The Scary Politics of “The Phantom Menace”

<i> Andrei Cherny, former senior speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, is editor of Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century</i>

Twenty-two years ago, the release of “Star Wars” marked more than a revolution in U.S. cinema and culture. In destroying the Death Star, Luke Skywalker became a detente-era Paul Revere, signaling Americans to man their Cold War battle stations. George Lucas’ 1977 space opera gave Americans a much-needed boost of courage as they turned their attention to completing the long twilight struggle against the forces of international communism.

With the release of “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” Lucas again unveils a movie with heavy political overtones. As someone who split my time growing up between playing with “Star Wars” action figures and staring at inanimate objects in the hope I could use the Force to levitate them, it pains me to say that, this time, Lucas is wrong. The source of evil in “The Phantom Menace” is not an authoritarian despot but supposedly insidious dark forces of international trade and a government that refuses to clamp down on them. This presents political leaders with a responsibility to stand up for the principle that boundaries need not be barriers and that open markets should be celebrated, not castigated.

The hype and excitement surrounding the release of “The Phantom Menace” should dampen any lingering doubts that Lucas’ cinematic galaxy is a central myth in America’s modern canon. As with many such stories in U.S. history, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “The Wizard of Oz” to “Lil’ Orphan Annie,” “Star Wars” carries with it political implications. When the brass swelled in the opening moments of the first “Star Wars” movie, it opened the door to a story that touched a basic yearning of post-Vietnam, Carter-era Americans. An embattled band of freedom-loving people were under siege by a centralized empire that believed “fear will keep the local systems in line.” In eschewing the moral “sophistication” so celebrated in the 1970s and embracing a vision of a Manichean struggle between good and evil, “Star Wars” prefigured the rise of Ronald Reagan and his campaign to restore America’s pride, self-confidence and understanding of its destiny.


When America reentered the space race with the launch of the space shuttle, the president sent the astronauts on their way with the words, “May the Force be with you.” He sold his Strategic Defense Initiative under the name “Star Wars.” When Reagan, as he was about to leave for his first summit with Russian President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, met with a group of supporters, one of then pressed into his hand a Darth Vader doll complete with light saber. Reagan looked at it for a moment, then, without prompting, said, “You know, they really are an evil empire.”

But today, the Republican Party’s ever-growing Buchananite wing has turned its back on the Cold War ideal of free movement of people, products and ideas around the globe. With the same trembling trepidation that led the tyrants of Eastern Europe to erect the Iron Curtain, these Republicans now seek to block the forces of choice and competition in the international marketplace.

The question is whether the political implications of this “Star Wars” sequel will tap into the American psyche as forcefully as did the original film’s. We should hope they do not. The famous opening crawl of the first “Star Wars” told of an “evil Galactic Empire”; “Episode I” describes a “greedy Trade Federation” and fearful events that occur when “the taxation of trade routes is in dispute.”

On May 12, at least a few die-hard Star Wars fans, their fingers gently resting on their mouses or redial buttons, must have looked up from their quests for advance tickets to watch breaking news from the White House. There, President Bill Clinton walked into a sun-swept Rose Garden to put an exclamation point on the world’s new economic order. To replace departing Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Clinton reached outside of the Andrew W. Mellon-C. Douglas Dillon-Donald T. Regan lineage of Wall Street barons to show that the road to America’s economic future runs down a different path. Today, it runs through the neon-lit streets of Shanghai, through the broad boulevards of Berlin and the crowded tunnels of Tokyo.

To be his new secretary of the Treasury, Clinton chose Rubin’s deputy, Lawrence H. Summers, a man whose resume of service in the upper echelons of the World Bank and as undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs guarantees that he has, in Clinton’s words, “a close working relationship” with “key finance ministers and central bankers around the world.” As Summers’ deputy, Clinton nominated Stuart E. Eizenstat, who previously carried the international-economy portfolios at the State and Commerce departments. The message of these nominations was clear: America is no longer sole master of its economic destiny.

Yet, the fact is, if the latest “Star Wars” sequel captures the national zeitgeist as did the original, Americans might not be excited to hear this message. