Dr Seuss’s book Bartholomew and the Oobleck tells the story of a king who apologizes. One year, King Derwin of Didd tires of the regular weather; sun, rain, snow, and fog are no longer enough for him. He demands that his magicians create a new kind of weather, and so they do—they create oobleck. While the king is overjoyed to see this new, green substance falling from the sky, Bartholomew Cubbins, the king’s page, is hesitant and wonders whether oobleck is safe. Bartholomew’s fears turn out to be well founded. The oobleck is sticky, and before too long, everyone in the Kingdom of Didd is stuck to something.
The climax of the book comes as King Derwin is searching for magic words to make the oobleck go away and Bartholomew finally demands that the king instead look for some “simple words”—“I’m sorry.” Bartholomew tells the king, “You may be a mighty king, [b]ut you’re sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone else in your land. And if you won’t even say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of a king at all!” Bartholomew turns to leave the king stuck to his throne, but King Derwin calls him back, admits his fault, and apologizes. Once the king has said the words, “I’m sorry,” the oobleck melts away and everything goes back to normal. King Derwin’s apology turns out to be magic after all.
Science-fiction author Stephen King’s Under the Dome is a very different kind of book than Bartholomew and the Oobleck, but it also portrays the act of admitting fault as possessing nearly magical qualities. King’s 2009 novel tells the story of the fictional town of Chester’s Mill, Maine and how one day, a giant force-field-like dome instantaneously appears around the borders of the entire town, completely cutting it off from the rest of the world. King shifts between several characters’ perspectives as he tells the story, including Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a former Army officer who was just passing through Chester’s Mill; Julia Shumway, the editor of the local newspaper; and James “Big Jim” Rennie, the most influential of the town’s elected officials. The novel explores not only what made the dome appear, but also how the behavior of the people of Chester’s Mill shifts as a result of being cut off from the rest of the world.
While Barbie works with town residents and outside military personnel to find the source of the dome, Big Jim Rennie seems primarily interested in using the catastrophe of the dome to secure his own political power. Big Jim, it turns out, is not the one responsible for the appearance of the dome, but he is responsible for several horrible events that happen after the dome arrives: the riot at the grocery store, several murders, a chaotic and deadly town meeting, and most notably, the police raid on a meth lab that he himself has created. The police raid on the meth lab results in the lab being blown up, an explosion that consumes all of the oxygen under the dome. Only thirty-two of the residents of Chester’s Mill survive the inferno, mostly those who were near the edge of the dome and able to suck oxygen through the barely permeable barrier.
Big Jim Rennie is one of those survivors. Much like King Derwin of Didd, he is stuck—not to his throne, but in a fallout shelter under city hall. The only person with him is Carter Thibodeau, one of the town’s police officers. When Big Jim snaps irritably at him, Carter thinks, “Don’t you snap at me when you were the one who made this happen. The one who’s responsible.” But unlike Bartholomew Cubbins, Carter Thibodeau keeps his thoughts to himself; he does not take Big Jim to task for his role in the town’s annihilation.
Nor does Big Jim recognize his fault on his own. As time passes, Big Jim kills Carter to prolong the supply of oxygen in the shelter. Now alone in the dark, Big Jim becomes increasingly panicked. He prays, but his prayers are not those of a penitent man. Rather, Big Jim’s prayer “was basically a series of demands and rationalizations: make it stop, none of it was my fault, get me out of here, I did the best I could, put everything back the way it was, I was let down by incompetents…” Big Jim’s disavowal of personal responsibility for the fate of Chester’s Mill and its inhabitants is a stark contrast to King Derwin’s acknowledgement of and remorse for his own failures as a leader.
These two fictional examples of King Derwin and Big Jim Rennie stand in stark contrast to each other, but the overall message of the two narratives is quite similar. While King Derwin apologized and restored his kingdom to its rightful state, Big Jim refused to admit responsibility and eventually dies amidst the ruins of the town that he governed. In these depictions, both King and Seuss paint a picture of a good leader as one who can accept responsibility for his (or her) actions, acknowledge personal limitations, and apologize when things go wrong. And in an interview with Time magazine (November 9, 2009, online), King made the real-world implications of such a portrayal explicit, as he criticized the George W. Bush administration for what King views as an unjustified war in Iraq.
