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Neil Cameron
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Men of power and their God-fearing appointees

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
– Thomas Becket, in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

1945-65 was a good time for theatre. Two of the most memorable plays opened in 1960, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in London, and Jean Anouilh’s Becket, or the Honour of God, in New York. Both were also soon made into successful films. I saw the Anouilh play in New York, with Anthony Quinn playing King Henry II, Laurence Olivier playing Becket, and later saw the movie, with Richard Burton playing Henry, Peter O’Toole as Becket. The Bolt work I know only as a film, with Paul Scofield as an unforgettable Thomas More, clashing with Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and his Machiavellian courtier, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). I imagine I am one of many people who found both works a transforming personal experience.

In both, the theatrical account strays far from what historians have learned about either of the English Kings or their sainted opponents. Anouilh even created much of the dramatic tension by making Becket a voice of the defeated English Saxons, Henry of the triumphant Normans, while the real Becket was actually another Norman. Both plays and films had many other examples of dramatic license, also true of other retellings of the two stories, like T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, first appearing in 1935, but frequently revived since. Like Shakespearean dramas, these 20th century works offered recastings of myths, above all of the clash between worldly rulers and uncompromising idealists, although the concluding murders were historically real, however raised in meaning by theatre.

Stories of powerful men with plans they are determined to execute running afoul of their own chosen priests, or magistrates, even when these latter were blood relations or personal friends, have been told over and over, in classical literature, in the Bible, in Victorian novels, even in gangster films. In real life, the conflicts do not necessarily culminate in murderous assassination. Sometimes they have ended with simple dismissal or banishing of the “insubordinate subordinate”; occasionally he even emerges as the winner of the fight. The clashes fascinate when they are taking place due to uncertainty with how they will turn out, and the wider implications that will follow from them. When retold as novels, plays, or films, they also often show the rebel as taking on a new and sometimes unexpected new identity on entering his powerful office, changing from past flexibility to an unbending stubbornness, or from hedonist to inward-turning ascetic. Character becomes destiny.

[Gorsuch’s] appointment will certainly please many conservative American legislators, but is not necessarily aligned with Trump: in legal decisions involving the media, in particular, he has strongly defended their liberties.

These thoughts have recurred to me lately, while watching Donald Trump, gathering courtiers and choosing men for high offices. He does not much resemble previous American presidents, save in being in some ways a vulgar caricature of both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, but his strange brand of omnivorous narcissism makes him not so different from several Mediaeval and Renaissance monarchs, he as little disturbed by hysterical media and entertainment leftists as they were by quarrelsome monks, but maybe, like those earlier egomaniacs, soon to find more trouble from the men who will be his equivalent of archbishops and lord chancellors.

Consider, for example, his recent choice of Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the sudden death of Antonin Scalia. Even some Democratic Party opponents have conceded that Gorsuch, a distinguished Harvard and Oxford legal scholar, author of several books, and writer of many elegant and forceful judicial opinions, is a strong appointment. He is also very much like Scalia in being an unequivocal advocate of “originalist” interpretations of the U. S. Constitution, and of corresponding judicial restraint. In a tribute he wrote for Scalia, for example, he has been quoted as saying:

Judges should… strive…to apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be – not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best.

Gorsuch may sometimes have to struggle himself with that understanding. He is a Christian, who has written eloquently against assisted suicide, for example, but later stated that these were personal opinions that he held separately from his legal doctrines. His appointment will certainly please many conservative American legislators, but is not necessarily aligned with Trump: in legal decisions involving the media, in particular, he has strongly defended their liberties.

He thus recalls what might first appear an entirely different kind of Supreme Court appointment of 1939, that of Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter had been a close friend and adviser of Franklin Roosevelt throughout the 1930s, was commonly identified by friend and foe as being as much a man of the left as Gorsuch is of the right. The judicial restraint of the conservative 1930s Court had been exasperating to Roosevelt, as they largely threw out many of his New Deal agencies and schemes. In 1937, he even threatened to “pack” the Court with additional appointments who could be counted on to see things his way, but eventually drew back. New Deal Democrats at first saw Frankfurter as a probable ally. Roosevelt soon, however, became entirely preoccupied with the Second World War, and what became evident at the same time, and for almost two decades after FDR’s death and the end of the war, was that Frankfurter, a liberal Jew but also a law-revering one, would be the most notable of all models of judicial restraint, so much so that he regarded the progressive and reformist jurisprudence of Hugo Black and William O. Douglas with undisguised contempt.


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Given the mixed revolutionary and conservative inheritances from the American Constitutional founding, “restraint” may sometimes appear to serve “liberal” ends, sometimes “conservative” ones, but what it involves most consistently at the practical level is the relegation of moral and social reform to the elected federal and state legislatures, rather than the power of the executive and the governmental bureaucracies, spurred on by the latest enthusiasms of academic and courtroom lawyers. Unlike Antonin Scalia, who was on good terms with his fellow judges of entirely opposed philosophical convictions, Frankfurter, who mixed abrasiveness with insincere flattery, was not popular with his colleagues, and American liberal historians and cultural commentators, nearly always ready to find unlimited reserves of apology for all behaviour of Franklin Roosevelt, have not really known what to make of his Supreme Court choice.

Gorsuch at least at present, appears to be temperamentally closer to the amiable Scalia than the sharp-edged Frankfurter. But he still also looks like both of them in giving more to “the honour of God” in the law than in popular vogues or the purposes of presidents. It seems unlikely that he will reliably make Donald Trump, or any Trumpish successor, all that happy with his rulings. He should, however, be able to escape the fate of Thomas Becket and Thomas More.

The Prince Arthur Herald
Photo credit: Flickr


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