Richard II’s Federalist Tea Party

Richard II
Richard II

Thursday, January 17, 2013: At five-thirty in the evening in downtown Boston, a group of attorneys and judges in suits filed in from Washington Street from nearby law offices, courthouses, and law school classrooms into Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre for an abridged staged reading of William Shakespeare’s Richard II.

It was the twelfth “Shakesepare and the Law” event cosponsored by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC)-best known in the Boston area for its annual productions of the Bard’s plays on the Boston Common-and the local chapter of the Federalist Society, an association of conservative and libertarian judges and attorneys founded during the Reagan era to counter their perception of the legal profession as “dominated by a form of orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society.” The society is an influential one, considering that three supreme court justices, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia (the original faculty advisor to its student wing) and Samuel Alito, are all members, and that Chief Justice John Roberts has served in a leadership position, though his actual membership is a matter of some dispute. Their ideological position is one of “originalism” or “original intent”: a theory by which the U.S. Constitution must be forever interpreted according to to the intentions of the authors, as opposed to the proponents of “the living Constitution” who view it as interpretable according to the historical contingencies of the current moment.

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I first attended in 2010, when the special guest panelists included John Yoo, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney General who during the George W. Bush administration argued that the administration could not be bound by either federal laws or international treaties against torture, and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. If it could have been said that there had been an agenda that year, it was to use Henry V as a parable through which Yoo could defend his ideas regarding “the unitary executive.” Yoo sadly proved to be both rhetorically and intellectually unimpressive, and the notion that either torture or the unitary executive were protected under “original intent” never seemed substantiated.

The following year’s event featured a reading of The Merchant of Venice and proved to be a more sober affair due to the presence of an actual Shakespeare scholar and the simple fact that nothing in the play lent itself to partisan issues of the day.

This year, Daniel J. Kelly, a partner in McCarter & English, chairman of the Boston Lawyers Division of the Federalist Society and board member of CSC, began the evening with a slide presentation of English kings from the Magna Carta to Richard II’s reign. Much as it was the agenda of the 2010 event to associate Henry V with George W. Bush, Kelly was very clear that he wanted everyone to see Richard II as a stand-in for Barack Obama.

Richard II arrest
Long believed to be a 15th century representation of the arrest of Richard II by the Earl of Northumberland, some members of the Federalist Society and the Tea Party regard this to be an allegorical image illustrating the restoration of Constitutional government after the end of President Barack Obama’s third or fourth term.

In terms of acting, Director Steven Maler did the best he could with a cast that drew from the legal profession. One of the aspects of the actor’s craft is to embody the ambiguity and irony inherent in a theatrical text. Attorneys, by contrast, to be effective at their job, must push for a singular interpretation of a law, a body of evidence or a particular testimony. When attorneys do make use of ambiguity, it is to cast their opponents’ presentations in doubt. Kelly (Ross, Servant to the Gardner and Exton), was one of the few in the legal profession who seemed comfortable on a stage, while District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock (Gaunt, Salisbury and the Keeper) had a passable sense of poetic meter.

When the reading came to an end, moderator C. Boyden Gray, former White House Consul to George H.W. Bush and former Ambassador to the European Union under George W. Bush, came to the defense of the elder of his former bosses by noting that unlike Richard II’s war in Ireland, which Richard paid for by seizing property from the nobility, the First Gulf War was essentially paid for by allies of the U.S. and that, unlike King Richard’s war, it was financially profitable.

A reoccurring theme for Gray, which he would interject at every opportunity, was a call for presidents to exercise self-restraint and inaction. However, his inability to articulate a vision of what constitutes a proper balance between restraint and courageous action seemed nebulous: the only ready example he had was the otherwise-centrist Dwight D. Eisenhower ordering the Arkansas National Guard to enforce the desegregation of the schools in Little Rock.

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M. Edward Whelen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, began by stating that “I don’t believe President Obama is Richard II” and “I have no doubt that Obama is a natural born citizen” (a nod to the conspiracy theorists in the “birther” movement). He went on to draw parallels between the exile of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and the immigration problems of Omar Okech Obama, a half-uncle of the President’s-as if to insinuate the distant relative had evidence of presidential wrongdoing. Whalen continued to grasp at straws with vague innuendos that Obama’s actions as President defied the original intent of the Constitution’s framers.

Rachael Vanessa Cobb, Chair of Suffolk’s Department of Government, seemed to understand the intellectual fallacy of the entire discussion and posed the question of how Richard II can be a political allegory for discussions on Constitutional originalism when England of the 14th century, much like the United Kingdom of today, had no written constitution.

