October 27, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Mendacity,” says Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I was channel surfing tonight and watched some of the 1958 film version on TCM.

The few Tennessee Williams plays I’ve seen all follow the same pattern: the principle characters, usually a family, are all hiding important facts about themselves; they have agreed not to see the obvious truths and to let one another live these lies. Then something happens — an outsider not in on the game arrives or some event blows someone’s cover — and the whole fabric starts to unravel. Pathetically or viciously, they begin to reveal one another’s secrets, and the characters must face what they had tried so long to avoid. Big Daddy’s cancer, Blanche’s promiscuous past, what really happened on that fateful day long ago, etc. The plays leave you wondering how these characters will go on with their shattered lives now that they no longer have the fictions— the lies and mendacity— which kept them afloat for so long.

The real-life play of the White House and Iraq seems to be following a similar dramatic arc. A majority of Americans have long since concluded that the war was a terrible mistake, a mistake based at best on faulty intelligence and at worst on outright mendacity. Now, the Administration itself can no longer maintain the false facade. Generals have been giving grim assessments, and these have made it into the news. Even the president admits that things are going badly, that we can no longer “stay the course,” and that some kind of change is required. If the Democrats win control of Congress, they will be in a position to investigate and reveal even further unpleasant truths that the Republicans have suppressed. The folks in Washington have begun to resemble the characters in a Tennessee Williams play.

The troubling difference is that when the play is over, you leave the theater, and you don’t really have to worry about what will become of these characters. They have no existence beyond the end of the last act. But while the voters may ring down the curtain on the characters who brought us this war, the disaster that they created in Iraq will remain.

Maybe Tennessee-Williams-style plot is typical of American culture, maybe not. But many observers have noted out characteristically American preference for not thinking so much about the past but rather looking optimistically to the future. We also tend to view the world as a story, and we don’t like difficult or unhappy endings.
So this election or the next one in 2008 will be The End of our drama. The show is over and we can head for the exit. Troops will be withdrawn, and the media will lose interest in what happens in some strange and complicated foreign land. But in real life, the war will have consequences far into the future — for our economy, for our position in the world. The trouble is that Americans in 2010 or later may not be able to see the connection between those problems and the events of 2003-2006. The Iraq war? That play closed a long time ago.

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