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Volume 10, No. 7 - October, 2000  
Table of contents for this issue
Sweetness And Might

IN 1970, THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN AT MADISON was arguably the most radical campus in the nation. Its English department was especially restive, serving as a home base for both the school's fledgling Teaching Assistants' Association and its vigorous antiwar movement. Yet that year, the department produced such unmistakably traditional dissertations as "Verse Design in the Poetry of the Hopkins-Bridges Circle" and "Victorian Pegasus in Harness: A Study of Charles Kingsley's Debt to Thomas Carlyle and F.D. Maurice." It also approved a Ph.D. thesis by its most well-known alum, titled "Matthew Arnold's Possible Perfection: A Study of the Kantian Strain in Arnold's Poetry."

That thesis demonstrates a nuanced understanding of how the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's thought affected the work of the Victorian poet, critic, and education reformer Matthew Arnold. The author argues that Arnold's poetry explores what it means to live trapped in a world of mere phenomena, never reaching a world that is unmistakably "real." Because of "this strange disease of modern life," Arnold believed poets had a special vocation: "to turn men inward in their search for salvation." According to the dissertation writer, Arnold's philosophy was marked by his "dislike of the dogmatic, his certainty of human inability to know absolutely." Arnold urged his readers to explore the truths within themselves: "Live by thy light and earth will live by hers."

The premature postmodernism of this dissertation is especially striking when one considers who wrote it: Lynne Cheney, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) from 1986 to 1992, conservative pundit, and wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Richard Cheney. How did it come about that this devoted acolyte of the philosophical uncertainties and intellectual questing of the early Matthew Arnold served as the most partisan and politicized director the NEH has ever had?

Hints of an answer can be found in two of the three novels Lynne Cheney published in the 1970s and 1980s. Taken together, these novels read as a cruel anatomy of the roles open to women in the men's world of Washington politics. The options are clear: Stay away from politics altogether and languish in the shadows, subordinate yourself to your political husband, or - most promising perhaps - become a political player in your own right. Consider a central figure of Executive Privilege, published in 1979. In a world otherwise populated by the unhappy wives of politicians and by single women who pursue their own careers at the price of intimacy with husbands and lovers, Nancy Dodman finds herself sitting at home finishing a dissertation on Immanuel Kant. Meanwhile, her journalist-husband nearly has an affair with one of those unattached career girls. Ultimately, Nancy can save her marriage only by putting her dissertation aside and following her husband to a presidential stakeout.

By 1985 Cheney's own ambitions have become more explicit. The contributor's note to an article of hers in The Washingtonian titled "The Decline of the Dutiful Wife" asserts that Cheney is "willing to help in her husband's campaigns,...but only if she's given a speaking role." And in The Body Politic, co-written in 1988 with Victor Gold, her gloves are off. That novel depicts a woman whose political career begins with a campaign to put Ayn Rand on a postage stamp. She marries a man who is elected vice president, and after he dies in the carnal embrace of Washington's sexiest reporter, she herself becomes vice president.

Though Cheney is unlikely to rise that far, she has nonetheless become an influential Washington voice with her attacks on postmodern relativism and her praise of the traditional canon. In some respects, of course, her defense of the canon echoes her hero Matthew Arnold, who famously called for honoring "the best that has been thought and said." In recent years, the prestige of Arnold's Victorian era has been at a high-water mark among conservatives. There has been much talk of "Victorian values," "Victorian virtues," and "family values" - especially in the work of Cheney's fellow Washington conservative and Victorianist, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. In books such as The De-moralization of Society (1995) and in countless editorials and articles, Himmelfarb has described the Victorian era as a time of private charity and hard work, an age of widespread commitment to responsibility and decency. This description has seemed questionable to some Victorianists (Elaine Hadley, for example, has criticized Himmelfarb for downplaying the role of a ballooning Victorian bureaucracy and powerful administrative state), but it has proven a boon to Republican neo- and paleo-conservatives alike.

Can Cheney be explained, then, as a New Arnoldian, urging "sweetness and light" on a sour and benighted nation? Perhaps. And yet when writing her dissertation, Cheney was concerned with an earlier Arnold: the poet, not the social critic; a man who was not dogmatic but Socratic. Something, it seems, has changed. It's striking how many of Cheney's current denunciations of what she calls "postmodern thought" are penned in terms broad enough to include her erstwhile idol. In her 1995 book, Telling the Truth, for example, she criticizes Michel Foucault for adopting the very same ideas she had once praised in Arnold: "In rejecting an independent reality, an externally verifiable truth...he was rejecting the foundational principles of the West." Back in 1970, Cheney ended her dissertation with a tentative suggestion that Arnold's final poetic insight is to forsake empiricism and embrace linguistics instead: Only by "educating man in the nature of language" can clarity be attained. And yet in Telling the Truth, Cheney mocks post-structuralists who attempt such an education: She now argues that legal scholars who claim that "the no more definitive than a poem or a play" are advocates either of "total nihilism" or of dangerously "progressive" political agenda.

All in all, it is hard to imagine what today's Cheney would make of an article she once published in Modern Fiction Studies. The novels of Graham Greene show that traditional values "have always been impossible," she concluded in 1970; today she would be more likely to argue that those virtues have always been necessary.

Perhaps Cheney has taken a page from Arnold's own book on how to switch careers in midstream: He certainly became a good deal more sure of himself and averse to skepticism of all sorts when he switched his energies from poetry to cultural criticism in the late 1850s. But whatever the reasons for Cheney's intellectual alteration, its implications are potentially significant.

Lynne Cheney may play a significant role in fashioning the educational agenda of the Republicans' "compassionate conservatism" - a conservatism more than a little reminiscent of Benjamin Disraeli's similar attempt to re-brand the Tory Party with rhetorical laments about Victorian England's division into "two nations." Come January 2001, the rehabilitation of the earlier Lynne Cheney may be the best hope for those who admire what Cheney herself once called "the free play of the mind over all the best ideas of the world."

John Plotz


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