Terence Clarke

What Is It About David Copperfield?


I read David Copperfield as a student in 1970, and until recently the single detail that I remembered from it was that of Uriah Heep’s handshake. Heep is a law clerk working for a kindly attorney named Wickfield, who has just taken over the very young David’s care. The boy has struggled through a years’ long, brilliantly described journey to free himself from the clutches of his cold, distant stepfather Edward Murdstone and Mr. Murdstone’s horrid sister. David is overjoyed by his new good fortune with Mr. Wickfield. But he does have to tend with Uriah Heep: “Oh, what a clammy hand his was! as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off.” Later, David mentions the trail of Uriah’s sweat across the page as he traces with one finger what he is reading. I could imagine the very paper disintegrating with the destructive acid contained in that finger’s touch.

I just finished reading David Copperfield once again, and there is more to it—a great, almost insurmountable deal more—than Uriah Heep’s perspiration. Young David has lost both parents, attended school, been abandoned and traveled alone and homeless through a vast English countryside. He has been treated sometimes badly, sometimes well by many and various people, he has entered the legal field, fallen in love more than once, gained, lost and regained many friendships, and been forced to deal with terrible people, who have had significant influence over his affairs, many times.

All the while, his adventures have been described by a fully adult David Copperfield, working alone with pen and paper on this autobiographical manuscript, telling the tale of his youth. Copperfield frequently interrupts the flow of the tale, to cogitate on what the events he has been describing from those years meant to his emotional development and his ultimate personal character. If ever there were an understanding witness to the boy David’s travails and difficulties, this older man Copperfield is surely that. When we are listening to his observations, told many years after the fact, he makes those observations with an always-clear eye, contemplative feeling, and compassion.

There is a distinct difference between this memoirist’s adult reflective style, and that which he employs to describe the boy David’s fractious growing up. The older Copperfield is calm and reflective. The younger David (who, when not in the arms of the few who really love him, is always on the run or being challenged, beaten, rejected, fooled by someone or relieved of his few pennies) is a seriously threatened, sweet-minded naïf (although, as he grows older, he eventually becomes wiser.)

On this new reading, I was almost incapable of following David’s youthful peregrinations in a calm state of mind. He is in some kind of crisis almost always, and the language is so full of movement, surprise, hurry and abrupt contemplation that even my breathing was affected by my reading. To use the old phrase, I could not put the book down, and until I started writing this piece, I could not understand what the actual writer Charles Dickens had done to make the book so electrifying to me.

But now I know.

The clue is that everything in Dickens’s writing pulses with movement. All of the detail that seeps from the end of his pen shimmers. This is so even when the simplest, most pedestrian every-day object is being described. Clothing, papers piled on a desk, a woman’s sleeping cap, the appearance of something as simple as the whiskers on a man’s’s face…nothing escapes Dickens’s attention and his wish for a kind of completion and humor that the reader, trying breathlessly to keep up, can not possibly expect before reading it. All, whether good for young David or ill, moves. Everything steps back and forth, looks to the side, reflects constantly changing light and color, and beats with life. The language Dickens selects describes in phenomenal detail, throughout the novel, the character being described, the place being visited, the vista being observed, in ways in which nothing is static. Everything is excited and, in its language, dancing.

For example, after a few hundred pages, we meet a certain Mr. Spenlow, who is considering training young David to become a proctor, a kind of sub-lawyer in the court system in London. Mr. Spenlow himself is not a central character, although his daughter Dora later does have a deep effect on young David’s emotions. But Dickens, in the paragraph in which he first brings Mr. Spenlow on stage, celebrates the very unusual manner and dress of this minor man, thus making him unforgettable. When I recall that Spenlow is just one of many, many characters described with such originality, I shake my head with wonder at the depth of Dickens’s ability.

