A Review of Colin Rafferty’s Execute the Office
February 9, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Susannah Clark
When The New York Times finally called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, late in the morning of Saturday, November 7, Brooklyn danced. Masks on and champagne in tow, hundreds gathered in Prospect Park, culminating in a giant dance party on the Great Lawn. Wireless speakers blasted “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Party in the USA,” “WAP.” We shimmied at strangers, dipping and dabbing, twisting and twerking. It felt like Coachella. It felt like the Before Times.
A cynic might say we were only celebrating the defeat of Donald Trump; no one I know was particularly enthusiastic about the Democratic candidate, and I had seen relatively few Biden/Harris signs out in the neighborhood. But I’d like to think we were reveling not in the fate of one, but in the will of many. We triumphed over tyranny without resorting to violence. We played by the rules, and, unlike four years ago, the system worked. Or so it appeared.
Opening with the first steps of George Washington’s “Virginia Reel,” Colin Rafferty’s newest essay collection, Execute the Office: Essays with Presidents, is bookended by dancing.
“Why do we dance?” Rafferty wonders, “…we dance for the possibility of connection with another human being.” In the closing essay, he marvels at how one of the first things we ask the newly inaugurated president to do is dance in public. “How strange it is to see them in this physical task when what we have asked them to do is so thoroughly cerebral.”
Told in forty-four flash essays, one for each presidency, this collection might have also been subtitled “a lyrical history of the United States,” but non-history buffs needn’t worry. Rafferty’s nimble prose sashays away from ever reading like a textbook. I can’t promise you won’t learn anything, but the overall effect is more artful than educational. Most of the standout essays are about the least famous presidents, particularly those in the first half of the nineteenth century, whose obscurity might be explained by what the author describes as “the long smear of history obscuring your view between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.” Rafferty is at his best when experimenting with form: the presidency of Franklin Pierce is represented by a series of doctor’s notes, Eisenhower gets to play every character in The Wizard of Oz, and George W. Bush is taxonomized by hurricane categories.
Rafferty projects a larger narrative arc by dating each essay in relation to three historical milestones: the signing of the Constitution (the setting), the Emancipation Proclamation (the conflict), and Nixon’s resignation (the rising action). The climax may have happened just a few weeks ago. I started reading Execute the Office days before the right-wing extremists’ insurrection of the Capitol. I finished the book over a week later, on the day that Donald Trump became the first president in history to be impeached twice. At 150 pages, this collection could easily be read in one or two sittings, but I kept getting interrupted by push notifications with couplets of breaking history. By the end, I was glad to have been forced to pace myself. A reader might approach these essays more like poems, giving them each some time and space for rumination against the baffling backdrop of our present day.
The most poetic essay in the collection is “bully,” about Theodore Roosevelt. Rafferty casts the shadow of a norm-busting president by breaking conventions of syntax and punctuation:
i do not mean to praise him or his strength or suggest he is without flaw or argue that combat is our first route to success because that has not been america’s story these days or my story or perhaps not your story but there is something in the striving that i admire something in the desire to gain power so that it might be used well for the less fortunate that seems like the best impulse of this country because either a constitution written by landowning males has malfunctioned because it has expanded its rights to people they did not or could not conceive as human or it has functioned exactly the way they meant it to function, unclenching the freedoms it took violently, letting them expand, letting them breathe, letting the air of liberty rush into the lungs
Execute the Office works because no one is lionized. The reader is left with the dissonant chords of America’s contradictions ringing in their ears. The prose does not explain or justify, but it does dance.
Susannah Clark is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Inside Higher Ed, PopMatters, under the gum tree, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology and the Pushcart Prize, and has a Notable essay listed in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology.