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"Gone With The White House" - "Tara Redux" on Pennsylvania Avenue
Published on Friday, November 21, 2003 by
"Gone With The White House" - "Tara Redux" on Pennsylvania Avenue
by David Benjamin

PARIS -- I take a measure of perverse pride in the knowing that I am -- apparently -- the last living white man on earth who has never sat through "Gone With the Wind" from beginning to end.

This is not to suggest that I don't know anything about the most-watched and best-loved movie of all time. "Gone With the Wind" is inescapable, an artifact of American pop culture -- like Disneyland, "Miss America" and "Baywatch" -- that has pervaded every corner and crevice of the planet. I have turned on TV dozens of times to find myself staring at Vivien Leigh as she tells Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler that she hates him (or loves him).

And David O. Selznick's sack of Atlanta is burned happily into my memory (I've hated the Braves since 1965). And lately, there's this feeling that all of us, somehow, keep eerily re-living the script of GWTW. I couldn't put my finger on this sensation 'til I glimpsed President Bush, mounting a carriage at Buckingham Palace, with Laura on his arm. It hit me then! Today's White House is the closest American politics has ever come -- with a few quirky twists, of course -- to the fictional characters of Tara in 1863.

Consider, for instance, the Tara domestic staff. If ever there was a reincarnation of the dizzy house slave Prissy, played to a supercilious "T" by Butterfly McQueen, it has to be Condoleezza Rice. The White House version of Prissy prates on tiresomely about foreign affairs and geopolitics, but at heart she's a pampered little hothouse princess who's hardly been off the plantation in her whole blessed little ol' life. One can easily picture her pique at news that the "defeated" Iraqis have firebombed another marketplace, which sends her whining to the President, "Lordse, we got to have a doctor! I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' democracies."

Who better as the faithful family retainer, Uncle Henry -- depicted in GWTW by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson -- than Colin Powell? While Scarlett dithers hither and thither and Tara goes to seed, old Uncle Colin just buttons his wise old lip and gamely obeys even his mistress' goofiest orders, meanwhile cleaning up the mess and butchering the rooster to feed the family. I keep picturing Uncle Colin as he shakes a bemused finger at that stubborn old cock (who sports a lush black mustache and looks disturbingly like Saddam Hussein), and says, "No use gettin' so uppity. Even if you is the last chicken in Baghdad!"

The role of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) -- with that upper-class accent and overblown sense of chivalry -- fits Tony Blair like a kid glove. Like Ashley, Tony's smarter than the rest of the cast, but he's too gallant to show off. Like Ashley, Tony keeps hanging around the White House (Tara), proclaiming his frustrated fealty and making everyone wonder whom he really loves (Melanie or Scarlett? The EU or the Pentagon?). Inevitably, he comes away unfulfilled, lonely and -- worst of all -- unpopular. After all, nobody watching the movie really likes Ashley Wilkes. OK! I admit Laura Bush looks more like Margaret Dumont than Vivien Leigh. The last time Laura had an 18-inch waist, she was in grade school. However! Laura does project that steel-magnolia grit that moviegoers so cherish in Scarlett O'Hara. Plus, the mistress of Tara and the First Lady appear equally clueless about what's really going on out there in greater Georgia. It's chillingly easy to imagine Laura flouncing into the Cabinet room one evening in March, looking around at Dubya and Rummy, Icky Dick and Uncle Colin, all of them looking grimly strategic -- and then just scolding them to a fare-thee-well: "Fiddle-dee-dee! War, war, war! This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream!"

Another affinity between Laura and Scarlett is their fatal attraction to that handsome charmer, draft-dodger and main-chancer, Rhett Butler, played by George W. Bush -- the best bit of typecasting in "GWTW: The Re-Make." Like Rhett, Dubya spent his youth at play, drinking, hazing, roving and gambling and getting a randy reputation with ladies of dubious character. Like Rhett, Dubya is a man's man, ready to resort to violence at the drop of an insult, but sharp enough to show up elsewhere when the shrapnel starts to fly. Rhett/Dubya sees that the gain in a convenient war derives more from making friends among the gun-runners and privateers than with gallant warriors like Ashley Wilkes. Like Rhett, Dubya even finds himself in a spot of trouble after the war. Nevertheless, although perceived as a scoundrel by winners and losers alike, he remains the apple of Scarlett's eye -- and he is unrepentant to the last.

As the film winds down, ssh! Let's listen to Scarlett and Rhett as they clinch passionately (not to mention ironically) in the Lincoln Bedroom. "Rhett, I love you torridly but the dollar is way down, unemployment is way up, Blackhawks are dropping on Tikrit like sparrows and dead GIs are piling up like cordwood, terrorists are proliferating in the ruins you've created in the Middle East, the rest of the world hates you so much they're starting to like the French, the Texas Rangers are in last place, and the press has finally figured out that you couldn't talk straight -- or even pronounce the word 'nuclear' -- if your life depended on it." Then, a toss of our hero's head, a flash of that classic crooked grin, and the line we've all been waiting for. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

David Benjamin, novelist and journalist, lives in Paris. His latest book, released in paperback this year by Random House, is 'The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked'.


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