Twelve Caesars, Twelve Presidents: A Game. Part II

‘We are currently stuck with the peculiar notion,’ wrote Gore Vidal, my Virgil in these matters, ‘that Nixon just happened to be the one bad apple in a splendid barrel. The fact that there has not been a good or serious president since Franklin Roosevelt is ignored, while the fact that Nixon was corrupt some of the time, and complex and devious all of the time, is constantly emphasised in order to make him appear uniquely sleazy—and the rest of us just grand’. We must not, then, become fastened on Nixon/Caligula, and but continue with our game. Claudius follows Caligula, and so also do we come to Gerard Ford.

The Roman was inevitably born into royalty, as many of the Caesars following Augustus were. He was also the uncle of Caligula, who despised him. Caligula was not alone in this: Claudius’ own mother had called him a ‘monster’, a project that had been begun, and then flung aside, by nature. Why? Suetonius: ‘nearly the whole of his childhood and youth was so troubled by various diseases that he grew dull-witted and had little physical strength,’ or what today we might identify as cerebral palsy. Augustus, however, felt sorry for him, and praised him for his ‘nobility and principle’ (there is no equivalent record of Kennedy on Ford).

It is well known that Claudius came to power by ‘accident’, as Suetonius puts it. After Caligula’s assassination, Praetorian guards found the reluctant leader trembling behind a curtain, and brought him high upon their shoulders and pronounced him emperor. History does not say whether Ford ever hid behind a curtain, but he became caretaker of the presidency after Nixon had stepped down over the Watergate scandal. His childhood was fraught with its own struggles. Ford’s father, a paint salesman, was abusive, a drunkard, and Ford’s mother duly divorced him and took her family to live in the Grand Rapids. At school, Ford developed a stutter and wrote with his left hand, much to the indignation of his family.

Unlike Claudius, Ford was not a bookish man. He performed moderately well at school, and fate, not wishing to break the pattern of presidential men, saw to it that Ford, too, was a football player, and perhaps the most notable of all the jock presidents, for he entered the University of Michigan on a football scholarship.

Suetonius devotes a paragraph to Claudius’ bibliography, which includes histories of Rome, various treatises, a Greek comedy, and an eight-volume autobiography, all of which are now lost. Ford’s autobiography is still in publication, but its readership is likely to be no larger than that of the emperor’s missing works. In Kathryn Moore’s The American President, to which I am much indebted for my information, Moore lays down Ford’s most notable utterances: ‘You play to win. You give it everything you’ve got, but you always play by the rules’.

There is not much else to share between Claudius and Ford, except that they came to power as a result of the follies of their predecessors. Domestically, Claudius’ public works were few but ‘important’. Under Ford’s presidency, the country incurred a $3 billion budget deficit. In foreign policy, Claudius invaded Britain, improving on his ancestor Julius Caesar’s earlier conquest. Ford’s foreign policy achievements are more extensive, but less well known. The Vietnam War finally came to an end under his watch, and his administration endorsed the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. The state terrorism inflicted on East Timor resulted in genocide, in the murder of 102,800: one of the worst since the Second World War.

‘I want to be remembered as a… nice person’. Ford lost his election to Jimmy Carter; Claudius ruled for fourteen years. Both men were subject to assassination attempts by women, but only Claudius, in the end, was poisoned.

***

Both nations enter, or have entered, a period of short-lived rulers: with the massive exception of Ronald Reagan, the United States is for a time overseen by one-term presidents. Rome is one step behind in this matter, with its Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellus and Vespasian). The crisis of leadership faced by both nations is, perhaps, as a result of the fate of those grotesques, Caligula and Nixon, who were forced out of office for their crimes. This entailed an unwinding of the stability that stabilised both governments in their respective post-war orders. Nonetheless, the parallels are out of synch, and I am left with the task of comparing Nero with Jimmy Carter.

Suetonius spends a vast portion of his biography of Nero cataloguing his insolence, lust, greed, extravagance and cruelty, although later historians have revised aspects of this, and it is doubted that he was responsible for razing Rome or fiddling while it fell. There is no doubt, however, that Nero was ‘universally loathed’; nor was loathing unjustified.

Whatever actions Carter undertook when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, they were nothing so notable as fiddling. His administration was far more active during the Iran-Iraq War, when it supplied arms to Saddam Hussein, ensuring his victory. Inflation, unemployment, and the massacres in East Timor continued over from Ford’s presidency, and only the latter affair was properly concluded by this administration’s supply of further arms to the Indonesians.

Carter is properly regarded as a weak president. True, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, but some, including Noam Chomsky, regard the Camp David agreements between Israel and Palestine as a ‘catastrophe’. Weak in almost every sense, except as a farmer, the closest Carter came to a sex scandal of any sort was when he agreed to be interviewed by Playboy magazine, in which he confessed to have committed adultery in his heart ‘many times’. Nero, drunk with power, and from a young age, castrated a young boy and married him.

The comparisons are laughable. Nero is the embodiment of decadent Rome, luxurious and cruel, incestuous and impious, the tyrant who fed Christian martyrs to lions. To many, Jimmy Carter, humbly referred to as the ‘peanut farmer’ president, is a harmless, well-meaning, if unsuccessful, peacemaker. And yet, these two leaders share anything in common, it is that their reputations are undeserved. 

