Garrett Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore. He covers the Supreme Court for theatlantic.com. His book, American Epic: Reading the US Constitution was published in August 2013 by Oxford University Press.
One of television's persistent puzzles is why the United States, which essentially invented the medium, has taken so long to master televised high narrative. For 30 years, the British have been churning out Masterpiece Theatre miniseries that satisfy the inner soap fan while also teasing the intellect. Only in the last few years, however, with shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, have Americans begun to play and win that game.
"The two omnipresent parties of history," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841, are "the party of the Past and the party of the Future." The problem, now as then, is knowing which political party -- Republican or Democrat -- is which. Continental Divide, a fascinating linked pair of plays by British playwright David Edgar that had its world premiere in Ashland, Ore. on March 1 -- and is slated to open in Berkeley, Calif. later this year -- poses that question for Americans with unusual poignancy.
In 2001 historian David Brion Davis wrote in The New York Times, "The United States is only now beginning to recover from the Confederacy's ideological victory following the Civil War." In fact, reports of our recovery may be exaggerated; many white Americans are still holding out in the jungle like Japanese soldiers after World War II. Consider the recent fall of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a victim not of racial nostalgia but of excessive frankness. Consider also the recent Republican takeover of state and federal offices in Georgia, largely on the issue of the Confederate battle flag. And consider that a proposal to put build a small statue of Abraham Lincoln in my old hometown of Richmond, Va., has been greeted by many whites as if the proposed honoree were Saddam Hussein.
As a character in a James Thurber cartoon once said, I am still waiting for greatness to be thrust upon me. Watching cable news, I clutch my remote in rage as I imagine myself, gifted with overnight power but unburdened by political debts or campaign commitments, striding the corridors of influence and driving the Beltway crowd before me like the wind.
First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life
By Kenneth Starr. Warner Books, 320 pages, $26.95
Bill Clinton did not destroy his opponents; he drove them insane, and they destroyed themselves. Of all the careers Clinton ended in ignominy -- Bob Dole, Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich come to mind -- one of the most poignant is that of former judge and Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr. Until he became independent counsel, Starr was a revered figure in Washington whose integrity and geniality had won respect from many who disagreed with his conservative legal philosophy.