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by William H. Benson

October 2, 2008

     I recently read Alan Alda’s newest book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, in which, after a lifetime of acting on stage and on the screen, he addressed a group of young actors and offered them his personal wisdom.

     “And when you’re acting, remember that it’s play. Enjoy it deeply, richly. Use your intellect as well as your emotions. Try to find out what connects the Apollonian and the Dionysian; the serious and the antic. One without the other is not as satisfying.

     “There are at least a couple of ways of looking at the actor. One is as a priest performing rituals of reconciliation, enlightenment, and dedication, or as a clown performing acts of rudeness, and appetite. Find ways of serving as both.”

     A priest and a clown are two very dissimilar roles, and yet Alda suggests that the emerging actor or actress learn to tie them together. The Apollonian priest is the serious one: he links people one with another and with the Divine. He is Billy Graham standing at his pulpit, inviting people to come forward and find peace for their weary souls.

     The Dionysian jester engenders smiles. He is Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger who said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” He is Huckleberry Finn, saying, “it warn’t good judgment,” when Pap “fetched the tub a rattling kick, . . . because that was the boot that had a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end of it.”

     But beyond the actor we can identify other social roles; first, there is the scribe, the guy or gal in the community who deals in barrels of printer’s ink, writing the news, as well as essays, columns, and scholarly journal articles. He or she can sway public opinion one way or back to the other. One says Obama, and the other says McCain.

     That brings us to the king, the elected, appointed, or designated leader. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” wrote Shakespeare, for the sword of Damocles is always hanging over his head. Within the King—the President, the Congressmen, the Senators, or the Justices—resides final political power.

      The priest can bless, or perhaps withdraw his blessing, from a King’s decision, the jester can ridicule the King’s foolish choices and thus draw smiles from others, and the scribe can list on paper all the wrongs that the King has made. But each of them lack the power to do anything other than that, for the decision-making power resides strictly with the king, and not with the priest, jester, or scribe. They can only circle him and advise.

     We, the voting citizens of the United States of America, are now just a month away from deciding who will live in the White House, work in the Oval Office in the West Wing, and possess that decision-making power to impact our lives for the better or for the worse for the next four years. Who we vote for is important, more so than in other years.

     Anna Quindlen, last week in Newsweek wrote, “Do not be distracted by the gossip, nonsense, or lies. The time to really focus on the facts is now. . . . What I need is someone to clean up the mess George W. Bush has made of the country I love.”

     She wrote that, in our country, “The Presidency was once aspirational. Voters wanted someone smarter, better informed, stronger than they were.” In other words, we wanted a Wizard, someone superhuman, who was witty, wise, in touch with the Divine, who could put things right. A Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a John F. Kennedy, or a Ronald Reagan, for a Wizard is part jester, priest, scribe, King, and magician all rolled into one.

     But, in the last elections, because we have not had a Wizard to cast our vote towards, we have had to look to within ourselves for patience. “The trouble, my dear Brutus,” said Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “lies not in the stars but within ourselves.” And it is from within ourselves that we may find our own solutions.

     Good government is a precious commodity, a rarity that includes a mixture of wisdom, good luck, salesmanship, experience, farsightedness, an expansive mind, and a studious attitude. At points in the past, the American citizen has enjoyed good and wise government, but, sadly, that has not been the situation lately. We feel we have stubbed our toes on a tub, for our toes were leaking out of our boots, and Huckleberry Finn would say of us, “It warn’t good judgment.”