***

When we observe that Galba, Nero’s regicidal successor, governed Spain, and that Ronald Reagan, who swept into power in 1979, governed California, a region that was originally founded by the Spanish, then we know, don’t we, that we are grasping at straws? Here, once again, my hypothesis totters – Reagan’s presidency, whatever one thinks of the politics, was a successful one. Crammed with crime and corruption – the Iran-Contra Affair, Nicaragua, Grenada – dishonouring the United States in the final years of the Cold War, nonetheless, it was he who presided over its conclusion. His strident leadership, demonstrated at the Brandenburg Gate when he demanded, and got, the reunification of Germany, was what restored the nation’s confidence in itself after the rogue years during and after Richard Nixon.

Can we say the same for Galba? When, during his bid for power, his rebellion against Nero reached a crisis point, he considered suicide; when Reagan suffered from defeat, by divorce or by elections (Reagan is the first president who, like most of the Romans, divorced a person), he uttered some humorous folkish tough-guy wisdom and dusted himself off. Suetonius tells us that Galba was cruel and unpopular. Reagan, who was known for being jovial and well-liked even by opponents, was one of the last popular presidents of this era of American history. Reagan had longevity, serving office into his late seventies. Galba ruled for one year, and at the age of seventy-three was assassinated by Otho, his successor.

***

Both Otho and George H.W. Bush ruled for a short time, and there are some notable parallels between them. There are, of course, the familiar differences. Once again, we have the son of a salesman from St Louis up against the son of an eminent proconsul to Africa. Once again, we have a mediocre student and wannabe footballer against one who, according to Suetonius, was ‘wild and extravagant’ in his youth. Otho ‘advanced’ his fortunes by preying on – and marrying – a wealthy freedwoman who was ‘on her last legs’. Suetonius suggests, also, that he insinuated himself into the court of Nero, for whom the future emperor performed sexual favours. There is no such instance between George Bush and Jimmy Carter.

Bush declared that under his administration the United States should become a gentler nation. Otho’s three months in power, which he gained partly in order to defeat Nero as a love rival, are a testament to the sheer brutality of Roman power politics at that time. Bush lead a successful campaign in the Persian Gulf against Saddam Hussein and, rather than continue the war and topple the Baath Party dictator, decided to let it be known as the ‘100-hour war’ to satisfy the American public, who still remembered Vietnam, and now watched wars on their television sets. Otho awoke one morning and stabbed himself to death rather than submit to the armies led by Vitellus, the successor. George H.W. Bush died in his old age.

Yet it is in dying that honour was conferred on both leaders. At Otho’s deathbed, soldiers came and kissed his feet, ‘praising him as the bravest man they had ever known and the best emperor imaginable’. There is a consensus, too, that describes Bush as the best one-term presidency in American history. Unlike Reagan, unlike Kennedy, unlike Nixon and Ford, Bush was an authentic war hero: a Navy pilot who flew fifty-eight dangerous missions across the Pacific during WWII. He faced crash after death-defying crash, yet he always returned to join his squad. No soldiers, on this occasion, kissed his feet.

***

With George H.W. Bush, we mark the last president to have been a Second World War veteran; with William Jefferson Clinton, we mark the first president not to have been a veteran of any American war since Roosevelt. But what of his counterpart Vitellus? Perhaps, for once, both leaders have in common their humble origins. Suetonius leaves it open as to whether Vitellus was the son of an aboriginal King of Italy, or a shoemaker. Bill Clinton, who was an infant when his father died in a car crash, was raised by his mother and step-father, a car salesman named Roger Clinton. Despite his step-father being a gambler and wife-beater and drunkard, Clinton still adopted his surname, the reasons for which are unknown.

Vitellus was also a gambler, as well as being notorious in his youth, according to Suetonius, ‘for every sort of vice’. As governor of Africa, he was known to pilfer gold and silver from holy temples and replace them with brass and pewter; he was known, too, for frightening off his more vigilant creditors with false accusations. Of the first vice, we can find little comparable in Clinton, except that, when president, he rented the famous Lincoln bedroom off-the-record to wealthy acolytes. As to the second vice, we can make a parallel only if we exchange the vice for lust. Clinton, as recorded in Christopher Hitchens’s polemic No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (1999), had a team of ‘bodyguards’ who were dedicated to smearing the women who came forward as Clinton’s sexual partners or rape victims. But this is not an exact parallel.

As governor of Germany, Vitellus was popular with soldiers, ‘affable’ with muleteers at wayside inns, and at camp granted every favour that was asked of him, even going so far as to cancel every punishment of soldiers whatsoever. The habit of pardoning cannot be attributed to the American president who, when he was governor of Arkansas and running for president, flew back to the state to supervise the execution of a mentally-retarded African American prisoner, so that he could appear to voters as strong on crime and punishment.

Although Vitellus rejected the name of Caesar, when he came to power he declared himself to be pontifus maximus for life. Perhaps because he was completely intoxicated by power, he forewent his habits of granting mercy and, says Suetonius, would have anyone killed on even the slightest pretext. On paper, President Clinton has no such power. At the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton sent cruise missiles to what his administration knew to be a pharmaceutical plant, under the pretext that it was thought to be a hiding place for Al-Qaeda. The reason attributed to Clinton’s true motive was that he wished to distract the media from the scandal affecting his character. What this episode illustrates is that, unlike Roman emperors, American presidents must fashion a moral pretext for their crimes.

For his vices, Clinton was tried by impeachment, which he survived. Vitellus, for his vices, was dragged naked through the Sacred Way along to the Roman Forum, where his successor’s guards tortured him to death by ‘little cuts’. It could be said that at least the victims of Clinton’s cruise missiles suffered a quick death; but the destruction of the pharmaceutical factory caused, on balance, the more suffering. Lead on, Virgil…

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