“Mr. Spenlow, in a black gown trimmed with white fur, came hurrying in, taking off his hat as he came. He was a little light-haired gentleman, with undeniable boots, and the stiffest of white cravats and shirt-collars. He was buttoned up, mighty trim and tight, and must have taken a great deal of pains with his whiskers, which were accurately curled. His gold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the goldbeaters’ shops. He was got up with such care, and was so stiff, that he could hardly bend himself; being obliged, when he glanced at some papers on his desk, after sitting down in his chair, to move his whole body, from the bottom of his spine, like (the puppet character) Punch.”

With this passage, my eye was going over Spenlow so quickly, the author Dickens’s attention to the details of Spenlow’s appearance so hurriedly provided and then moved from, left behind for the next detail and then the next…and with such ravishing color and noisy precision…that I was a couple of paragraphs further along before I realized the wondrous manner in which Spenlow had been described. I stopped and went back. I have had to calm myself, reading this novel, so that I could enjoy what I was reading while I was reading it. But on dozens of occasions, I was so driven on nonetheless to the next event by the power of Dickens’s language that I had to go back, to read this or that sequence again.

I loved having to do so.

Terence Clarke is writing a new novel—The Splendid City—that has Pablo Neruda as its central character. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Yellow Fox


Journalism was once a completely respectable profession.

Reporters traditionally have been trained writers, and for me one of their real virtues has always been that they write well — sometimes extremely well — on a tight deadline. Anyone who has struggled for years writing a novel — as I have, on several occasions — must of necessity marvel at the ability of a good journalist to tell a story, have it edited, perhaps re-write it and have it re-edited, all in a matter of a few hours before going to press or on camera. This is a charmed capability, and I have spent my entire writing life admiring good reporting.

Now we have Fox. Television journalism is of course nothing new, and has often been quite good. Jim McKay’s reportage on ABC of the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympic Games remains in my memory one of the most gripping examples ever of what good television journalism can do. Also, almost everything that came with television’s coverage of the Vietnam war was exemplary of what good journalism must do, which is to get the real facts, weigh all sides of the story, and then tell it as truthfully and clearly as possible, no matter the consequences. In war, the first casualty is truth, as we have learned in the engagements subsequent to Vietnam, with their “embedded” journalists and heavy military “minding” and censorship. The reporters in Vietnam kept the casualty alive and breathing for the duration of that conflict.

Fox News has now become the prime purveyor of yellow journalism. Originally the child of a circulation battle in the 1890s between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, “yellow journalism” sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers. It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Under the influence of the recently deposed Roger Ailes, Fox News has embraced the unbridled goal of increasing viewership and sales through neo-conservative shouting, so that, on that network, journalism has descended from any high ground it once may have occupied.

On Fox, commentators are no longer reporters; they are editorialists. They do not seek the facts and are not fair in their judgments. They turn the injudicious selection of certain facts to the service of their long-ago received political ideologies, gather themselves together for the camera, and once it’s on, they opine. This has all been documented and argued over for many years. But for the past decade or two, Fox has become so yellow that journalism itself barely exists there.

At such places, what may once have been healthy respect for proper journalistic practices has become a rabid pursuit of blowhardism and personal hubris. But Partisan Rant is not Journalism. A Rude Interruptive Voice is not Journalism. A Sneer is not Journalism. What qualifies Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, for example, to speak with such dismissive intensity when he’s exploring the few . . . well. . . ideas that he has? He brays about illegal immigration without having read much, it seems, about the proud history of illegal immigration to the United States, from the day the Republic was founded. He also makes the mistake of lumping traditional politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties together, implying that they are all…well, to be fair, Democrats more than Republicans… just a bunch of weak-minded, timid time-servers who can’t see, or won’t engage, the real issues facing the American electorate. And, of course, O’Reilly savages Black Lives Matter, seemingly knowing very little about it or its predecessors…the American Civil Rights movement, for example.

After the recent presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, much was made by several Fox TV commentators about the role the moderator played, NBC’s Lester Holt. Mr. Holt’s performance was criticized by Yellow Fox because, they believed, he could not possibly give balanced and fair treatment to Mr. Trump. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Mr. Trump himself ever gives balanced and fair treatment to anyone, one need only look at a sampling of Mr. Holt’s reportage in general to conclude that he is an honest, judicious, and fair man, as corporate news readers go. He is not a purveyor of Yellow TV. He represents the more traditional notion of journalism, in which all sides be considered and the truth be told.

