Jabez Stone

Where's Daniel Webster?

The simple answer is that he is dead. But the question implies a second part. Where’s Daniel Webster when we really need him? Webster was a renowned lawyer and statesman who served as a United States Senator from Massachusetts. He was known for profound oratorical skills which he used in service of the Constitution. A man of principle, he was even willing to sacrifice his own reputation in order to protect the country and preserve the Union. In the wake of his support for the Compromise of 1850 Webster’s popularity in his own state and among abolitionists in the North plummeted. But keeping the country united was more important than his career. Some claim that Webster’s spirit still inhabits the senate chambers. If so, that spirit seems to select successors with a depressing infrequency. Perhaps we are simply inept at electing candidates worthy of carrying Webster’s mantle in today’s world.

Take a look. Whatever one’s political affiliation, the senatorial leadership of both parties is anything but inspiring. And voices that might eloquently defend the Constitution, that might risk their own reputations for the good of the country, appear to be few. And diminishing. While it is depressing enough to lament the absence of Daniel Webster from the current United States Senate, it is in folklore that we discover how urgently we need a statesman of his stature.

In 1936 Stephen Benét published a short story entitled, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” It was a reinvention of the Faustian legend, with a distinctly American audience in mind. In the story Jabez Stone is a poor farmer from New Hampshire. Overcome with desperation, he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for successful crops and subsequent wealth. When the debt comes due, the devil, traveling under the name of “Scratch,” returns to claim his prize. The prospect of actually surrendering his soul to the devil makes the farmer even more desperate, so he enlists the assistance of Daniel Webster who challenges Scratch in a court of law. Although the judge and jury are stacked against him—all conjured from the world of the damned—Webster’s oratory carries the night.

As a child I was fascinated by that story. I attended a Catholic school and in truth, some of the allure of Benét’s fable might have rested in the suggestion by the sisters that I was a bit like the devil, himself. But what I really wanted was to be like Daniel Webster and I imagined myself equally able to outwit the master of lies.

Even as a child I realized that legends such as this are not literal. They are parables—powerful myths that draw us into a world where we can be shaped by truth. But as an adult I have seen how easily that truth escapes us. For there’s a little Faust in everyone. Who among us has not wished for something so deeply that we say, “I’d sell my soul to the devil.” Of course, that’s only an expression. Until it isn’t. Until it becomes a reality. In America today, one is left to wonder.

Woven through a large segment of our society is a complete disregard for both fact and truth. We have become a people victimized and defeated by deceit. Perhaps victim is too generous a description. After all, we accepted deceit when we elected Donald Trump as president. The “Make America Great Again” cry was not just a campaign slogan. It was the rallying lie. For America was already great. But everything based on a lie eventually crumbles. And since Trump’s election America’s greatness has only dwindled on the world stage. Our allies watch in wonder as our president is played by one adversary after another—Russia, China, North Korea. We are learning with some regret that narcissism and buffoonery do not make America great. And fraying our long standing alliances makes the whole world weak. Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?

Perhaps for the nation the bill has not yet come due. In the meantime, the effects of selling America’s soul continue unabated, as hypocrisy, fraud and treachery emanate from the highest political offices, turning Washington D.C. into a city of prevarication. Explanations for alleged illegalities, such as the infamous Trump Tower meeting, change so rapidly they do not even come full circle. Rather, they descend in an unending downward spiral. On a daily basis we listen to President Trump lie, then double down on those lies and then lie about lying.

His press secretary, Sarah Sanders, forsakes the customary political spin in order to blatantly compound the president’s dishonesty. When asked at a cabinet meeting in July whether Russia is still targeting the U.S., we were able to see and hear Trump answer, “No.” Yet Sanders informed us that what we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears never really happened. Had she been capable of intellectual integrity, her statement would have been grievously offensive. As it is, it was merely absurd—and the take away distressing. Apparently it is not just the news that’s fake. Even our experiences are. In less than two years we have moved way beyond the fiction of the “largest inauguration crowd in history,”—another claim we were able to disprove with our own eyes. As it turns out, the inauguration fiction was merely a preamble of things to come.

