Jane Austen's Pride & Presidents

20160125-Bernie-Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders participates in a town hall forum hosted by CNN at Drake University on Jan. 25, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Americans’ love affair with Jane Austen continues unabated, and there seems to be no limit to the application of her wit and wisdom (the film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is scheduled for release next month). So, I’ve taken the liberty to ask:

What role in a Jane Austen novel would best suit the various presidential candidates? After all, the homey gatherings of the Iowa caucuses are a lot like Austen’s idea for a good novel — “three or four families in a country village” — the perfect setting for courtship, intrigue, and politics.

It is not much of a stretch to imagine Ted Cruz playing the calculating and phony George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. What Mr. Bennet says about Wickham’s false face might be said about the senator from Texas: “He simpers and smirks, and makes love to us all.” Donald Trump’s assessment of Cruz is a reminder of what we all think about Wickham: “He’s a nasty guy. Nobody likes him.”

If Cruz is Mr. Wickham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the kind and lovable Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth Bennet’s (and everybody’s) favorite uncle.

Mr. Bingley’s boots might be filled by the similarly nervous and ill at ease, but fundamentally decent, Marco Rubio. A bit lacking in self-assurance and relying too much on scripters and handlers, the Florida senator might profit from the lesson Bingley learned: Trust your own judgment! Open up! Relax!

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson would make a fine Dr. Perry from Austen’s Emma, the good doctor who is well respected by the community but has few actual lines. Speaking of Emma, the former presidential candidate and former New York Gov. George Pataki would cut a fine figure as Mr. Knightley of Donwell Abbey, the tall, dignified gentleman farmer (Pataki owns a lovely country farm in upstate New York).

Ohio Gov. John Kasich might be one of Knightley’s neighbors, though which one is debatable. Perhaps Mr. Weston, a self-made, talkative, and amiable personality, or Mr. Elton, who, while he might quote scripture and talk Christian humility, is himself smug, condescending, quick to take offense, and vindictive.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a lot like Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility (especially as played by Hugh Grant in Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s brilliant rendition) — sweet, shy, awkward, an honest man of integrity and generosity of spirit. Former CEO Carly Fiorina would be — unfortunately for her — a believable Lucy Steele, as seemingly cold and steely as her name signifies, while the dismissive and sometimes prickly character of Thomas Palmer finds an apt parallel in the oft-petulant senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, could play Mr. Price (without the rum), a father character in Mansfield Park with a lot of children, but not a lot of money. New Jersey’s Gov. Christie fits the bill, and the girth, of Dr. Grant (but hopefully not his fate).

Trump is the toughest to cast in the Austen list of dramatis personae, perhaps because no self-respecting Englishman would ever act like he does. (Skipping a debate because a woman makes him nervous?) In fact, recently, Parliament debated whether to ban Trump from the U.K, branding him a “buffoon” and “wazzock.” I suppose Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion is a partial fit. Rich and extraordinarily vain, Sir Walter lives in a mansion filled with mirrors. Austen says of him: “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character, vanity of person and of situation.”

While Sir Walter does not see himself as aging or physically deteriorating, he is quick to detect in others wrecked looks and “worsting” faces, reminding one of Trump’s cruel “Look at that face” comment about Fiorina. Also like Sir Walter, Trump’s wealth is not quite as large as he thinks it is, and while Sir Walter might want to peek daily into the Baronetage to see his own name in print, Trump may have a dog-eared copy of Forbes 400 Richest People on his coffee table, with his “correct” net worth and rating handwritten with a Sharpie in big black bold numbers over the “incorrect” info provided by Forbes.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton could step into the part of Augusta Elton of Emma without much preparation. Demanding to be the center of attention — even “Lady Patroness” — it is her wont to talk the loudest and the most, even when nobody is really listening. With a decidedly grating pitch and punishing tone of voice, Clinton lacks the elegance and grace of a Jane Fairfax — or a Nikki Haley or Michelle Obama. In contrast, Bernie Sanders is almost universally endearing. He would make a fine Admiral Croft, from Persuasion (without the military attire or service, of course — the Vermont senator was a draft dodger), kind-hearted and genial, albeit a tad zany and zingy.

If Vice President Biden enters the race, he might play the generous Sir John Middleton, the kind, jolly, gregarious cousin of the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Like Sir John, Biden loves a good prank, and he says what he thinks, though sometimes without thinking first.

Feel free to differ and cast the candidates in the roles you think they best fit. But I’ll bet you’ll agree with me on this: Mr. Darcy isn’t in this race.

Colleen A. Sheehan is a professor of politics and director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University.  colleen.sheehan@villanova.edu

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