It was surprising on Friday to hear Attorney General William Barr use the heroic ethos to explain his decision to spend the twilight of his career obstructing justice. Asked in a CBS interview if he minded very much that a lot of people have come to think a lot less of him, Barr noted philosophically:
I am at the end of my career. Everyone dies, and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that, you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries.
Barr was laughing by the time he got to the part about Homer—genuinely mirthful, unselfconscious laughter, the sort you expect other people to join in with because they’re in on the joke. Up to that point, though, his demeanor had been somber if not downright grave, sitting there up in Alaska, where he was being filmed before a crackling fire in his plaid dress shirt and fleecy vest (the thinking-person's Christmas catalogue model) and speaking in hushed tones carefully laced with vocal fry. Observing that at his time of life and in this partisan climate he didn’t care what people thought, he seemed almost sad, or like a man trying to appear almost sad. The subtext, anyway, was that he was taking one for the team.
He said he had known all along that he would be criticized for his stance on the Mueller Report and for what he was doing now in terms of launching a series of investigations into the former investigators and their bad-faith efforts to bring this President down. It sounded, oddly, as though Barr was admitting that all along he’d been following a pre-determined script rather than responding dynamically to an evolving situation as it unfolded.
It’s not clear to me what Barr finds so uproarious about Homeric values. (I thought right-wingers were supposed to set a great store by “the Western canon.”) But the dismissiveness and the laughter are on-brand for him. Barr gave exactly the same sort of patronizing laugh during his Senate testimony following the release of the Mueller Report, when Kamala Harris confronted him over whether or not Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein had ever actually been cleared to supervise the Mueller investigation and make charging decisions, given that he was himself a witness in the obstruction probe owing to his role in the firing of James Comey. Barr hedged and evaded and tried to filibuster, and had finally resorted to laughter, saying that that was the acting AG’s job. “To be a witness and make the decision on being a prosecutor,” Harris had pressed, and Barr had gone back to being flustered.
You might say that dismissive mirth (whether voiced or not) is the ruling ethos of the Trump administration. It informs the logic of everything they do: lie, evade, and speechify until, realizing that you just don’t care, you say what you really think in a manner that reveals at once how corrupt and dishonest you are and, at the same time, that there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it. Which is the whole point: how powerful you are.
But to get back to the code of the Homeric hero, Barr has it a little backward. Starting out with the notion that one does something heroic with a view to being granted everlasting fame, Barr notes that he doesn’t care about that sort of fame. Ergo, he has no incentive to do the right thing. Barr’s value-system though is purely transactional.
It’s true that the epic hero’s fame, his kleos, is what will make him immortal. But that’s not his motivation; that’s his consolation prize. You don’t do what’s right or just or courageous so people will sing about you. You do it—despite the risk, although you might not win or survive, even when you know without doubt that you will fall or fail--because it’s the right thing to do and because that’s who you are. Because doing that thing defines everything that you or your party or the caucus or agency you represent stands for.
It’s something that perhaps Nancy Pelosi and Bob Mueller would do well to remember, the Speaker of the House who doesn’t want to embark on an impeachment inquiry and the former Special Counsel who doesn’t want to testify before Congress. You do the right thing not so that people will sing about you but so they may have something to sing about.