Examples can be cited indicting nearly every cabinet officer and presidential appointee, both those who have departed their positions as well as their replacements. The Trump Administration, from cabinet officers to closest advisors to attorneys, all share something in common. And it is not fealty to their boss. Trump has surrounded himself with an avaricious crowd who place their own good above that of the country. Whether their greed is for money, or power, or influence, or merely to cement an ideology, they each have their reasons for selling their souls. Nor are those who left the Administration modern day versions of Jabez Stone. He regretted the deal he made with Scratch. I doubt that many former administration officials regret having joined team Trump in the first place.

Of course, all is not lost. The economy continues to improve as it did through most of President Obama’s time in office. And for Trump personally, although he remains one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, his ratings are strong among what is called his “base”—irrationally so, given his amorality, constant lies and astounding incompetence. And, of course, his most fundamental promise of draining the swamp was, arguably, his most disingenuous. Maybe it’s too soon to cry out for Daniel Webster. After all, we still have Congress.

Then again, the Republicans in Congress have completely abdicated their constitutional obligation to serve as a check and balance to the Trump administration. Enfolding his arms around Vladimir Putin, Trump placed the good of Russia (and most likely himself) above the good of America. By embracing the enemy of the state, Trump, himself, became the enemy. Still Congress does nothing. What other explanation exists than to acknowledge that they, too, have sold their souls to the devil? And what did they get in return? Paul Ryan got a tax cut, while Mitch McConnell got two Supreme Court nominees (although one might be tempted to wonder why he did not hold out for a little charisma).

Speaking of the Supreme Court, much has been made of Brett Kavanaugh’s lying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps no single lie stands out more brazenly than his response to the question about the sex game known as the Devil’s Triangle. Unflinchingly, Kavanaugh engaged the classic telltale mark of a liar. He paused and darted his eyes up to the right. One could almost see his mind whirling for a plausible answer. In that attempt he failed, instead proffering the absurd response that it was a drinking game.

It is difficult to ascertain what others, such as Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy received. And it is truly baffling to ponder what Lindsay Graham got in return for his soul. Maybe it was just the thrill of dealing with the devil—akin to the excitement of winning the lottery. Whatever the explanation, Scratch is now present and active in all three branches of government, and a cry is beginning to rise throughout the land, “
Where is Daniel Webster now that we really need him?

When Benét reinvented the Faustian legend he sought to accomplish two laudable goals. On the positive side his story intended to stir a patriotic sense of truth and justice; to suggest that politics was still a noble calling; to believe that a senator who is committed to placing the good of the country above personal or partisan power, might also be able to deal a decisive defeat to evil.

The second goal was a diabolical warning: The pact is sealed and the devil will have his due. Even if this Administration does not answer to Congress, eventually it will have to answer to Scratch. Without much difficulty one can already hear the voices of Donald Trump, Sarah Sanders, Scott Pruitt, Betsy Devos, John Bolton as well as countless elected officials wailing loudly, “Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?” But they will discover that reaching into myth and legend is of no avail.

Trump sold his soul to become president. Some might argue it was a fair trade. After all the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. Others might argue that the devil got the short end of that deal. Still others might suggest this whole discussion is an exercise in silly superstition, for many people no longer believe in the devil. But one thing emerges with absolute clarity: The patriotism and oratory of Daniel Webster has been silenced and is unlikely to return and reanimate a moribund Republican party.

On closer analysis there is yet another, less encouraging conclusion. It is something that even Benét did not anticipate. What if Scratch is the one occupying the Oval Office? That would explain a lot, not the least of which being the quotidian and ubiquitous falsehoods. After all, one of Satan’s nicknames is “Father of lies.” Clearly Satan is real. And just as clearly he has taken up residence in Washington—whatever his specific address. His hand is detected behind nearly every White House tweet. How ironic that the devil is the one who has truly mastered the art of the deal! Fable has morphed into reality, and this time no one will defeat Scratch. For I’m afraid that not even an entire senate full of Daniel Websters would be sufficient. We should not be asking “Where is Daniel Webster?” The real question is—was it worth the soul of America?