Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama at the Augean Stables

Maureen Dowd, The New York Times


We missed Maureen Dowd's columns throughout her December hiatus. She returned this week with fresh themes for a new administration: the novelty of "hot nerds" in the Cabinet and the looming internal conflict between fiscal stimulus and deficit control. Most intriguingly, she compares Obama's challenge of managing the Clintons to the Fifth Labor of Hercules, cleaning the Augean Stables.

Dowd writes as sparingly as a poet, asking the reader to complete her inferences. Wikipedia tells us this about the Augean stables:

The fifth of the Twelve Labors set to Hercules was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. The reasoning behind this being set as a labor was twofold: firstly, all the previous labors exalted Hercules in the eyes of the people and this one would surely degrade him; secondly, as the livestock were a divine gift to Augeas they were immune from disease and thus the amount of dirt and filth amassed in the uncleaned stables made the task surely impossible. However, Hercules succeeded by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth.

One is left to wonder how far she meant to carry the analogy.

Dowd, who wrote an entire column in mock Latin this past October, makes frequent references to mythology and classical literature. In her book, Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk, she cast George W. Bush in the role of Oedipus, in psychological battle with his father as he unwittingly brought down the House of Thebes. This is at least her second reference to Obama and the Twelve Labors, the other occurring in her July 12, 2008 column about Obama's European trip, Ich Bin Ein Jetsetter. In that column she refers to Ms. Clinton as "the Amazon Warrior Queen Hillary." When Dowd says "I have a girlfriend in New York who puts her boyfriends through Feats of Strength," we suspect she is putting Mr. Obama through the same paces, just as she did with earlier references to him as Obambi, a fawn cowering under the withering gaze of Mrs. Clinton during the debates.

Like the devoted followers of the famous Sunday crossword puzzles of The Times, one is encouraged to have reference materials handy when reading Ms. Dowd. The columns are worthy of the effort.

Myths, neither histories nor fates, are sung anew by each generation.

See Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk, by Maureen Dowd (Penguin Group, New York, 2004).

For a translation of Dowd's witty but intractable column in Latin, Are We Romans, Tu Betchus, see the blog Ablative Absolute. The comments that follow the post offer further refinements. The translation reveals just how biting Ms. Dowd's satire can be when cloaked by a dead tongue.

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