“A Man for All Seasons”: I Give the Devil Benefit of Law for My Own Safety’s Sake


Yesterday evening, I went to another in a series of dinners and movies hosted by Margaret Carlson, Washington political commentator and Editor-at-Large of The Week Magazine, and this relatively new newsy weekly, The Week.
The last of these was hosted by Margaret Carlson and Senator Lindsey Graham. At these insiders-mostly Washington dinner and movie sessions, Margaret asks the Senator of the night to pick a favorite classic movie to see. Graham’s movie pick was “Seven Days in May,” a provocative and politically loaded selection given the times we are in. I wrote about that night here.
Last night, Senator Chris Dodd was the movie picker, and he selected “A Man for All Seasons,” the film which depicts the sainthood-earning battle of wills between Sir Thomas More and a divorce-hungry Henry VIII.
The room was packed with interesting people beyond Margaret Carlson and Senator Dodd and his wife. Chris Matthews, Terry McAuliffe, Erick Mullens, Matt Cooper, Walter Pincus, Thomas Dodd, Carl Leubsdorf, Kip O’Neill, Tony Blankley, Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette.com, and others were there for the fun cocktails and dinner before the three hour long classic film.
Pincus was great, and we did discuss some things that I shouldn’t discuss here. Chris Matthews seemed quite interested in getting Col. Lawrence Wilkerson on his show and also told me that he was planning to give the commencement address at a small liberal arts college I’m involved with — Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland — and wanted to get some tips on how to beat every other commencement address ever given there. My partner, who teaches at Washington College, suggested that he mimic the Saturday Night Live impersonations of him.
On top of that, Senator Chris Dodd “unofficially” conveyed his interest in running for the presidency in 2008. He said this pretty directly to Terry McAuliffe who was there — but then Dodd’s press secretary had a near stroke. By the time official sounding remarks were made, Margaret Carlson introduced Dodd as the Senator who might or might not be running.
Dodd was revved up and did a fine job introducing the film. But he gave his intro little of the “punch” that Senator Lindsay Graham gave his movie preamble when Graham warned that the demagoguery depicted in the film was something America had to be wary of today. It was a stunningly revealing comment from a significant Southern Senator.
However, while Dodd didn’t go the political path last night, this line of exchange in the movie has profound implications today — particularly with regard to the recent revelations about torture and inhuman treatment of detainees and prisoners under American supervision.
From “A Man for All Seasons“:

Sir Thomas More
— There’s no law against that.
William Roper
— God’s law!
Sir Thomas More
— Then God can arrest him.
William Roper
— While you talk, he’s gone!
Sir Thomas More
— Go he should, if he were the Devil, until he broke the law.
William Roper
— Now you give the Devil benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More
— Yes, what would you do?
William Roper
— Cut a road through the law to get after the Devil? Yes. I’d cut down every law in England to do that.
Sir Thomas More
— And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you…
…where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?
This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast…
…Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down…
…and you’re just the man to do it…
…do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then?
Yes. I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

More’s statement sheds light on the debates we are having today. And I feel that the norms of any society are not able to be seen or known unless observed under stress.
Today, America is under stress — and how we conduct ourselves as a nation determines how the world will and should see us. That’s why Vice President’s hard work on behalf of a CIA exemption from constaints on torture and inhuman treatment of detainees DOES become the lense through which the rest of the world will see us.
Cheney is a menace to this nation’s security — because in his zeal to pursue the devil — he is undermining our nation’s norms and very essence. He is handing our nation to the devil by engaging in terms of battle that are not constrained by law.
I’ll stand by Thomas More’s imagined and scripted words:

I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

More later.
— Steve Clemons
UPDATE: Sure enough, my friend at The Agonist got this angle up before I did, so be sure to enjoy his site as well. Thanks Sean-Paul.