Monday, July 02, 2007

What the Lady in Waiting to The Empress Josephine May Teach Us About Political Reporting

Madame de Remusant’s "Memoirs of the Empress Josephine," the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, was published by her grandson about eighty years after the death of Napoleon. Madame de Remusant was a lady in waiting to the empress.

It was thought an earlier printing might be possible, but Madame de Remusant’s son declined publication because many of the characters mentioned by his mother were still alive. Publication, the son thought, might be too wounding. In the modern period of course, publication almost certainly would have preceded by a day or an hour Napoleon’s trip to Elba, so little do we care about wounded feelings of those mentioned in memoirs. And Madame de Remusant, a suburb conversationalist, would have been making the rounds of the usual journalistic watering holes.

Madame de Remusant herself wanted her memoir published before she tipped into the grave, but she tucked it away in a drawer after Napoleon, always a vengeful and unpredictable character, had escaped from Elba. "People were uncertain," the grandson wrote in a preface to his grandmother’s memoir, "what he would do."

Indeed!

After 125 years, covered with the dust of ages, the memoir still stings.

Here is Madame de Remusant on Fouche, the head of Napoleon’s secret police:

“…an adept in the art of making himself necessary. Fouche, a man of keen and far seeing intellect, a Jacobin grown rich, and consequently disgusted with some of the principles of that party – with which, however, he still remained connected, so that he might have support should trouble arise – had no objection to invest Bonaparte with royalty. His natural flexibility made him always ready to accept any form of government in which he saw a post for himself. His habits were more revolutionary than his principles, and the only state of things, I believe, which he could not have endured would have been one which should make an absolute nonentity of him… He needed troublesome times for the full display of his capacity; for, as he had no passions and no aversions, he rose at such times superior to the generality of those about him, who were all more or less actuated by either fear or resentment.”

That is the most perfect description in all political literature of the political toady.

The next line is perfectly played: “…Fouche has denied that he advised the murder of the Duc d’ Enghien.” And the following comment, dripping with gleefully concealed rancor, is preciously asserted: “Unless there is complete certainty of the fact, I see no reason for bringing the accusation of a crime against a man who positively denies it.”

One can almost hear Napoleon whispering in the lady’s ear, “Of course you don’t, Madam, of course you don’t.”

Madame de Remusant’s characterization of Napoleon, whom she knew intimately, is the truest account of him we have; “I have never known him to admire, I have never known him to comprehend, a fine action. He always regarded every indication of a good feeling with suspicion; he did not value sincerity; and he did not hesitate to say the he recognized the superiority of a man by the greater or less degree of cleverness with which he used the art of lying. On the occasion of his saying this, he added, with great complacency, that when he was a child one of his uncles had predicted that he should govern the world, because he was a habitual liar. ‘M. de Metternich,’ he added, ‘approaches to being a statesman – he lies very well.’”

And then there is this: Napoleon “…could not pardon virtue until he had succeeded in weakening its effect by ridicule. He cannot be said to have truly loved glory, for he never hesitated to prefer success to it; thus, although he was audacious in good fortune, and although he pushed it to its utmost limits, he was timid and troubled when threatened with reverses. Of generous courage he was not capable; and, indeed, on that head one would hardly venture to tell the truth so plainly as he had told it himself in an anecdote which I have never forgotten.”

The war in Spain had been going badly for Napoleon, and he sought out the opinion of M. Talleyrand.

“There is only one thing you can do,” M. Talleyrand said. “You have made a mistake; you must say so; try to say so nobly. Proclaim, therefore, that being a King by the choice of the people, elected by the nations, it has never been your design to set yourself against them. Say that… you perceive that the Spaniards, although aware of the faults of their King, are none the less attached to his dynasty, which you are therefore about to restore to them, so that it may not be said that you ever opposed a national aspiration. After that proclamation, restore King Ferdinand to liberty, and withdraw your troops. Such an avowal… can only do you honor; and you are still too strong for it to be regarded as a cowardly act.”

Napoleon’s response, as reported by Madame de Remusant, privy to the conversation, is worth whole textbooks on political theory.

“‘A cowardly act! What does that matter to me? Understand that I should not fail to commit one, if it were useful to me. In reality, there is nothing really noble or base in this world. I have in my character all that can contribute to secure my power, and to deceive those who think they know me. Frankly, I am base, essentially base. I give you my word that I should feel no repugnance to commit what would be called by the world a dishonorable action; my secret tendencies, which are, after all, those of nature, opposed to certain affectations of greatness with which I have to adorn myself, give me infinite resources with which to baffle everyone. Therefore, all I have to do now is to consider whether your advice agrees with my present policy, and to try to find out besides,’ he added (says M. de Talleyrand, with a satanic smile, ‘whether you have not some private interest in urging me to take this step.’”

Madame de Remusant had a good long time to ponder these things in her heart. She was not, as is the case with most reporters and commentators, writing in the moment, and yet her observations about Napoleon and the other characters she sketches in her memoirs have the ring of authenticity. Napoleon could not have been other than as she characterized him:

“All Bonaparte’s methods of government were selected from among those which have a tendency to debase men. He dreaded the ties of affection; he endeavored to isolate everyone; he never sold a favor without awakening a sense of uneasiness, for he held that the true way to attach the recipients to himself was by compromising them, and often even by blasting them in public opinion.”

The type of tyrant wiggling on the end of Madame de Remusant’s pen is still very much with us in the world, but it would take a Madame de Remusant’s eye to see him, so cleverly has he in modern times allied himself with the people who suffer under him, yet who image him as their savior.
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