Bill O’Reilly doesn’t do that.

The expatriate American journalist Larry King (not the television host) has written that “the British media [are] as untroubled by logical inconsistency as they are by a shortage of facts, lack of knowledge, or deficiencies in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.” The same could be said of contemporary American Yellow Fox.

Terence Clarke’s new collection of stories New York will be published early next year. He is the director of publishing at Astor & Lenox.

The Candidate


It came to me last night in a dream that I haven’t understood Donald Trump. It must be that, really, he’s a novelist. All this bother about his run for the presidency, and the many personal trials he has faced—his several bankruptcies, the failed marriages and businesses, so many pesky lawsuits—have all been side-bars to his real passion, which clearly is fiction.

Novels are usually made out of whole cloth. The story comes completely from the author’s imagination. It may have a thread of actual occurrence from somewhere in the writer’s life. A day spent wandering around Dublin, for example. A few months of the author’s youth spent in a blacking factory. A voyage across dangerous seas in search of the sperm whale. But for the most part—and the more of this, the better the book—a novelist will quickly abandon those few threads, so that whatever the reality of the inspiration, his or her story will wander very far afield, and end up being almost entirely made up.

In my own case, complete novels have sprung from a minor thought I had while taking a shower or a phrase overheard in conversation over coffee or a brief passage from a long-ago rock ‘n roll song. From almost nothing, really. Stories have surged from those few ephemeral beginnings.

Many novelists believe that fiction is indeed a series of lies. A novel is a string of conjured up falsehoods intended to plumb the mind of the reader and, if the book’s any good, reveal the depths of that reader’s soul to whomever he or she may be. It has little basis in the author’s actual day-to-day experience. It is fantasy, a story spun from airy nothing, so unlike the balanced truthfulness that is the essence of good fact-based journalism.

Yet fiction’s wandering fantasies are often much deeper than those to be found in mere fact. You can’t write a book of accurate journalism about something that actually happened, if it didn’t actually happen. That sort of thing is the territory of the novel, and the world has benefited profoundly from centuries of truly great fanciful untruths. The novel bestrides the world.

This has been so in Mr. Trump’s case. He has had a few shallow thoughts about this and that which have unearthed the deep-seated fear, anxiety and harried darkness of his true beliefs. He’s been very successful at making those worries plain to the people who so idolize him. He spins falsehoods that, to them, ring with truth… the very stuff of the novel. He’s made up stories the plots of which feature apocalyptic violence, protective nativist walls, the horrors represented by women, the abandonment of millions of refugees, the rewriting of the philosophical and legal structures that have been the basis for this nation since the writing of the Constitution…and many others. Fantastical plots all, filled with conspiracies and rank dangers, every one of them riddled with fictions.

Here’s a modest proposal. Donald Trump’s career as a novelist may have been jump-started by his attempt to win the presidency. He will fail in that yearn for political glory. But I hope he’s aware of where his true talents lie, and that his agent is working on a five-book deal for him. He’s a natural. Made up stories are his great strength, and therefore the Nobel Prize for Literature cannot be far behind.

Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published last year. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

A Year In Port

Filmmaker David Kennard sits back and gestures with genuine expansiveness. “It’s extraordinarily hard not to like the people of Porto.”

You see what he means when you watch his new film A Year in Port. The final piece in a trio of films Kennard has made (the others are A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne) this one takes us to Porto itself, a northwestern Portuguese city where the major operations of the port wine industry are located, and to the upriver Douro Valley. This is a wild place, through which runs the deep Douro River, of terraced hill- and cliff-side vineyards small and large, placed intricately along the banks of the river, and throughout the rugged hills that rise up from both sides of it. All three of these documentary films display the many difficulties to be found in growing grapes and making wine, no matter what kind. But for me, these Portuguese vines, many of them so old, yet still so remarkably fine, present the most challenging difficulties of them all…simply because of where they are.

Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Use with permission.

A bit of history…Wines have been made in Portugal since at least the 12th century. This film tells of the very long diplomatic liason between the United Kingdom and Portugal. It has lasted unbroken for 600 years and constitutes the oldest such ongoing relationship in the world. The principal beneficiary throughout has been the thriving mercantile trade between the two countries.

The British began importing port more than three hundred years ago, and that business proved so successful that a number of British vintner-merchants established their own manufacturing facilities in Porto. Thus, port wines often are notable for the distinctly un-Portuguese names attached to the companies that make them: Taylor, Cockburn, Symington, Croft, etc. Other European families also became involved, most notably for the purposes of this film, the Niepoorts of Holland, who founded their port business in 1842. Now, a number of the most important companies are still run by families from other countries, the current members of which can be even 7th or 8th generation Portuguese residents with double citizenship, speaking both Portuguese and their own native family languages fluently.

To this day, a good deal of nostalgia-fueled British culture defines many of the Porto operations. In the film we are brought into meetings with members of a few families, in which the history and now the future of the port industry is discussed. We sit down to meals that look like they could have been staged for an ongoing BBC series about aristocratic 19th century England. We even attend a proper cricket match in Porto.

There is significant affectionate humor in these scenes, but nothing obscures the fact that port is serious business to these people and to the country of Portugal, a distinctly international business the nuanced maintenance of which is never far from discussion.

Port is wine that has been augmented during its fermentation with specific quantities of cognac. The addition of the cognac brings an immediate halt to the fermentation, so that the vintner can be certain of the precise level of alcohol that exists and the subsequent integrity of the wine’s flavor. Also, the cognac strengthens the wine, as has been understood since the times when the long voyage by sail to England could damage the vintage and render it undrinkable.

The film takes us through a year’s production of port, and features remarkable specific aspects of this wine’s making.

Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Used with permission.

The very Douro region is a formidable difficulty in its own right, a rugged, even primitive-seeming landscape the farming of which is exceedingly arduous. Almost everything must be done by hand here.

Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Used with permission.

Then there is the “treading”, which is done by foot. This is the practice of squeezing the juice from the grapes by many people walking on them bare-footed in large stone tanks. The film describes illustrations found on the walls of Pompeii, destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption of AD 79, of groups of workers treading grapes. The production of fine port is one of the very last wine making processes that still requires such a practice. In a distinctive, even heart-possessing, sequence in the film, we see how the same workers who pick the grapes in the Douro vineyards also tread them…mere hours after their having harvested the grapes.

And there is the singular influence of extremely small amounts of well-aged port from ancient vines, some of them more than one hundred years old. These vines dot the Douro hillsides in numerous tiny plots that have been owned by individual families of local farmers, families that in some cases have been here for centuries. The process of adding even just a few drops from one of these old vintages to samples of the new vintage, simply to bring distinction, authority, intensity or complex depth to that new vintage, is shown and discussed in the film by various port winemakers. For anyone who cares about the combination of mind, knowledge, art and basic “feel” that is required to formulate something of pristine quality, this sequence in the film is not to be missed.

Dirk Niepoort. Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Used with permission.

One last essential feature of port making is described by Dirk Niepoort, until recently the 5th generation head of the Niepoort operations in Portugal. Making quality wine of any sort requires patience…sometimes many decades of patience. Niepoort worries that, in the era in which we live, moving slowly is not considered an option. Instant connectivity, computerization, the cloud…all of it demands immediacy. In an offering of advice toward the end of David Kennard’s stellar film, Niepoort says, “The times now are very fast. What I’m trying to teach my children is, please slow down…and think. Take your time. We have to give port time.”

Terence Clarke’s latest novel is The Notorious Dream of Jesús LázaroThis piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Edith Wharton


I have been a fan of Edith Wharton’s work for a very long time, and I recently had the real pleasure of re-reading The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and several of her stories. Not having gotten enough, I read The Custom of the Country for the first time as well as The Reef.

