Thursday, February 7, 2013

Second Chances

Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York" With those two memorable lines that William Shakespeare put into his mouth, the great playwright's most memorable villain, King Richard III, stepped onto the stage, the same King Richard III whose mortal remains have recently been identified (with widespread hoopla and even more widespread interest).

Unfortunately, the "glorious summer" didn't last and ended rather badly. When “this son of York” (King Edward IV) died in April 1483, his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named Lord Protector (regent) for the 12-year-old King Edward V. But before the young king could be crowned, his father's marriage to his mother was declared invalid, rendering Edward and his brother illegitimate. Their uncle then began his reign as King Richard III. The young “Princes in the Tower” soon disappeared and were presumed murdered on Richard's orders. Two years later in 1485, the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, until then a relatively hopeless exile in France, got his second chance, returned to England, where he famously defeated Richard at the battle of Bosworth Field, ending the dynastic civil war known as the "Wars of the Roses," and by his marriage to Elizabeth of York (Richard's niece, the daughter of Edward IV), united the competing houses of Lancaster and York in his new Tudor dynasty.
Shakespeare was, of course, a partisan apologist for the Tudor dynasty; and his portrayal of Richard has marked him ever since as one of English history's greatest villains. Over the years, scholars and partisans of Richard have attempted to improve his image. Of course, no matter how much good Richard may have done in short reign, his usurpation and, above all, the fate of the "Princes in the Tower" would seem to block any real rehabilitaiton. Yet, now, with the rediscovery of his remains under a pathetic parking lot and plans afoot for a proper burial for the king in a proper cathedral, complete with some sort of visitors' center to memorialize him, perhaps Richard too will have his second chance at respectability.

In politics, it seems, second chances are always possible. Almost 5 centuries after King Richard III, we had the case here in the United States of another Richard - Richard Nixon - who actually was politically dead twice in his career, only to come back again twice. After his electoral loss in 1960 and his subsequent defeat for Governor of California in 1962, almost everyone - including Nixon himself, who famously gave his "last press conference" the day after that second defeat - regarded him as politically dead. But then the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, and the subsequent party implosion opened the path for Nixon's resurrection. Elected President in 1968 and re-elected by a landslide in 1972, Nixon seemed to have made the best use of his second chance and would surely have gone down in history as one of the 20th century's more effective presidents. But then came Watergate and the unprecedented disgrace of having to become the first president forced to resign the office. Who could have been more politically dead than Nixon in exile in San Clemente? Yet with time and the patient, unremitting effort the hard-workign Nixon had been noted for, he worked his way back onto the public stage, recognized for the foreign policy he was, accepted as confidant of Presidents (especially Bill Clinton), and restored to elder statesman status by the time of his death.

Second chances reveal a modestly more merciful world than is ordinarily the case. Who knows whether the last Yorkist king, soon to be properly reburied with royal honors, will find rehabilitaiton after 500+ years of ignominy? Does he deserve it? I really don't know. But it would be a nice ending to a sad story, which is what second chances are and why we like them so much.

Requiescat in pace!


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