A brand new Frankenstein monster

Stephen Vicchio

April 03, 1992|By Stephen Vicchio

Prejudice is a raft onto which the ship-wrecked mind clambers and paddles to safety.

-- Ben Hecht (1947)

John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, broke weeks of silence since his firing to attack President Bush bluntly yesterday for lacking the courage to stand up to Patrick J. Buchanan's assaults on the federal arts agency. "Pat Buchanan is a Frankenstein monster that George Bush helped to create," Frohnmayer said in a speech to the National Press Club.

* -- The Sun, March 24, 1992 MARY SHELLEY'S novel, "Frankenstein," has always been more complicated than the American popular imagination would have it. I was thinking about Shelley's book the other day when I heard another of Patrick Buchanan's attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the 1817 novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein was the maker of the monster, not the monster itself. The creature was a kind of extension of the doctor. All the professor's imperfections, his hatreds and prejudices, were there in the creature, but without the cultured veneer of the doctor.

And when the monster escaped, those hatreds and prejudices were set loose on the world. The escape, of course, had dramatic and tragic consequences -- including some for Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant.

In this round of Republican presidential primaries we are seeing a remake of Shelley's classic. For 12 years, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Ronald Reagan, along with his trusted assistant, George "Igor" Bush, have tinkered in their laboratory. They created Patrick Buchanan, complete with a bolt through his neck and a set of his creator's prejudices about race, gender, sexuality and why poor people are poor.

For years Reagan and Bush built a monster, who watched as they vetoed civil rights bills, dismantled regulatory agencies, scoffed at the concept of family sick leave, attempted to ignore women's and black groups and censored art that was even the tiniest bit risque.

In the early Republican primaries, the creature got loose, and Bush, always a man of more substance and principle than his former boss, was wringing his hands. He called the monster "divisive" and "a hater," while trying to avoid using his name in public.

But the monster reminds us it was Bush who first called the 1990 civil rights bill a "quota bill." After the creature escaped, he

pointed to the fact that Bush later signed the bill.

It was Bush, not the monster, who tightened immigration laws for non-Europeans seeking entry to America.

It was he who returned Haitian boat people to certain death at the hands of a dictatorial government.

Bush is correct, of course, that Patrick Buchanan is a hater. But earlier, in Ronald Reagan, we applauded hate with a smile on its face. Buchanan's brand of hate is without the niceties, but it also without the baggage of David Duke. This allows people to vote for him and not to have to lie in exit interviews.

In Buchanan we see that hate has a kind of persistence and continuity, because what lies beneath it is really fear -- fear that people unlike him might be put in charge. He is afraid that if others are given their due, if the disenfranchised gain some control, there will be disastrous repercussions for "Euro-Americans."

In the Southern primaries, Buchanan trumpeted that he is a Christian. But it is just enough Christianity to hate, not nearly enough to love.

Buchanan realizes, perhaps much better than George Bush, that hate is a dividend of fear. But it is only a dividend in lives where there is not enough spiritual capital to produce other dividends.

In the past few years, many people have come to realize there was little spiritual capital in our modern Dr. Frankenstein, Ronald Reagan. But George Bush has been left to clean up the laboratory now that the monster has escaped and the doctor has retired to southern California.

Stephen Vicchio teaches at the College of Notre Dame. "Ordinary Mysteries," his collection of essays, many of which have appeared on this page, was published recently by Wakefield Editions.

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