The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Lion of Nauvoo

Dick Cheney’s Legacy Is a Curious Mirror-Image to that of Mormon Leader Brigham Young

The final days of the Bush Administration generated much opinion as to the likely legacy awaiting George W. Bush. Seemingly almost forgotten was his powerful Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Even among admiring conservatives, Cheney is too enigmatic and secretive to understand his full role, motives, and aspirations. As for liberals, they despise Cheney too virulently to grant him anything as legitimate-sounding as a legacy; a prison sentence is more what they have in mind.

Cheney is currently writing his memoirs. Recently he broke his reputation for silent loyalty on CNN to suggest his book would be critical of President Bush, his former boss. Per Cheney, Bush began “moving away from him” during their second term.

Cheney was always the central pillar of resoluteness that defined the Administration throughout its eight years. He believed regret was a sign of moral weakness – a leader should always move forward, never apologizing for nor attempting to justify their actions.

In Cheney’s opinion, Bush came to care too much about public opinion and his image in the media. This led Bush to compromise by halting the use of waterboarding against accused terrorists, closing some secret CIA prisons, seeking Congressional approval for domestic surveillance, and treating diplomatically with Iran and North Korea, rather than pursuing regime change as he had in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cheney was disappointed the unyielding leader he thought he knew was an ordinary, accommodating politician at heart.

In this regard, Cheney reminds me of an antipode for Brigham Young and his relationship with Joseph Smith during the founding years of the Mormon Church. The difference is that the Bush/Cheney relationship was reversed, both in terms of the players’ respective roles and its unfolding over time.

Whether you view him as divine prophet or flimflam artist extraordinaire, Smith was an attractive, personable salesman for his new religion. He had a sharp insight into the American character and a talent for manipulating the status quo. When his proselytizing alarmed local authorities in one area, Smith quickly exited, bringing his ever-growing band of followers with him, and sought out fertile ground to win new converts.

He moved from his native New York to Pennsylvania, back to New York, and then lived for some years in Kirtland Ohio. He brought his flock to Missouri to establish a new Mormon capital there but eventually retreated to Nauvoo Illinois, where an angry mob finally caught up with and killed him.

By comparison, Brigham Young was blunt and taciturn but he had proven himself to Smith through his loyalty at a time when many former close associates were turning on their founder. Young attested that when Smith preached the necessity of polygamy, “It was the first time in my life that I desired the grave.” Yet his desire to obey dogma overcame his personal revulsion and he ended up marrying a total of fifty-five wives.

Following Smith’s death, Young slowly but surely won respect among fellow church elders for his zeal and resolve. Lacking Smith’s showman instincts to know when to close down and move on, Young treated every conflict as a desperate fight for which the purity of Mormonism itself was at stake.

His will alone led the Mormons on long trek, first to Nebraska and ultimately the Great Salt Lake Valley in modern-day Utah. Young doubtless liked the isolated location as one in which his people could practice their faith in private. However, he probably also approved of the harsh desert surroundings as a constant reminder to Mormons that they were a people under siege by the larger world. Frequent skirmishes with Native Americans, non-Mormon settlers, and the U.S. government were to mark the long remaining years of his leadership.

In many ways, Mormonism and neo-conservative ideology have much in common, particularly their stress on the individual and immediate family over larger communal ties. They also share a paradoxical blend of missionary recruitment with xenophobic distrust of all outside their immediate clan. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that Utah is one of the most dependably red states.

Despite originating from America, Brigham Young would have preferred Utah to become its own nation rather than a U.S. state. Although Mormonism draws much from Judaism and Christianity, it maintains a distinct separateness from both.

Likewise, the modern conservative, while respecting and even celebrating the virtues of U.S. democracy, plurality, and egalitarianism, seems to desire citizenship rights but not necessarily membership within a nation containing so many unlike-thinking individuals. Or, as they are more apt to express it, view themselves as the only “true” Americans. They regard the rest of the U.S. as some might view the Catholic Church of Europe’s Middle Ages – overly-inclusive and tending to corruption, containing far too many thieves, pedophiles, and, worst of all, poor people.

The relationship between Dick Cheney and George Bush was rather like what might have happened if Brigham Young had invented Mormonism but then used the charismatic Joseph Smith as a front man to sell it and increase its palatability.

Like Young, Cheney saw the United States as a shining city in the midst of a desert waste. Freedom’s enemy of choice in a post-Cold War world was Islamic terrorism but the ultimate goal was to cleanse Zion from within, eliminating contaminates and allowing Cheney and like-minded elites ascension to ever-growing levels of power, even if they chose to exercise that power behind the scenes.

Yet in Bush, Cheney started with a hard right-wing zealot who slowly lost his starch and devolved into the more moderate centrist he had been as Governor of Texas and candidate he campaigned as in the 2000 election. If Bush had been truer to his nature and less dependent upon his father’s old advisors, it would have been interesting to see if his legacy might have been very different.

Likewise, it would be equally interesting what difference might have resulted if President Obama placed less emphasis on old Clinton hands and old Chicago insiders for his inner circle.

For Cheney, however, the outcome is a clear and bitterly disappointing one. Banished from the Zion of national security respectability, circumstance has thrown him into a wilderness, where he rails ceaselessly against international policies of engagement and domestic policies of socialism, even as historians document his erosion of civil liberties and enemies contemplate investigations of criminal maneuverings.

Like some bizarre mirror image of Brigham Young, Cheney finds himself and America making a reverse pilgrimage from the solidly red state Promised Lands of Utah and Wyoming to the more subtle and complex mixture of blue and red that comprises Obama’s Illinois. Mormon faithful adoringly dubbed Young the “Lion of the Lord” for his adamancy in the face of persecution and doubt. The best Cheney can hope at present is a continued angry fighting retreat whose outcome is uncertain. He is the Lion of Nauvoo.

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