwhile governor by magic, through a powerful weapon, handed down through the ages, known as the “Sword of Chang”? And what if Jeb — thoughtful, sensitive Jeb — foolishly, impulsively gave it away?

And further on:

Look — a magic sword, a classic Joseph Campbell monomyth, the melodramatic tensions between teacher and scion — I know this seems fanciful. I know it sounds ridiculous. But when you consider how hollowed-out Jeb Bush looks right now, after a lifetime of accomplishment, and how adrift he’s been on the trail, failing to connect words and actions and strategy, his having relinquished the Sword of Chang all those years ago is the only plausible explanation.

Linkins also sees a hint of King Lear in the drama—think Goneril, Regan, and Edmund—and he’s not the only one to pick up Shakespearean echoes. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, for instance, recently described the relationship between Bush and Marco Rubio as a “Shakespearean drama.”

The pairings that come to mind are Henry-Hal, Othello-Iago, Julius-Brutus, and, above all, Duncan-Macbeth. But that’s a post for another day.

Jim Newell of Slate thinks the Bush-Rubio rivalry is a real worry for the GOP establishment: will Bush, even if he loses, take Rubio down in the process. Newell imagines Bush and his advisors, figuring that Bush and Rubio are the only serious options remaining for the GOP, contemplating whether “they want to do everything in their power to destroy the figure who’s viewed by more and more of the Republican intelligentsia as the party’s best hope against Clinton?” Newell thinks that the GOP establishment will put too much pressure on Bush to let that happen.

It’s worth remembering, however, how the Samson story ends. He does not die alone.

A note on the artist: More work by Slovenian artist Gregor Smukovic can be found at

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