I’ve always been a sucker for the great Jungian archetypes. When Jammie-Wearing-Fool pointed this out, the Times’ image reverberated. But not in a completely pleasant way. The Hitler meme may be tired, but my instinctive memory was of Triumph of the Will, which taught me how much images evoked even when they are countered by reason and knowledge.
A Reynolds’ reader points out the cross isn’t appropriate for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth; he’s more a Herod/Caeser/Pilate. And perhaps Lent isn’t a great time to blaspheme. But, then, does the Times even know the meaning that gives power to the symbols they manipulate? They swim through a world whose history is rich with such symbols, but they don’t understand the richness within an image. Of course, they do cherish that frisson of edgy sentiment. And they know enough to know that they lose power if the images are of chocolates and the Easter Bunny. (Unless, of course, like the New Yorker, they crucify the bunny.) The Times doesn’t seem campy – over-the-top, perhaps, but not ironic.
But I’m not so easily seduced – indeed, something else strikes me. This picture doesn’t have American heroism, doesn’t have the power of the great American archetypes. American history is of humility linked with grandeur: our presidents are large not because the White House is in their shadow, but rather because they are in its. Neither larger than the office nor wiser than the Constitution, their heroism comes because they reverence those ideas, losing their selves in them. Enlarged by the White House, they are well aware of the distinction between their private selves and the public office they hold but for a term or two.
Our presidents have needed a sureness of touch, a confidence that orders men into battle. But they also needed humility. George Washington handing over his sword, George Washington handing over his office – these are symbols of heroism. Many a man has been a general; few have had the self-respect, the pride in country and history (minimal as that history was for that early, role-defining president), the humility before not the founders but the founders’ ideas. Such humility gives backbone; it comes from a large, simple and even ego-less pride.
We haven’t been seeing much humility lately. But that is what moves us; it structures the archetypes Americans catch their breath over, indeed, the ones that mist our eyes.