I came to Wharton through her friendship with Henry James, whose work I had idolized as a graduate student. I subscribed then to the silly notion that James was the god and Wharton an accomplished but, in the end, second-rate writer, when compared to the grand stylistic accomplishments of The Master.

I got over it.

It is no disparagement of James’s work to basically prefer Wharton’s. He is The Master, and there is no book on earth quite like The Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl. But I had read both authors before I myself became one, and so I did not understand the difficulties of writing novels or, more particularly, the kinds of social novels that I came to love writing myself.

Both James and Wharton write about wealthy society in the late 19th century United States and western Europe. He once said of his work, “Yes, I have trifled with the exordia,” a word that I believe can be translated as “the beginnings of things”. But James’s work exhaustively plumbs the depths of human emotion through its exemplary–extraordinary–vocabulary and deliciously complex sentence structure. He understands the English language almost as well as Shakespeare did, and his constant contemplation of how to express emotion most intimately is for me one of the grand achievements in English literature. So, when he talks about trifling with the exordia, I believe he is making a joke, because he goes so far beyond mere beginnings.

Edith Wharton is a different kind of writer. She was of course a very close friend of James for many years, and I can only try to imagine what conversation between them was like. Wharton’s writing is far simpler stylistically than James’s, but that notion is not intended to diminish her work at all. She writes a social scene in many ways more completely than he does because she has such an eye for the physical details of dress, setting, furniture, greenery, china, flatware…whatever…that fills the scene, and a gift for description that enables us to see those things with brilliant, revealing clarity. Also she has a splendid comic ear for conversation that often makes such scenes almost painfully funny…or just plain painful (i.e. The House of Mirth).

Despite my avid reading of her work, I haven’t known much about Edith Wharton, except that she was born Edith Jones and was a denizen from birth of highest New York society…so high that her family name is the source of the notion of having “to keep up with the Joneses”. I had read the reviews of R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography when it came out in 1975, and since then have intended to read the book itself, often impatient with myself for being so lazy about such an applauded work. How could I care so much for what Mrs. Wharton had done, while knowing hardly anything about her?

I just finished the book.

Lewis is himself a very fine writer. Whether describing a motor trip with James through some part of Europe or a dinner party with Bernard Berenson or Andre Gide or Marcel Proust at her apartment at 58 rue de Varenne in Paris, or an exchange of letters between herself and a lover (William Morton Fullerton) or a dear friend (Walter Berry), Lewis is unerring in the gracefulness of his prose, with a clear understanding of Mrs. Wharton’s heart and mind. Also, he will give occasional descriptive sketches of what she is writing at the moment that caused me to keep a list of stories or novels by Mrs. Wharton that I have not read. That list comprises about a dozen books, and my plan is to read them all…soon. Also, Lewis’s writing does not suffer from the barren academic pointlessness that burdens so much contemporary criticism. He’s clear, funny, erudite and thoughtful. If, in a moment of foolish error, you bump into examples of how academics write these days, you’ll realize what a great gift Lewis has offered us.

For a full and perceptive view of the life of the wonderful Edith Wharton, this book is where you should start.

This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Basic Training

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There is a difference between education and training.

Education is an exploration of the soul—aided by deep study in the arts, creativity and the hard sciences—that opens the door to what it means to be human. It is the search for beauty and the understanding of it, or for the perfecting of newly artful inventions that deepen the possibilities for emotional depth and the advance of civilization.

Training is what you get when you want to perform a pedestrian task.


Peter Thiel has been very well trained. The co-founder—with Elon Musk and some others—of PayPal, and a member of the Facebook board, he was recently named by Donald Trump as a delegate to the upcoming Republican Party convention. According to Forbes magazine, Thiel is worth $2.7 billion, and in some circles he is world famous. He also feels that a university education is of little use in our times. He has been quoted as saying. “A diploma is a dunce hat in disguise.”


