Is Washington Becoming Versailles?
What does 21st-century Washington have in common with 17th-century France?
October 17, 2002
It was with some trepidation I was summoned to be your envoy to the court of the Great American Emperor — or President, as the Americans humorously insist on referring the position — George the Third, second of the Bush Dynasty to wear the crown.
The world has changed greatly since I served your illustrious predecessor Friedrich Wilhelm three centuries ago.
I therefore naturally feared I would find myself at a loss dealing with these strange Republicans, accustomed as I was to the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles.
Yet, I need not have worried. This world is filled with new wonderful contrivances such as horse-less carriages too numerous to behold, vast and outlandish flying machines, talking entertainment boxes and other wonders.
Still, I find myself remarkably at home amid the splendors of this Washington. The New Worlders, or Americans as they style themselves, named it thus to eternally honor their founding Romulus or Charlemagne, President George the First.
These Americans today make great play of honoring liberty. And perhaps in the past they did indeed greatly practice it, as this Monsieur de Tocqueville I have been reading maintains.
But the rude and barbarous — yet sturdy and independent yeomen of the Republic — seem to me far removed from the endless legions of courtiers and place-men I have encountered.
Men so admirable in spirit while admittedly deficient in manners, as de Tocqueville describes, are rare indeed in this grand concourse — or “Inside the Beltway” as they like to put it.
One might as well compare the smooth and shameless flatterers of the more inept later Roman emperors to the stout farmer-warriors who defended their patrimony from Hannibal nearly half a millennium before.
This current President George makes great play of his humble, Cincinnatus-like tastes. He modestly clears brushwood from his private lands in his own private Duchy of Texas to great public acclaim.
Yet, his mighty imperial arm stretches effortlessly halfway around the world. And he commands legions the likes of which the Great Khan himself would have envied.
The Laws and Customs of this American Republic are of a probity and form that would make Socrates or Solon himself swoon with envy.
However, as I am starting to comprehend, they are honored, though they are little practiced as those Roman Republic laws in the Days of Augustus showed, or one of the lesser emperor-tyrants who followed him.
This President, or as I will henceforth refer to him as King (for so, in truth, he is) succeeded to the Throne through the amazingly obscure and intricate workings of the Electoral Process. He succeeded King William the Libertine.
King William's reign was a Golden Age of Peace and Plenty. But it was also renowned for Wild Parties, the likes of which, I am assured, would have made Tiberius or Nero green with envy.
Even King William’s most private and indulgent proclivities, while entirely harmless between consenting adults, were made the property of the public broad sheets.
The current King was elected — as they put it — in large part as a reaction against these excesses. However, William I of Washington indulged his irresponsibility in the realm of private pleasure.
King George III does so in the realm of empire building and the unleashing of wars. King Louis greatly alarmed your predecessor and all of Europe in his manifest ambitions to extend the scope of his fortresses in Flanders.
But King George appears to aspire to nothing less than to emulate Alexander the Great in Americanizing the East as thoroughly and lastingly as Alexander Hellenized it.
Now their Constitution, difficult as it is to credit, I grant you, My Lord, gives their elected parliament, or Congress, the war-making power. It does not place this Grave Authority, as Natural Custom and Common Sense have required hitherto, in the hands of the Chief Magistrate or King.
Much play is made with the importance of this practice in theory. Yet, it is nevertheless, to my complete bewilderment, entirely ignored in public.
When the King is desirous of a war to entertain or comfort his populace, or to distract them from their Domestic Woes, he will have it, and none stand in his way.
But why, then, bother with this strange shadow play of Constitutionality in the first place? The workings of Factions within their Parliament, this Congress, is another matter which at first proved most distracting to me.
I at first took their many proclamations and long discourses upon the nature of Liberty — to which they are Much Addicted, especially at large dinner parties — at their literal face value.
That cannot be the case. For if it were true, surely there would be serious dispute and even occasional clash of arms between their Republican and Democratic factions.
