On Being President Chance the Gardener

[NOTE: Promotion of this post was rejected by Facebook. No reason given.]

In his 1971 novel Being There, Jerzy Kosinski told the story of Chance the Gardener, a simple-minded laborer cloistered his whole life in the townhouse of the wealthy man for whom he worked. When, on the death of his employer, Chance is cast into the world, people insist on mistaking his profound ignorance — he can’t read or write, knows only what he has seen on TV or in the garden — as Zen-like wisdom.

In the novel, virtually everyone who encounters Chance refuses to accept that he could be as limited as he seems, and imagines for him an alternate reality of profound wisdom, which they then manage to see confirmed in the real world. Before long, Chance is advising the President of the Unites States on economic policy. This scene demonstrates how it works::

President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardener, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives? [Long pause]

Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.

President “Bobby”: In the garden.

Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.

Chance the Gardener: Yes.

President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.

Chance the Gardener: Yes.

Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.

Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

Benjamin Rand: Hmm!

Chance the Gardener: Hmm!

President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gerdener, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.

[Benjamin Rand applauds]

President “Bobby”: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.

In 1979, when Peter Sellers played Chance in the Academy-Award-winning movie, it was an amusing satire that obviously could not happen in the real word. Now that, in the real world, Chance has been elected President of the Unites States, Kosinski’s fiction deserves another close look. Particularly with regard to projection.

We usually encounter the notion of projection — attributing our own attitudes and beliefs to others — in connection with fears and shortcomings, as when people who are serial adulterers, for example, are consumed with suspicion that their spouses are unfaithful. But people also project upwards, as when they assume that people who are well known and/or well off are also wise and good and talented. As the song says, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” but we tend to insist that it is.  

Our present-day, real, President Chance and the media mob around him give us an example of this projection every day. One example: the President, at a news conference with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, had this to say about the so-called “two-state solution,” the foundation for decades of the struggle for peace in the Middle East, the presumption that eventually, there will exist there both an Israeli and a Palestinian state:

“So I’m looking at two states and one state. And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two states looked like it may be the easier of the two. To be honest, if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

In the ensuing hours and days, as Britain’s Independent newspaper reported, “Unable to understand what the President’s inanities actually meant, the lads and lasses of the satellite channels were telling us that he was not as committed as his predecessor to the “two state” solution but might favour a “one state” solution – yet wasn’t ruling out a “two state” solution. “

Now admit it. Isn’t that one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements you’ve heard in a very, very long time? All hail President Chance the Gardener.

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15 Responses to On Being President Chance the Gardener

  1. kathleen Nelson says:

    I am left speechless and gaping after reading this piece! I am amused in some places, and terrified in others.I feel we are living in the “Twilight Zone”.
    This is the leader of the free world?
    I find myself in the state of denial and prayer—
    More than EVER

  2. Tom says:

    Well, to be fair, he inherited a LOT of trouble from the past 3 administrations that kicked the cans of economics, foreign policy, and infrastructure maintenance (as well as many others) down the road. Now it’s Trump’s turn to see what he can do to keep the country from imploding economically, socially and politically (again, among other factors).

    Neither side of the ONE party system (heads they win, tails we lose) cooperates with the other and,
    as we’ve seen in the opening weeks of his administration, this non-cooperation is being taken to new levels (especially involving the so-called ‘intelligence’ community, among others).

    I don’t expect anything, since I gave up on politics after Obama turned Republican with his policies and refused to even consider any investigation into the Bush/Cheney cabal and all their insider dealings.

    We’re an unraveling empire and it gets uglier and more horrifying by the day as we watch the continued degradation of the environment, the mass die-offs of (especially marine, pollinator and avian) species, the shredding and burning of the ol’ social safety net, infrastructure neglect (becoming massive problems with no end in sight), and our continuing hegemonic nonsense (instead of cooperation in a world gone mad), again, among many others.

    Thanks again for your cogent thoughts on a timely problem that leads to further thought, Mr. Lewis, as the ‘leader’ in chief impacts all areas of civilization for the time being. Another aspect, derived from this and that troubles me, is that if and when someone replaces him, things will get decidedly worse.

    I’m not looking forward to the end of his administration since I don’t believe i’m going to see 2020.

  3. Greg Knepp says:

    What exactly does the term ‘leader of the free world mean’? It’s always bothered me – even when I was a lad.

    PS/ I really like your work, Tom. I’ve followed your blog for quite some time.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      It is a term used by Americans, and only by Americans, to refer to their president, and only their president. It has no more inherent meaning than “Miss Universe,” or “World Series,” but serves to distract from the fact that America has taken on all the characteristics formerly reserved to Third World countries — mired economy, disappearing middle class, rotting infrastructure, spreading unrest.

      You know the scene in Titanic where the penniless Irish orphan is up in the bow screaming “I’m the King of the World?” It’s like that.

      Oh, and thanks for the good thoughts.

      • BC_EE says:

        Thanks for defining the Leader of The Free World term. It is a term that angers just about everyone outside of the lower 48.

  4. SomeoneInAsia says:

    I thought of Mary Poppins when I saw the figure in the novel’s book cover above.

    Pity that Chance wasn’t Mary Poppins.

  5. Denis Frith says:

    it does not matter what people, even presidents, decide, nature bats last.the demise of industrialized civilization and the human species will find it hard to cope.

  6. Mike Kay says:

    Yes, it is true that the Prez engaged in some art-less dodging here, yet it is also true that it is impossible for any US politician to successfully challenge anything regarding Israel.
    In fact, it is an irksome task to watch Israel’s xenophobic annihilation of the native inhabitants of that land, with the unquestioning economic and military support of their idiot giant enforcer, the USA.
    It bears repeating that the politicians America is instructed to worship are the very one’s who enabled this 21st century holocaust and land grab. Of course, this and dozens of other uncomfortable facts are easily ignored in today’s political climate. Rather than tediously joining the rest of the indoctrinates and howling over appearances, I prefer to observe the conditions that led to the doublespeak.

  7. Susan Helf says:

    Tom, I’m so glad you emerged from your darkness and started writing this blog again. I’ve missed you very much! May you stay in the light and continue to help us understand our empire’s decline.

  8. Brutus says:

    Being There has been my favorite Peter Sellars movie for a long time. It never felt cautionary to me because it was so patently silly. Not the same silly as with The Pink Panther — much more restrained yet effective. Recent events have shown that the scenario a lot closer to reality than anyone might have expected.

    Most presidential candidates of the past few election cycles have tried to be content-free, relying instead of cheap platitudes and empty rhetoric onto which the public could projects its cherished fantasies. None has managed it quite so well as the current prez. He hammered 2-3 points relentlessly to wide acclaim among mouth-breathers. Now that it’s time to git ‘er done, he’s foundered. So he’s not quite as blank as Chauncey Gardiner, but he’s surprisingly close, especially in their mutual fascination with TV.

  9. Brent says:

    When I first saw “Being There” at a young age, the story was completely representational of Reagan to me. As the years have marched on, Chauncey has become indicative of a huge percentage of humans and their primitive needs and biases, their one-dimensionality.

    The irony goes deep with this tale. I was reading about Kosinski recently and learned that he committed suicide in his late 50s after capitulating to the pressures of plagiarism/ghost-writing/”creative” non-fiction accusations concerning the majority of his work.

    Apparently, he lifted this story, with some minor tweaks, from a very popular Polish writer whom he knew the English-speaking audience would not be familiar with.

    So from the looks of things, Kosinski was a void who appeared charming and intellectual at parties with the elites, a la Chauncey… a mirror of a mirror of a mirror.