They think me mad–Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and–Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer.
Captain Ahab/Moby Dick
My God, they were frightened of Muskie and look who got destroyed–they wanted to run against McGovern, and look who they’re running against.
Deep Throat/All the President’s Men
Two books, one published in 1851; the other in 1974, written nearly a century and a quarter apart. Two books, one a metaphor for obsession; the other a documentation of obsession. Two books, about men, both engaged in pursuing their respective white whales. And in the end, two books which chronicled these men’s preoccupation with destroying a perceived enemy, only to become the victim of their own vindictiveness. Two books, in which the protagonists, Captain Ahab and Richard Nixon, are both Quakers.
Why is this last factoid relevant? As suggested in Jimmy Breslin’s chronicle of Nixon’s rise and fall How the Good Guys Finally Won, the author wonders if the 37th president of the United States might have survived Watergate if only he had been raised a Catholic. Breslin’s thesis is grounded in his subject’s inability to confess his sins. Breslin’s evidence begins with the disclosure the Watergate burglars are connected to the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Imagine if Nixon had transformed the Oval Office into a pubic confessional following the arrest of G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, et. al. “Forgive me fellow citizens for I have sinned. In my exuberance to continue in office, I may have said things or sent signals to my campaign that led to extra-legal actions. I take full responsibility for my behavior and assure the American people I have instructed those involved this is unacceptable.”
I would argue Nixon’s own Quaker background, in it’s own way, should have been equally enlightening. Quakers believe every human represents a somewhat different kind of trinity consisting of body, soul and spirit. It is the conjoining of these three elements which makes each person whole. And Moby Dick, perhaps more than any Quaker text, explains how separation of soul and spirit led to Ahab’s madness as he obsessively pursued his white whale. He recognized the source of his obsession, the loss of part of his body during his initial confrontation with the behemoth. But was never able to accept it and move on.
Nixon’s losses, the presidency in 1960 and the California governorship in 1962, though not physical left an equally lasting scar. He would not allow anyone, especially Edmund Muskie, another New England Catholic reminiscent of John Kennedy, reopen the wound. Like Ahab, the separation of body and mind from spirit prevented him from understanding a tarnished victory was no victory at all, and in the end, would lead to his political self-destruction.
Which brings us to 2019 and Donald Trump. One might forgive Nixon for not seeing Ahab’s fate was a metaphor for his own. One was fiction. The other was real. What’s more, Moby Dick is a primer on whaling as much as it is about Ahab, much in the same way Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full provides more information about horse breeding than any non-equinophile needs to know. In contrast, All the President’s Men could easily have been titled What Not to Do When Running for President: A Step-by-Step Manual.
What makes the Trump/Biden narrative more intriguing is the fact the former vice-president was merely a surrogate for Trump’s true white whale (or dare I say orca since the original marine mammal in this saga was only half white). When he finally presented his long-form birth certificate, Barack Obama humiliated Trump, exposing him for the liar and conspiracy theorist he still is. From that moment in July 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy he was always running against Obama. He never talked about Hillary Clinton’s time as first lady or senator from New York. In fact, those were the days when the Trumps and Clintons socialized and Trump financed her campaigns. All of his attacks related solely to her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state. The emails. The conflicts of interest between her cabinet responsibilities and the Clinton Foundation. And although he prevailed in the electoral college, he railed at the thought another member of Barack Obama’s inner-circle had again humiliated him by winning the popular vote.
Having defeated Obama’s secretary of state, Trump fully expected a victory in 2020, presenting himself as the alternative to the progressive wing of the Democratic party personified by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC. But Trump was never one to let sleeping dogs lie. When a dormant Joe Biden emerged from the depths following Charlottesville, Trump no longer thought of 2020 as a chance for more tax cuts, judicial appointments or railing against immigrants. Although Biden’s name was at the top of the ticket, Trump viewed it as one more chance to chip away at the Obama legacy. As had been the case with Ahab and Nixon, this obsession separated his body and mind from his spirit resulting in the madness that led to both impeachment and defeat at the ballot box.
At an October 15th rally in Pennsylvania, Trump told the crowd, “Can you imagine if you lose to a guy like this?” MAGA nation probably thought he meant Joe Biden. But in Trump’s mind, it was the same white whale it had always been, Barack Obama.
For what it’s worth.