There is something Greek about the Cheney family’s obsessive persecution of President Obama. Ancient Greek, that is. It recalls the vindictive persecution of the House of Atreus by the Furies in Aeschylus’ great trilogy of tragic plays, The Oresteia. The Cheneys’ Fury-like pursuit of Obama is relentless, irrational, and unforgiving.
First Dick Cheney, on three separate occasions, declares that Obama is making the country more vulnerable to terrorist attack, accuses the president of using the economic crisis as a pretext to expand the government, and agrees with a conservative talking head that Obama is “telegraphing weakness” to the terrorists.
Like the Furies, the Cheneys stand for unreason and emotionalism. Revenge is their milk and their meat.
Then his eldest daughter, Liz, proposes on Fox News that in the wake of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, the president send the mother of a fallen soldier to Oslo to accept the award on behalf of the U.S. military—as if it was Obama, and not her father, whose stupidity and greed has sent thousands of Americans to their death in Iraq. And recently, Cheney’s youngest daughter, Mary, announced the creation of an international consulting firm that will, no doubt, facilitate any and all opposition to the slightest Obama initiative.
And just this past Wednesday there was Dick Cheney himself, the chief Fury, publicly accusing Obama of putting at risk American troops in Afghanistan by “dithering,” charging that Obama is “afraid to make a decision,” and saying that the president is endangering the American “homeland.”
Cheney’s public belittling of Obama, his near-seditious claims that Obama is working against the country’s best interests and allowing America’s enemies to gain the upper hand—such vengeful attacks by a previous vice president, let alone by any former high elected official, against a sitting president are without precedent. You feel that in Cheney’s grim zeal he is not simply refusing to leave the stage, but reliving his glory days fighting the good Manichaean fight against absolute evil—this time against a president who is, in Cheney’s mind, the moral extension of the shadowy terrorists he pursued while commandeering the White House. Then, too, perhaps Cheney was so used to bending to his will the emotional weakling he served under for so long that his drubbing of Obama is simply the only way he knows how to relate to a president.
There is something primitive—something along the lines of magical thinking—about the way the former vice president projects his psyche onto reality.
For Aeschylus, the Furies represented, in fact, a primitive age, where unreason ruled and vengeance was the only form of legal redress. Rational justice had yet to be born. The Furies were personifications of the murdered dead, who wreaked their revenge on the murderers. Such wild, lethal doomfulness seems to be Dick Cheney’s native element.
The primal sin of the House of Atreus, which aroused the Furies’ centuries-long vindictive wrath, was Tantalus’ murder of his son, Pelops, whom he tried to serve up to the unwitting gods. Resurrected by the gods, Pelops has a son whom he names Atreus, and Atreus repeats the family curse. He kills his half-brother to get his money and then murders and serves up as dinner his brother Thyestes’ children to Thyestes as payback for the latter’s adultery with Atreus’ wife. From then on, the descendants of the House of Atreus turn on and murder each other in an endless cycle of revenge: father kills daughter, wife kills husband, son kills mother.
Yet in the final moments of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Athena breaks the power of the Furies and votes to acquit Orestes of the crime of killing his mother (who had murdered Orestes’ father). Thus Athena replaces unreason with reason, and revenge with the spirit of clemency.
Like the Furies, the Cheneys stand for unreason and emotionalism. Revenge is their milk and their meat. Obama’s Age of Reason—the advent of Athena—drives them into a rage, which in turn impels them to pursue Obama relentlessly to punish him for his crimes against what their hearts know to be true.
This fanatical emotional certainty is the fevered atmosphere in which the crime of the Iraq war grew and flourished. Those pundits who lecture Obama on the perils of rational compromise have a short memory. Compromise can always be modified or revoked. War begun by the spirit of wrathful revenge is hard to stop, or even alter.
For the Cheneys cannot be reasoned with. In their eyes, as in the eyes of all hardcore right-wingers, the liberals’ original sin was FDR’s expansion of government—i.e. taxes on the wealthy—and they consider this transgression just as heinous as the murder of one’s own child. Indeed, the senseless slaughterhouse of the Iraq war, the way it devours children, seems to be the Cheneys’ way of redressing the liberals’ big-government murder of “hard-earned” dollars. Think of Marx’s vision of money copulating in banks to produce interest, and it becomes easier to understand how the Cheneys might think the life of an American soldier equal to, say, ten thousand dollars earned through military contracts.
In their abominable gluttony and love of the vendetta, the Cheneys resemble the House of Atreus just as much as they do the enraged Furies. As Dick Cheney, that dark wily Tantalus, put it himself Wednesday night, scarily referring to Obama’s rational foreign policy: “No one knows just where that path will lead.” For heaven’s sake, bring on the canny compromisers, Athena’s wise children.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.