This despite the fact that his alma mater Stanford, along with several other institutions—Berkeley, University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, NYU ad. infinitum.—continue fueling the enormous breakthroughs in the advance of the arts and sciences that have always been emblematic of the American university system. His attitude toward higher education is for me even ironic, given that, among his other degrees, he holds a bachelor’s from Stanford in philosophy.

A recent article by Tom Clynes in the New York Times tells of The Thiel Fellowship, founded in 2010, “which each year would offer 20 ‘uniquely talented’ teenagers $100,000 to forgo college and pursue ‘radical innovation that will benefit society.’ Today’s future Zuckerbergs shouldn’t be wasting time in lecture halls and football stadiums; they should be building businesses.”


The trouble with this is that it implies that the founding of businesses is some sort of end-all, and that, ipso facto, business is the reason for existence. But for that existence to be a successful one, the business endeavor needs to be accompanied by sophisticated and soulful—which is to say, actual—education, so that the businesses that are founded be relevant to the maintenance of civilizations and good for the business founder’s own soul…and those of his employees, of course. These Thiel fellowships throw the baby out with the bath water because of the totality of their rejection of actual education.


There are difficulties in the education system, to be sure. One reason for Thiel’s low opinion of the college degree may derive from the almost constant attacks on funding of public education by conservative and/or libertarian elements in state and federal governments. This too is an irony, given Thiel’s own libertarian leanings. He complains about what his cohorts cause. Also, it used to be that universities were centers for real learning, and therefore were devoted almost exclusively to studies of the liberal arts. Literature. Music. The graphic and plastic arts. Philosophy. History. But subjects that once trained people to perform tasks have now ascended to prime importance in most universities. So…engineering, business, technology.


Influenced by this change, the purpose of actual education is being degraded to some degree by the current rush among universities to improve the bottom-line. But real education has never been a slave to profit and loss. Rather it lives in the soul, where such notions as creativity and emotional intelligence reign. Experiment. Discovery. Understanding.


It is true that, in the arts, a certain dimming of the intellect is taking place in some institutions. In my own field, the study of literature has been badly eroded by the theories of deconstruction posited by people like Jacques Derrida and Paul De Man. It’s impossible to say whether these theories have any value, because the language with which they are explained is so filled with academic jargon, tortured syntax and gibberish thinking. Luckily, we always will have William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez and the countless others, who keep the ship so admirably afloat and, with their excellence, simply thumb their noses at the deconstructivist nonsense.


Thiel has been quoted as saying that “the core problem in our society is political correctness.” This is very far from so. Other problems are much more important. The almost universal political silence about the need for world-wide availability of—and training in—birth control procedures, which would alleviate, if not solve, the problems of over-population and world hunger. Political indifference to the clear-eyed science that has proven the dangers of human-caused global warming. The religious intolerance that is resulting in so many ghastly wars. The renewal of ethnic hatred, bringing about, among other things, threats to build actual walls against people different from one’s own. As core problems go, “political correctness” hardly competes with these.


To solve such real problems, we need a much larger commitment to education, rather than an abandoned one…public education in particular, supported much more fully by public funds than is now the case, so that those unable to attend private schools can still obtain a quality education…and excel.


The world will not be saved by engineers writing code. Rather, a well-educated public, conversant in the arts and hard sciences, the nature of soulful creativity and emotional intelligence, the history of civilizations, their literature and arts, will alleviate the difficulties we face and maybe even solve them.


Here, to be fair, is where training will come in handy. We’ll make good use of those handy tools like computers, the cloud and the internet, which in their usefulness take a prominent space in the same workbox, say, as the pencil.


Training results in workable solutions that get you through the day. It makes things more convenient…and otherwise is of little profound importance. There is almost no emotional intelligence in it, an element that, if you’re paying attention in school, a full education in the liberal arts and hard sciences provides in abundance.


Terence Clarke’s story collection, New York, will be published later this year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

El Tanguero Obama


ABC News

 President Obama’s essay of Argentine tango was a diplomatic triumph.

