W.H. Auden, Campaign Adviser

When Dan Quayle announced his presidential candidacy late last week, he also announced a theme. He would run against the “dishonest decade” of Clinton rule. This is more than payback for those who described the Reagan-Bush years as the “decade of greed.” It’s an allusion to W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” which begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …

Is it coincidence that George Bush’s own best bid for Bartlett’s (leaving aside “No new taxes”) is cribbed from the same poem? “A Thousand Points of Light” came from a reworking–unintentional, I fear–of Auden’s last stanza:

Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …

(“A thousand,” of course, is what Auden would have written instead of “ironic” if he had been a bit less … ironic.)

One would almost think that a Collected Auden was the only book kept in the West Wing during the Bush-Quayle years. But there’s even more evidence that “September 1, 1939” is conservatism’s great slogan-generator. Allen Weinstein has just titled his history of Soviet espionage The Haunted Wood, after the lines in Stanza 5:

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Washington conservatives don’t have an absolute monopoly on the poem. Historian Madelon Powers called her new history of saloons Faces Along the Bar (which “… Cling to their average day” at the opening of Stanza 5), and Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart comes out of Stanza 6:

What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart …

But “September 1, 1939” has for the most part been seized by the right. That’s odd, given that its author was a lifelong gay who flirted with Communism for most of the 1930s.

Still, it’s just as odd that the left’s great title-spawning anthem should be “The Second Coming”–by the same William Butler Yeats who in the ‘30s urged a legion of Irish “Blue Shirts” to imitate the fascist paramilitaries of the continent. There’s Things Fall Apart, as Nigerian Chinua Achebe entitled his anti-colonial novel, Joan Didion’s decidedly liberal Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Amos Elon’s skeptical Mideast reportage The Blood-Dimmed Tide. I also recall a self-help book about crying called Ceremony of Innocence that I’m disinclined to hunt down.

Nor do I have the patience to look through back issues of the Nation and the Progressive and In These Times. But if Dan Quayle got a nickel for every left-wing editorialist of the 1980s who lamented that “the center cannot hold” or that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” he’d be able to wallpaper the next Republican National Convention with illuminated manuscripts.

And perhaps he will.

–Christopher Caldwell