Hail to the King

articles
Aug. 24 1999 3:30 AM

Hail to the King

What Jimmy Carter has in common with Henry VI.

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Henry VI was the Jimmy Carter of the 15th century: Ostentatiously pious, surrounded by mediocrities, and oblivious to England's crumbling international prestige, he managed to cripple the military and bankrupt the government simultaneously. Contemporary accounts repeatedly emphasize his gullibility. Senior statesmen of Henry's own Lancastrian party judged him an unworthy successor to their previous standard-bearer, the legendary Henry V, identified in the popular mind with the romance of chivalry and the tragedy of an early death.

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All London cheered when Henry VI was driven from office by Edward IV, an almost unbelievably charismatic and handsome man whose personal badge, the Sun in Splendor, evokes the image of a shining city on a hill. The elegance of Edward's court contrasted sharply with Henry's drab and simple style, and the implied promise of a brighter future proved spectacularly true. After a rocky first few years in office, Edward shored up the military, restored England's presence abroad, initiated serious economic reforms, and presided over a decade of remarkable peace and prosperity. He was, however, frequently distracted by attacks on his wife, who was seen as an extravagant spendthrift and a sinister influence on the king.

Edward was followed in office by Richard III, the man who had been closer to Edward than any other. Though renowned for his great personal courage, Richard was widely disdained as a man with no guiding principles other than an instinct for power. Before long he had squandered his predecessor's magnificent legacy. The general dissatisfaction with Richard spilled over onto the Yorkist party, which had seemed so invincible with Edward at the helm, and raised Lancastrian hopes of regaining the crown.

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Determined not to miss this opportunity, the Lancastrians swallowed their distrust of relative outsiders and turned to Henry Tudor. Henry was from the remote country of Wales, but he looked like a winner. And so he was. After ousting Richard and claiming the throne as Henry VII, one of his first official acts was to raise taxes. It was Henry's tax collector, John Morton, who invented the notorious policy known as "Morton's Fork": If you live extravagantly, then you can obviously afford to pay more taxes. On the other hand, if you live frugally, then you can obviously afford to pay more taxes.

If history repeats itself, we ought to be able to figure out who's destined to succeed Bill Clinton in the White House. Henry VII was followed by Henry VIII, a man best remembered for his gargantuan appetites, his dissipative lifestyle, his troubled marriages, and his rocky relationship with the Catholic Church. The message is clear. Ted Kennedy, your time has come at last.

Steven E. Landsburg is the author, most recently, ofMore Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. You can e-mail him at armchair@landsburg.com.

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