The first of these is loyal to King George, the latter to King William. Many of King William's faction, indeed, are still desirous of an Imperial restoration of the latter House in the person of his fearsome Warrior Queen, the Empress Hillary who remains a potent presence at the Imperial Court.
Soon I came to see that these supposedly fearsome “Red” Democrats were, rather, Pink Dolls, or, it might be said, bulls without horns.
They assent to having their public competence and courage routinely derided by the King and his Minions. They even bow to these insults as if they were indeed the Craven Curs that the Republicans — who appear to lack any serious evidence of Martial Valor themselves — contend.
It is only when I first attended one of the many “receptions” — as their luxurious endless round of parties and feasting are customarily called — did the true nature of their Politicking become clear to me.
I was partaking of a uniquely American delicacy known as a Beef Barbecue Sandwich. This looks as revolting as it sounds. But, it is truly a feast that the Gods on Mount Olympus themselves must have salivated after in vain.
Then one wag, noting my tricornor hat and periwinkle, remarked informally to me, “Hey, Bud! Ya’ Never Ate like this at Versailles, I bet.”
Immediately I recoiled as if struck, not merely by the outrageous rudeness of the exchange, to which they are also much addicted, but by the accuracy of the comparison.
As if in a flash of lightning in one of the tropical storms that occasionally sweep this locale, it all became clear to me. For Washington is indeed the New Versailles. And King George, in truth is a worthy successor to the late, magnificent French monarch at whose court I for so long represented your predecessor.
It may well be that in this city, architecture corrupted political manners. For certainly the public building is of a scale and magnificence to dwarf Versailles. The entirety of that Famed Palace could probably be plopped down in this city’s National Mall.
There, I have no doubt, it would immediately be proclaimed a “Theme Park” and fitted out with strange entertainment conveyances they call “roller-coasters.”
But it is of a certainty, Your Excellency, that custom did indeed respond to the magnificent environment in which it was practiced. As a result, today, King George, in his so-called “Republic,” is the object of more slavish and unconditional adulation and obedience than the Great French King ever dreamed.
I well saw that at Versailles, the late King Louis laid immense importance upon his own public dignity. He therefore effected every entry and exit of his public duties with great care.
Yet King George does not even have that worry. Through the sleight of hand of his magicians, alchemists and other flunkeys known as “media spokesmen” or “spin masters” he may disappear for weeks at a time.
On one celebrated occasion, he almost choked on a popular confection called a “pretzel” that looks and tastes like a dog’s bone. Often, he becomes entirely inarticulate and tongue-tied in public. Yet none question his Sagacity, Dignity or Virtue.
That is because these are endlessly proclaimed in the broad sheets by cringing schoolmen clearly with no noble blood who go by the generic appellation of “columnists.”
On the rare occasion when one of them ventures to offer some mild and mayhap accurate criticism of the King, retribution is terrible, and swift.
The King no longer smiles upon him and the King’s minions no longer feed the poor scribbler snippets of what is loosely — and no doubt inaccurately — called “insider information.”
Without these means to mark his sustenance, the wretched dog rapidly perishes. Or, even worse, he flees in haste to some obscure and despised local monastery or other provincial center of learning known as a “state college.”
The public spectacle of the Congress, like that of the Court at Versailles, is very great. And the luxuries bestowed upon the nobles assembled from the most far-flung reaches of the realm are even more luxurious.
Occasionally, as a mark of special grace, some otherwise obscure congressman or senator who has proved exceptionally satisfyingly obsequious, is summoned to the imperial throne room, the Oval Office, in the King’s Palace or White House.
There, he — or she — is then granted the exceptional honor of appearing at the King’s Side in a Photo Op. It will no doubt seem that I am exaggerating, and straining to produce a gratifying sensation of Astonishment or Disgust upon Your Excellency. But in defense of my own probity and Accuracy of Observation, I believe I need ask only a single — rhetorical — question.
Surely King, or “President”, George does indeed rule as absolutely as King Louis XIV ever did. For how else could he have embroiled this Great Nation in a massive and reckless war and subsequent nation-building halfway around the world?