Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
— “Character of the Happy Warrior,” William Wordsworth, 1836
GROVER CLEVELAND LOVED THE POEM, would gladly recite it to friends, and directed that it be read at his funeral. Long before anyone had heard of “re-branding,” Franklin Roosevelt nominated an urban Catholic redistributionist at the 1924 Democratic Convention, positioning his fellow New Yorker Al Smith as a sensible reformer, a “Happy Warrior on the political battlefield.” In the next generation, Hubert Humphrey fought against communism and for social justice as the Happy Warrior, even using the title to name his campaign plane.
Though soaked in the English romanticism of the early nineteenth century, the remarkable power of these words projected across borders and across time. More than a century later, they continued to resonate in the psyche of American politicians. Wordsworth celebrates the warrior, who — despite personal pain and/or negative outcome — is impossible to defeat, sustained in virtue and in happiness by an idealized vision of both the larger cause and the waiting home. As the nineteenth century ended, these classic romantic ideas of self-honesty, morality and the virtue of the modest hearth grafted perfectly onto the blossoming concepts of American duty and American exceptionalism. That such noble a set of verses could have shaped the heart of so many of our leaders makes America eternally indebted to this foreign poet — and right now desperate for his Warrior’s return.
Since Humphrey, the Happy Warrior has been largely missing in action. The only significant references of the last two decades were to President Ronald Reagan — but only after he passed away. Basically, entering the early eighties post-Carter polarized environment, Reagan was too good an actor to let himself be perceived as a “warrior.” His admittedly cheerful, though passive-aggressive style destroyed competitors from within — both foreign and domestic.
As always when something bad happens, there will be the social critics who want to blame institutions and not people. Political author Joe Klein might point out that the demise of the Happy Warrior was concurrent with the rise of the campaign consultant. Senator McCain might say the villain was campaign spending, scaring away heroes from entering the public arena. Marshall McLuhan might blame the tube and its power to project beauty devoid of virtue. But these social developments are not causes: they are simply technocratic advances that generally just leverage the direction the population is already heading.
Who killed him, then? For that, we need to identify real people and check their hands for blood. Fortunately, our search can begin with the clues embedded into the poem. And even if we can’t yet definitively identify the “real killer,” we sure can isolate some darn good suspects.
Clue # 1
But who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a Lover; and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired;
Suspect: Richard Nixon — a warrior, yes — but not a happy one. A character forged in the Depression and burnished by the rough politics of fighting the Kennedys, the “New Nixon” of 1968 was no longer angry, but projected tough competence. Optimism was a form of weakness. Victorious over Happy Warrior Humphrey, by the time Nixon left office absolutely no one was talking about the “politics of joy.”
He who, though thus endued as with a sense
And faculty for storm and turbulence,
Is yet a Soul whose master-bias leans
To homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes;
Sweet images! which, wheresoe’er he be,
Are at his heart; and such fidelity
It is his darling passion to approve;
Suspect: Rep. Pat Schroeder was not interested in the Happy Warrior — she used her considerable congressional power to push for the Asexual, Testosterone-free Warrior. From dismembering the Top Gun team to pushing women into service positions they were neither built nor brain-wired to hold, she undermined the concept of home and hearth, and robbed the Warrior of his emotional lodestar.
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;
Suspect: Bill Clinton did tremendous damage because he looked superficially so much like the Happy Warrior. Indeed, it was his confident, joyful optimism that defeated President Bush in 1992, with his call to protect the “home’ of each citizen. But when push came to shove, we saw his raw boomer selfishness: his apparent idealism was just one more con.
WE ARE NOW FIGHTING an enemy whose “virtue” is strikingly symmetrical to “the happy warrior.” Incessantly, often helplessly, we are told that this is an enemy who says “we value death more than you (the West) value life.” How, people ask, can we fight against that? They have a point: if one side has a grounding in the infinite and the other does not, then that first side has a tremendous advantage. Only a Happy Warrior — spiritually grounded in all that is life-affirming — can triumph over those who promote an infinitely satanic abyss.
The good news is that, as we wallow here stateside, the Happy Warrior is planning his return. He is being reborn, right now, in places like Fallujah and Mosul and Tall Afar. He (or She) has been purified from the deceit, dishonor and malaise that (with the exception of our President) have choked real political leadership. He will come back from those battlefields, laugh at the moral rot of our mainstream academic and religious institutions, and ignore the defeatism of our punditocracy. Deftly, he will transition into our next generation of Political Warrior, re-injecting idealism and virtue into the public square. And he will lead us to an inevitable victory.
Let’s just hope he arrives in time.