When I was young, my first major theatre experience was watching Lee J. Cobb in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway. It was a powerful melodrama about a man whose worship of success and whose false values lead to his ruin; a man who believed that all he needed was a ready smile, a dirty joke, and another chance to make that big sale that would keep him from failure. The chances ran out for Willy Lohman as his dreams of glory proved to be dead-end fantasies, he ultimately lost his insecure hold on reality which lead to his suicide. "Attention must be paid," his wife Linda cries out, lamenting the ruin of her foolish, faithless, dreamer of a husband, when the world turns against him, but we all know that Willy has brought on his own ruin, step by step descending into failure and death. Willy had nothing to sell except a belief in the power of his own personality, a selfish egotism, and that was hardly enough to hold off his personal tragedy, the loss of his job and the loss of his son's respect, leading to the loss of his sanity. Personality - the great overrated American virtue - divorced from substance equals tragedy. We should keep this in mind as we examine our candidates for '08. Willy was not merely the spoiler of his own life, but that of his sons' lives, sons whom he had infected with his worship of success at any price. If I recall that play properly, Willy never has a moment when he comes to an understanding of where he has gone wrong.
I thought of Willy Loman as I watched George Bush deliver his State of the Union address. Here was a man like Willy who was absolutely confident of his own charm, a personality man who had nothing of substance to sell; a man who brings ruin to all around him as he clings to his fantasies of success. Only unlike Willy, George Bush is our Salesman of Death. He stood there delivering his tired spiel, unpacking his tawdry goods; the misbegotten war, while peddling terror and no taxes as if they were shiny new stock. He dragged out all the initiatives that he should have considered six years ago, which now seemed shopworn, threadbare, and counterfeit in his hands, new sources of energy, health care, and his disastrous No Child Left Behind and its destruction of our educational system. Never has America had a leader who is so incorruptible, because there is nothing in George Bush that could be corrupted. To corrupt someone implies that they begin with some virtue, and it was difficult to think of any virtue known to man possessed by this President.
George W. Bush had death to sell to the Congress and the American people, the death of our young soldiers to be sacrificed to his desperate need for another chance, another big score, all part of his fantasy of success, and his dread of failure. As even the Democrats in Congress bobbed up and down in response to his lies and banalities, I was a bit confused, and annoyed; then I realized that nobody was paying close attention to his words, this sign of deference may have been an effort to stay awake, like the snoozing John McCain, or the jumping up and down of Nancy Pelosi to keep her foot from falling asleep. I expected Laura, like the loyal Linda Loman, to shout out from the balcony, "Attention must be paid," but instead she was playing a game of three card Monte, undoubtedly taught to her by Rove himself, exploiting the heroism of an African American working man, one who never enjoyed any of the benefits of Bush's America, to distract from her husband's failures and lend George some of this hero's aura. Perhaps the real Linda Loman was Condi Rice whose face was a mask of tragedy. Medea or Medusa, take your pick, it was awful to behold in its desperation for Condi like Laura and the Cheneys the tragedy wasn't what they had done to America, but what they had lost for themselves, power, respect, and honor. Perhaps the material profits of war are not enough for some people. Sadly, one knows that George W. will never have a moment when he understands how he went wrong, and what a disaster he has brought down on the American family. The big difference between that great play and this President is that you could weep for Willy Loman but never for this salesman of death.