Those of us who devote a lot of time and effort to that remarkable music and dance form know from the very beginning how difficult it is. You don’t just start up and dance tango. The very first lesson is the worst because, as Nora Olivera, the superb maestra with whom I’ve been studying since my first very tentative efforts, told me after our initial lesson, “The trouble, poeta, is that you don’t know how to walk.” I protested, since I thought I had been walking more or less successfully since I was eighteen months old, and by the time of my first tango lesson, I was quite a bit older than that. She clarified her criticism: “I mean, you don’t walk in the way of tango.”

I spent the next year or two trying to learn it, with exhaustive coaching from Nora and slavish practice up and down my hallway at home…all to glorious music. It was one of the most difficult physical tests I’ve ever faced.

Eventually, I got it.


Terence Clarke and Beatrice Bowles. Photo by Kevin Carrel Footer.

But nothing in tango is easy. Once, during a lesson I was having with the great Carlos Gavito, I bemoaned the fact that I felt I woud never really get tango, that my northern upbringing, my un-Mediterranean, un-bonairense (i.e. Buenos Aires) heart made it impossible for me. Gavito waved my protestations away. “Terry, if I have one good tango during the milonga…one!…I consider the evening a success. Because that’s usually all I get.”


Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran. Photo courtesy of Carlos Gavito.

Carlos Gavito, of all people, said that to me.

So…President Obama. This man has real grace, and it showed in his performance that evening, despite the fact that, yes, he was unsure of himself on the dance floor and, yes, he was worried that he may be shown up. But he was not worried enough to miss all the nuances of the music and the delicacies of the tango walk, as I was the first time I tried it. He’s got the thing in his heart. His tango soulfulness is clear. You can see it simply in the way he holds himself. Grace. Self-knowledge. Verve. Confidence.

The phenomenon of Obama’s tango is very important for the relationship between the United States and South America. In Argentina, unlike in the United States, dancing well is considered the mark of an accomplished man. If you can do that, it means you’ve got a fine sense of yourself, you’re willing to enter freely into the difficulties of one of the great dance forms in the world, and you are not afraid. You respect the music. You understand the emotional depth of the dance. You move as though tango will reveal to you the secret to understanding, the sharing of knowledge with your partner, the give and take of moving together, suggestion, negotiation, the idea presented, the discussion of that idea…all undertaken with a great heart.

These are the kinds of things that nations must learn in order for the world to move ahead with thoughtful fellow feeling and authority, for the benefit of all. Tango can do that for you. But I don’t know of anyone in the current crop of Republicans who would understand this. Surely not Donald Trump. And Mitch McConnell? Please!

After the president’s success on the dance floor, he was criticized by several on The Right for being so devil-may-care in the wake of the Brussels (and other) attacks. “I think he ought to return home,” John Kasich immediately opined. Nicolle Wallace, George W. Bush’s former director of communications, suggested that Obama’s tango was a “communications crime…that puts him vastly out of step with the entire American public.” (No pun intended, I hope.) Stuart Varney, host of Fox Business, was upset by “another jarring image of President Obama dancing the night away while Europe mourns its dead. Good morning, everyone. This is not going to go down well.” Fox’s Andrew Napolitano worried about it too. “I’m not so sure he should be doing that when everybody else is worried about where ISIS is, who they’re going to kill next, and are they going to come over here.”

I suspect that Obama does worry about ISIS, quite a bit. And if I’m not mistaken, he was at the time on an important diplomatic trip to Argentina, a close ally of the U.S. and a nation central to South America’s continuing rise to true world prominence. His tango was a very positive nod to that country’s deep artistic and historical importance to the western hemisphere. More to the point, though, I think these right-leaning spokespeople would do better to recall the Republican party’s wholesale stampede to launch the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Their enthusiasm for that event was total, and thus a major reason for why the Middle East is so embroiled in its current problems. They didn’t seem to fret all that much while Iraq was mourning its many, many thousands of civilian dead.

Of the two diplomatic efforts, Obama’s tango was clearly the more successful.

Terence Clarke’s latest novel  The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published last year. His new story collection New York will come out this fall. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.