Washington just had a momentous week, perhaps the best of the 21st century, measured in deeds. The mood is much as if a battle-hardened Henry V returned from the fields of Agincourt a few minutes ago.
Truly the capital city appears made anew in the days since President Obama took the oath of office again and gave his forceful second inaugural address. Remarkably, as the president redefined himself as one not to be lightly crossed, the Capitol and the Pentagon suddenly seemed to lean forward with the winter wind. Take, for example, lifting restrictions on military women in combat, which was a huge historic breakthrough. So was unveiling bipartisan immigration reform in the Senate. Hillary Clinton's bravura performance in testifying on Capitol Hill, her valedictory as Secretary of State, painted the administration in smart, crisp tones (even as she defended a debacle.) Sen. John Kerry, her successor, received rave bipartisan reviews. Sen.Dianne Feinstein also announced her new bill, a ban on assault weapons.
Done without much ado, these came across as signs that Obama intends to seize the days of his presidency and lead the charge. But there was more. Standing on the creamy west Capitol veranda, Obama sternly telegraphed the country's disgust with the swampy vapors coming from Congress. By repeating "we the people" as a chorus, the point was plain: the people voted for me, people. Even the unruly House Republicans got the memo, because the first thing they did was to vote to delay a reckoning on the debt limit, a weapon they had held over Obama's head. Refreshingly, a speech can still bend wills, indeed make a difference in our age of chatter.
Whatever it is, we'll take it. The last dozen years have been a bitter drought, except for a burst of euphoria in 2008 that wilted in the first freezing week of Obama's presidency.
With perfect theatrical timing, we have two new shows of power playing in the nation's capital now. The unfolding story about an American president here and now is accompanied by Shakespeare's most penetrating portrait of an outstanding leader in motion, Henry V. Creative fires and juices burn at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, a few blocks from the Capitol, presenting in a fresh light the classic history of the young English king who prevailed over a larger French force 600 years ago. To this day, the remarkable victory is studied and discussed by military scholars.
In this bold, riveting production, what happens off the field of battle is the heart of the play: the words Henry speaks to his company of soldiers. Zach Appelman, in a luminous star performance, captures how Henry's conduct and character before the battle wins their respect, trust, fear, and a rough-hewn love. The ins and out of medieval battle are not nearly as meaningful to the Bard as the psychological nuances contained in every line Henry speaks to make his men believe in him as a leader. As a young, untested talent, the king on horseback would be lost out on the field if his soldiers didn't have his back—in what we call cohesion in our parlance.
Henry has a gift for inspiring that fervent loyalty and brotherhood—"we happy few"—a gift that soars on the eve of the engagement with the French. He suggests that men back across the water in England will one day wish they were there, on this auspicious date that would go down in history. Most nimbly, Henry makes a virtue of their scarce numbers, confronting their worst fears. His way with words, we are given to see, matters just as much as his sword skill set.
Robert Richmond, the director, suggests the play resonates with "this moment in Washington," in the program notes. "Perhaps...a play about leadership could serve as a barometer by which we can form an opinion as to where our society sits and what we should, or should not, become in the future?"
That sounds entirely possible. I think Obama has come to see he can't charm enemies in the other camp, especially House Republicans who do not even follow their own leader. The illusions of political youth are gone. Better to concentrate on mobilizing his friends and allies, stoking morale with staunch words that inspire confidence in him as a winner. That political strategy is working brilliantly so far.
Take it from an Elizabethan playwright.