King Derwin and Big Jim continue to be relevant in the current Obama administration, as both came to mind after watching the third debate of the 2012 US presidential election. During this debate, Governor Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama for what Romney called “an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.” Obama responded to Romney’s claim by vehemently rejecting this idea; he stated, “Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.” While pundits later discussed whether Obama had, in fact, apologized for the policies of the United States, what is notable here is that in a debate filled with disagreement, in this moment, both Romney and Obama agreed on one thing: apologizing is a political strategy to be rejected.
Certainly, there is a fundamental difference between King Derwin’s apology and President Obama’s alleged “apology” tour. King Derwin’s apology was a personal one, while Romney was concerned about statements that Obama made that seemed to apologize on behalf of the nation as a whole. But even in instances where a more personal apology would be appropriate, President Obama seems to shy away from the words, “I’m sorry.” In the second presidential debate, when moderator Candy Crowley asked who was responsible for the events surrounding the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Obama replied, “I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do [sic].” While the president admits responsibility, the words following this admission were a call to action, rather than an apology. This observation is not meant as a specific critique of President Obama, but rather as an indicator of how in American society apologies are perceived as signs of weakness and failure, rather than strength.
But does this truly reflect what we, as Americans, think about apologies? In the 1970 film Love Story, Jennifer Cavilleri (played by Ali MacGraw) famously tells Oliver Barrett (played by Ryan O’Neal), “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Cavelleri’s words are so memorable in part because we recognize them as fundamentally untrue—love means being willing to apologize, to humble yourself for the sake of repairing a relationship. And starting when they are very young, we teach our children to say “I’m sorry” when they hurt someone. The elements of an apology—an owning of responsibility, a desire to right a wrong, and an openness to communication—are qualities that we value in ourselves, our friends and lovers, and our children. King’s and Seuss’s texts emphasize the importance of these elements in a good leader, too, and suggest that perhaps, there should be a larger place in American political discourse for an honest apology.
But Under the Dome and Bartholomew and the Oobleck do more than simply provide guidance for a country’s leaders; both texts also portray actions of individual citizens that are needed for good leadership to be possible. Bartholomew Cubbins challenges King Derwin, refusing to let him wallow in self-pity and denial. Without Bartholomew Cubbins, the oobleck would still cover the entire Kingdom of Didd. While Carter Thibodeau does not challenge Big Jim in the same way, the contrast between him and Bartholomew highlights how speaking up is a difficult, and often dangerous, thing to do. Individual citizens play a vital role in bringing leaders face to face with their mistakes, often putting their own reputations, livelihoods, and even lives on the line for the sake of society at large.
Even more important, however, is the role played by the remaining citizens of Chester’s Mill at the end of Under the Dome. Big Jim, dies alone and forgotten, and it is these citizens who finally get the dome lifted. It turns out that the dome has been put in place by a group of young children from an extremely advanced alien race—a race that views humanity as nothing more than ants. In a last attempt to get the dome lifted, Julia Shumway communicates telepathically with the alien race, putting on display everything from her life that she is most ashamed of. She also draws on Barbie’s shameful memories from his time in Iraq, along with her own recognition that she and the citizens of Chester’s Mill were responsible for electing Big Jim Rennie. Somehow this act of admitting and repenting for these actions convinces one of the aliens to lift the dome and set the surviving inhabitants of Chester’s Mill free.
King includes a discussion of pity and shame that makes this chain of events more complex than a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship, but when read in conversation with Bartholomew and the Oobleck, the important role played by individual citizens is once again made clear. Here, though, the role of the citizens is not to call for an apology, as Bartholomew Cubbins does, but to apologize themselves—to admit how they have contributed to the messes that surround them. And so, before we storm up to the throne room, the Oval Office, or even the local city hall, demanding acknowledgement of mistakes and public apologies for them, we should recognize the role that we have played in enabling and even creating such events. Maybe then we will create an environment in which an honest apology is a recognized and valuable part of American political discourse.
Jennifer Lynn Miller teaches English at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.