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by William H. Benson

January 22, 2009

     A literary scholar once suggested that all story lines fit into one of 36 different plots, but another suggested that actually there are only two basic plots for all great stories: “someone goes on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.”

     Huckleberry Finn, The Hobbit, and the parable of the Prodigal Son are three examples of “someone who goes on a journey.” Writers of westerns and comics often build their stories around “a stranger who comes to town.” Batman fought off a series of strangers who drifted into Gotham City, as did Superman in Metropolis, and Marshall Matt Dillon did in Dodge City, Kansas. It really depends upon your perspective, for every time that someone goes on a journey, he or she becomes the stranger who comes to town.

     Dr. Samuel Johnson, the British lexicographer, once asked a rhetorical question: “Was there ever yet anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and the Pilgrim’s Progress?” Yes, they are three great stories, and all three fit into the “someone goes on a journey” plot line.

     Don Quixote dressed himself in an old suit of iron, like an errant knight of old, and upon horseback charged at a windmill, thinking it a dragon, and ended up breaking his lance. Robinson Crusoe refused to listen to his father’s guidance and fled home to a life on the high seas, but in the midst of a storm, he finds himself washed ashore upon an island where he lived alone for nearly thirty years.

     In John Bunyan’s extended allegory, Christian sets off alone for the Celestial City and passes through the Slough of Despond, endures others’ taunts at Vanity Fair, and meets up with a host of characters, like Obstinate, Pliable, Faithful, Formalist, Hypocrisy, and Evangelist, some more trustworthy than others.

     Senator and President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday is now behind us, and “a stranger has come to town,” specifically to Washington D.C., to the White House, and to the Oval Office. With his hand on Lincoln’s Bible and repeating the oath of the office as directed by Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Roberts, Obama was sworn in to uphold the Constitution. A combination of ambition, intelligence, and daring has landed him in the highest office in the nation’s federal government.

     There is no shortage of advice for the 44th President, some better than others.

     In last week’s Newsweek, Anna Quindlen suggested that the new President keep talking to the American citizens. “No one,” she wrote, “should underestimate what a succession of inspired secular sermons can mean in a time of civic darkness.” She may be right: FDR’s fireside chats and Reagan’s televised speeches from the Oval Office lifted American spirits as little else could ever do.

     Quindlen also suggested that Obama write his own speeches, a novel idea these days, and thus avoid the White House’s ghostwriters. “The committee,” she wrote, “is the enemy of the eloquent.”

     In order to succeed, Obama might consider the aforementioned literary examples. Avoid Don Quixote’s foolish idealism, tilting lances at windmills, thinking they are dragons. We have just ended eight years of that ideological and polarizing style, and it has led us into a quagmire. Also, Obama might consider championing resourcefulness, another novel idea these days, making a living with less or with what is available, as did Robinson Crusoe.

     Also, Obama will have to learn to trust some, such as Faithful, and not others, such as Formalist and Hypocrisy, and he will quickly learn which is which, as did Christian once he was on the other side of the Slough of Despond.

     Life inside the Oval office can be exceedingly difficult, but “there is one good way,” Quindlan wrote, “to appear willing to break out of The Bubble, and that’s to talk to the American people. . . . Sometimes it’s grandeur, the big ideas, the great thoughts, not as a substitute for action, but as a supplement.”


     Inauguration is the peaceful transfer of power, and a stranger, a new President, has come to town.