Is Washington ready for a return of John Wilkes?

The song “A Boy Named Sue” has resonated with me ever since I heard the late great Johnny Cash sing it on the radio. That’s because I share poor old Sue’s problem. Actually, my discomfiture is far greater than his. Sue merely totes a generic girl’s name. I, by contrast, bear the name of Britain’s most bitterly reviled traitor; Guy Fawkes.

Every November 5th, the anniversary of Fawkes’ arrest in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament in London, normally placid, patriotic Englishmen celebrate the thwarting of his “Gunpowder Plot” with blood-thirsty relish—burning him in effigy on bonfires and setting off millions of dollars’ worth of fireworks.

Fawkes was a Roman Catholic soldier of fortune who, in 1605, master-minded a plan to slaughter the entire English government, including the newly crowned King James I, by blowing up the Palace of Westminster when the legislators were all gathered there for the opening of Parliament.

For more than 400 years. Fawkes’ name has lived on in infamy. Indoctrination with revulsion at the heinous nature of his crime begins in the cradle. Infants are lulled to sleep with nursery rhymes such as:

Remember, remember
The fifth of November:
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Another more lurid example goes thus:

Guy, Guy, Guy!
Stick him in the eye!
Hang him on a lamp post,
And there let him die!

It was the latter couplet that, in my youth, caused me most grief. Children are apt to take things literally and, naturally enough, the more brutish oikes in the village interpreted the rhyme as a license to translate word into action. Thus, like Sue, my name forced me, by dint of necessity, to become a fighting man.

However, it came a a pleasant surprise when, in the early 1960s, my namesake enjoyed modest degree of rehabilitation. Parliament at the time was going through a particularly acrimonious period of dysfunctional partisanship. Public disgust at the spectacle was expressed in bumper stickers reading:

“Come back, Guy Fawkes—the only man to enter Parliament with honourable* intentions.” [*English spelling.]

Recent Congressional proceedings conjure up vivid memories of that bumper sticker and the squabblings that prompted it. Lately, honorable intentions appear to be in lamentably short supply in Washington.

True, the animosity in latter day Washington has been rather more bitter than in 1960s Westminster. This might be explained by the fact that the quick-wit and repartee, which in the British Parliament tempers rancorous debate, has been notable only by its absence.

Could it be that genuine debate takes place so rarely in either chamber of Congress these days that members have very little opportunity to practice the witty riposte and thus have to fall back on doltishness, rudeness and gross exaggeration?

How one hungers for the occasional spark of humor to soften the crude verbal bludgeons wielded by members of both parties. Where, for instance, is there a latter day John Wilkes—the 18th Century British radical libertine, politician, journalist and pamphleteer—who added so much sparkle and merriment to English parliamentary life?

Wilkes was a man with two sides to his character—the respectable and the dissolute. On the respectable side, he was a member of parliament, a Fellow of the Royal Society and, by royal appointment, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire.

On the dissolute side, Wilkes—along with many distinguished colleagues, including John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich and Sir Framcis Dashwood—was a leading member of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club or the Monks of Medmenham.

The club regularly held orgies—often featuring a parody of a Black Mass—in the ruins of an abandoned abbey on an island in the River Thames . Wilkes’ idea of a joke was to hide a baboon, clad in cape and horns, in a chimney in the banqueting hall in order to let it go during the Black Mass at the point of consecration.

Upon its release, the terrified beast leapt upon the decidedly tipsy Earl of Sandwich who was acting as High Priest. Sandwich, not unreasonably perhaps, assumed he was being attacked by Satan and—unaware that Wilkes was behind the shambles—fled shrieking into the night, swiftly followed by his equally inebriated companions.

In addition to a taste for grisly practical jokes, Wilkes was noted for verbal dexterity and witty ripostes. A constituent, for instance, once told him that he would rather vote for the devil. “Naturally,” Wilkes responded instantly: “[But] if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?”

Sandwich never forgave Wilkes for the Baboon affair. And his opportunity for revenge arrived when Wilkes was hauled before the House of Commons, charged with circulating libelous pamphlets claiming, among other things, the Bishop of London owned bordellos in Southwark, a notorious red light district. .

Sandwich, prosecuting, was determined to have Wilkes impeached. No mean orator, he laid out devastating case against Wilkes, concluding, “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox,”

In a flash, Wilkes leapt to his feet and retorted: “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” Hooting with laughter, the House declined to pass the bill of impeachment.

Wilkes, I’ll contend, would be a most welcome addition to today’s Washington elite. Indeed, whichever which party emerged triumphant from the Midterms, I’ll warrant they’d be able to find a use for him. GPH✠

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