Napoleon Palin

Posted by Barry Strauss on December 2, 2009

A little over two hundred years ago this season, Napoleon became famous. He grabbed a French flag, strode onto a bridge over the Adige River in northern Italy, and led his men in an attack on the Austrian army on the other side. As the French advanced, enemy guns took out soldiers on either side. With the luck of greatness, Napoleon went on without a scratch. Finally, he fell off the bridge into safety – and a muddy ditch.
Napoleon’s daredevil charge accomplished little, and it took two more days of heavy fighting before the French finally drove the Austrians from the other side of the river.

But it wasn’t the mud or the delay that men remembered: it was the sight of General Bonaparte waving the flag in the perilous fight. An iconic painting by the French artist Antoine-Jean Gros, the Shepard Fairey of his day, made sure of that. Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole (1801) depicts Napoleon as a young hero, alone and commanding, with a sword in one hand and a flag in the other. Next to that image, what did reality matter?

Or maybe courage under fire was reality enough. Napoleon went on to dominate Europe for the next twenty years. During that time, his ability to project the commanding strength shown in the painting proved far more important than the details of a November day.

American politics these days reminds me of Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole. Wave the colors, march forward boldly, and you might win the presidency. Barack Obama proved this in 2008. Now, Sarah Palin is taking her turn.

Palin’s book, Going Rogue, is the political equivalent of raising the battle flag and striding onto the bridge. The title suggests insurgency, which was not Napoleon’s style, but he understood the need to adapt to changed conditions. In an age of talk radio and tea parties, it’s rebels and not four-star generals who the public wants to hear from.

The cover photo shows the former Alaska governor looking confidently into the distance. Like Napoleon in Gros’s painting, she stands out boldly against a background of clouds. Palin’s red jacket is as striking as Bonaparte’s black uniform. And she too, has a flag – in a lapel pin.

We can judge the power of Palin’s image by her political enemies’ counter-attacks.
Newsweek moved quickly by putting a cheesecake photo of Palin on its cover. This is as dismissive as the sight of Napoleon in the mud would have been.

Palin has shown an ability to weld myths deftly. It will be fascinating to see if her re-emergence onto the public stage marks a rendezvous with destiny or a bridge to nowhere.