A Sword and A Plowshare

THE war is over, but the hospitals are fuller than ever. There are twice as many sick as there are wounded....In ward H we approach the cot of a young lieutenant of one of the Wisconsin regiments.... An attendant sits by him, and will not leave him until the last; yet little or nothing can be done. He will die here in an hour or two, without the presence of kith or kin. Meantime the ordinary chat and business of the ward a little way off goes on indifferently. Some of the inmates are laughing and joking, others are playing checkers or cards, others are reading.... - Walt Whitman. Peace, a presence, an energy field more intense than war, might pulse then.... - Denise Levertov

Whitman describes the indifference to suffering of war, Levertov evokes the the energy of peace - these are among the 14 settings of songs for four voices and orchestra by Ned Rorem, called Swords and Plowshares, given its world premiere this past weekend in Boston's Symphony Hall. The work is a stunning emotional and musical success that, given the vagaries of the concert world, may or may not establish a permanent presence in the performance repertoire. When it was commissioned several years ago, the public circumstances of its premiere could not have been anticipated. It was two years behind schedule - enough time for the East Berlin wall to crumble, the Iraq war to flash and settle in ashes, and, now, for the factions in Yugoslavia to go at each other's throats. In the United States, after three years of tending world affairs, George Bush is being taunted to stay home. His ratings soared with the Iraq war - his sword phase. They've plunged with the economy at home - a swing to plowshare worries. Americans have an ambivalence toward war and peace. Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Baker are not being given the credit they deserve for their efforts in the Middle East to manage the tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Baker has just returned from Beijing, rebuffed in his attempt to get the Chinese to mend their human-rights ways - addressing a matter on which the Bush administration was said to be remiss. The "peace dividend" from improved relations between East and West, the decline in defense spending, is illusive and paradoxical. Less spending for weapons means fewer jobs. Armaments contribute to the illusion of prosperity as well as of security. Bush may face an election challenge from within his own party in the next election - from Patrick Buchanan, the conservative columnist - along isolationist lines. The challenge could end up doing Bush some good, if it helps to define him as centrist against an anticipated liberal Democratic opponent. But it has to fall within the "thanks a lot" category of personal notes from the president. The fact is, Americans expect quite contradictory things of their leaders. Thomas E. Cronin, now acting president of Colorado College, wrote about the paradox of the presidency in his 1980 book, "The State of the Presidency.It will be futile to try to take the president out of politics," Cronin said. "A more helpful approach is to realize that certain presidents try too hard to hold themselves above politics - or at least to give that appearance - rather than engage in it deeply, openly, and creatively." The paradoxes: A president is expected to be a common man who gives an uncommon performance; he is a national unifier and a national divider; the longer he is in office the less we like him; he must reassure the public even while acting as a crisis leader; he should be active sometimes, at other times passive; what it takes to get him elected might not be what he needs for governing. He should be above politics and yet in it up to his neck. He should be reluctant to fight but decisive in doing so. A tear should seep when the dead, whom he must receive as well as send, are brought home. We issue him in one hand a plowshare, in the other a sword. And we criticize him for not always knowing which to use.

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