By David K. Shipler
If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton or read the book by Ron Chernow, you might have gained some appreciation of dueling, not so much as a method of ritualized murder but as a conflict-resolution device. Of course Alexander Hamilton was shot to death by Aaron Burr, which is always a risk in political confrontations, at least metaphorically. Yet it didn’t have to end that way. It could have been played more deftly to regain and preserve honor for both parties.
Perhaps that’s the answer for President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as my friend Steve Weisman impishly suggested over lunch in Washington this week. Trump is stubborn, and Pelosi’s scrappy, and they’ve wrapped themselves in their egos as some 800,000 Americans, unpaid during the government shutdown, discover the pitfalls of working for Uncle Sam.
In Hamilton’s age, Chernow writes, duels following insults were “de rigueur” among those “who identified with America’s social elite.” To restore dignity, demonstrate courage, and avoid being marked as cowardly, rising to the challenge was unavoidable. However, “duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents,” Chernow explains. “The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.”
If things went too far and you faced off with pistols, you could “throw away your shot,” that is, aim wildly to avoid inflicting a mortal wound. There’s evidence that Hamilton did just that in his duel with Burr. But the youthful Hamilton of years earlier, alight with revolutionary fervor, sings at the outset of the musical, “I will not throw away my shot!” That’s about both him and his cause. It’s enough to stir the patriotic heart of any American audience, even in our dispiriting time.
Trump and Pelosi are already dueling with words and actions, so far to a draw. Pelosi is demonstrating why congressional Democrats admire her as wickedly clever. She passes bills to reopen government without taxpayers’ funds for Trump’s wasteful border wall, which he said Mexico would pay for. She needles him with barbed rhetoric, noting that as a mother and grandmother she recognizes a temper tantrum when she sees one. She tells him to delay his State of the Union address to Congress or submit it in writing as long as the shutdown continues, thereby threatening to deny him the television platform he craves. And he retaliates by denying her military transport to Afghanistan. And so on.
Pelosi’s still not very good at explaining Democrats’ policy positions to the public. The high road would be a detailed Democratic plan, with budget lines, to strengthen border security, absent a wall. And most Americans polled still dislike her after years of caricatures drawn by Republican propaganda. However, if her audience right now is Trump alone, she is hitting close to the target. While he blusters, fumes, and bullies, she aims with more precision. Surely he would never throw away his shot, but he also can’t shoot straight.
In Hamilton’s day, dueling was illegal in New York but not in New Jersey. (“Everything is legal in New Jersey,” says a line in the musical.) So Hamilton, Burr, and their seconds crossed the Hudson to Weekawken. Could Trump get away with it today? Remember that he once bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose votes.” If the NYPD wouldn’t stop traffic for a duel on 5th Avenue, how about Florida with its stand-your-ground law? Trump’s approval rating might jump if he hit his mark, and if Pelosi won, she’d have Florida law on her side in a credible claim of self-defense.
Would Trump have the guts to take up the pistol? Bullies, as all of us who were ever children understand, prey on the weaker. Pelosi is not weaker.
As the ritual of the duel often forced negotiation, albeit in a dangerous way, it acknowledged the human need for dignity, which in most conflicts occupies a more significant place than is usually recognized. Imagine if Trump and Pelosi got down to business and negotiated over a table set with respect for each other’s dignity.
Or, they could duel in the Rose Garden with water guns. Then we could all laugh at them through our tears.