A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Duchess of Gloucester and Mary Mapes


In Richard II, The Duchess of Gloucester carries a grievance to her brother-in-law John of Gaunt. She complains to him of her belief that the King is responsible for the illegitimate election of President Bush in 2000; I mean, for the death of her husband, Gaunt's brother. Gaunt agrees, but says that there is nothing to be done.

Gaunt: "But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven,
Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders' heads."

Gaunt understands that the divine right of kings, which for his day was what the sovereign right of the people is for ours (and in both cases representing legitimacy), protects both Bush and Richard II. As God's deputy, that is as the people's elected representative, only He, or they, can punish Richard II or not re-elect George II. But the Duchess, portrayed today by Mary Mapes, the former CBS news producer, is not buying it:

Duchess: "Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?
Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?
Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood
Or seven fair branches springing from one root,
Some of those seven are dried by nature's course,
Some of those branches by the Destinies cut;
But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,
One vial full of Edward's sacred blood,
One flourishing branch of his most royal root,
Is cracked, and all the precious liquor spilt…".

The Duchess and Ms. Mapes, biding their time, pursue over the course of Richard II's first term in office a story concerning President Bush's service in the National Guard. Mapes and the Duchess come into possession of a photocopy of a document purporting to show an inconsistency in the President's service record. There is no authenticating witness. In ordinary journalism, this would not be enough to present to the public. Nevertheless, Ms. Mapes makes her pitch to Dan Rather. Let's imagine, just for kicks, that Rather, filling in for Gaunt, expresses prudent reservations about springing so flimsy a story on the public fifty-five days before the election. Mapes and the Duchess respond to Rather, their references to Gaunt's father and brother finding their modern equivalent in the Democratic Party and the broad culture of liberalism:

"…Thou dost consent
In some large measure to thy father's death
In that thou seest thy wretched brother die,
Who was the model of thy father's life.
Call it not patience, Gaunt; it is despair,
In suffering thus thy brother to be slaughtered,
Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life,
Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee.
That which in mean men we entitle patience
Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts."

Well, the character assassination attempt goes awry. Charles Johnson, who writes a blog named, notices that the Mapes document formats itself exactly in line with the default settings of Microsoft Word, and that it exhibits variable type and proportional spacing characteristics that did not exist in the 1970's, when the document was purported to have been produced (let alone in the 1400's). The reputation of CBS News begins to leak like a tire, and then like a boat, and then like a ship. Rather is fired as an anchor and under-assigned elsewhere, and Mapes is simply fired. She retires to her country estate, and debates whether to receive visitors:

Duch: "…Bid him – ah, what? –
With all good speed at Pleshey visit me.
Alack, and what shall good old York there see
But empty lodgings and unfurnished walls,
Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones,
And what hear there for welcome but my groans?
Therefore commend me; let him not come there
To seek out sorrow…".

Actually, Ms. Mapes emerged from Pleshey recently for a round of television interviews. She appears to be in a trance, and repeats without factual support her original assertions. She continues to assert the document is not a forgery, and states baldly into the camera a brazen new journalistic standard: that the absence of disproof is sufficient to support belief in the truth of a story. Having seen her somnolent, disaffected eyes on the television, it was all I could do to resist pulling out the big guns and using Lady Macbeth. But really she is too much of a bit player for that.

CBS's problem, and Big Time Media's in general, is that it lacks a John of Gaunt, someone to place reporting in perspective, as news gathering and not politics practiced by dishonorable means.

Duch: "What shall I say? To safeguard thine own life
The best way is to venge my Gloucester's death."

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