Of course, had there been an actual scholar of Shakespeare or his era on the stage, the interpretive violence to the text might have been halted. Though his work is generally shot through with ironies, Shakespeare’s political imagination is still limited by the horizons of the Elizabethan era: He was no more a a Federalist than he was a proponent of “orthodox liberal ideology.”

Cobb, realizing that there were few specific lessons from Richard II that could be applied to contemporary politics, attempted to steer the discussion to the topic of legitimacy, decrying the manner by which “congressional dysfunction” empowers both Executive and Judicial branches of government to take unilateral action. Unwilling to take a stance on who was responsible for congressional dysfunction, she cited only ideological “clustering on the far left and far right.”

Gray’s response, of course, was to suggest that under that under such circumstances, a president should “do nothing.”

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The third, and most entertaining, panelist was David G. Tuerck, chairman of the economics department at Suffolk, as well as executive director of Suffok’s Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research. Tuerck did not shy away from Kelly’s encouragement to compare Obama to Richard. In fact, he shared a nightmare scenario in which the Twenty-Second Amendment has been overturned (did the Founding Fathers intend a Twenty-Second Amendment? did they intend a Thirteenth?) and Obama is just finishing his third term. At this point, Archbishop David Axelrod proclaims Obama as second only to God. (Tuerck apparently did not realize that Axelrod is Jewish and that Judaism is without a hierarchy of bishops or cardinals.)

In Tuerck’s fantasy, the country is deeper in debt and “rich men” are an oppressed minority under the tyranny of organized labor. Tuerck also revived the ugly racial rhetoric of the recent Massachusetts senatorial campaign by imagining “Elizabeth of Warren” leading the Cherokees in an insurrection, and then further likened Susan Rice (whom he misidentified as “Susan Collins”) to Mowbray, exiled for her misstatements regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Beghazi (apparently keeping one’s job as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations counts as exile). Whelen, noting that Tuerck, who has strong ties with the Tea Party, was cribbing from Ayn Rand, asked about “John Galt.”

Gray, on the other hand, stated that he largely agreed with Tuerck.

The syllogism that Tuerck presented, and to which Gray agreed, began with the first premise that Obama is like Richard II, followed with the second premise that Richard II had to be deposed by a combination of a paramilitary insurrection led by a charismatic member of the aristocracy for the good of the country, and concluded with the unspoken proposition that the President, who was only days away from his second public inauguration after being elected by a popular majority and by the Electoral College, needed to be overthrown by force.

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Later, Tuerck went so far as saying that there was no longer any constitutional government, and that rule of law had been replaced with “whatever the Chief Justice and four justices want,” specifically citing their support of Obamacare.

If one has any doubt that Tuerck meant everything in earnest, one only has to look at this speech he gave on the Boston Common in 2009:

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Yes, Tuerck missed the most obvious reason why Thomas Jefferson never read Karl Marx or John Manyard Keynes: they hadn’t published anything of significance yet.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson in 1805 as pictured by Rembrandt Peale. Jefferson didn’t read John Maynard Keynes and didn’t need the government to prime his pump. He had his wife’s quadroon half-sister for that.

It would have been difficult as Marx was only eight years old when the Sage of Monticello died and the Baron of Tilton would not be born for another 57 years.

Of course, this little problem of chronology was the least of Tuerck’s problems. Like a great many associated with the Tea Party (and, for that matter, other cults), Tuerck is drunk on symbols. Without delving into his scholarly writings in economics, his public rhetoric indicates someone more interested in iconography and allegory than in evidence and hypotheses; free-association rather than reason and causality.

This is, of course, how lawyers seek to sway a jury if they think they can get away with it.

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Ultimately, even as some participants such as former George W. Bush appointee Jennifer Braceras (Sir Stephen Scroop and Duchess of Gloucester) soberly asked if law students have any real knowledge or appreciation of the Constitution, or decry that there is a general constitutional illiteracy in America (my Facebook feed certainly confirms this). Even as the panelists demonstrated their own illiteracy with the Bard-and it is fairly disturbing that someone like Maler, who cares enough about Shakespeare that he directs at least one play every year, must associate himself with such public perversion of the Bard’s works in order to keep a board member happy-it is also fairly apparent that it’s the free-associative approach used by the David G. Tuercks of the world that is what is really at work when the Federalist Society goes to the theatre with dreams of original intent.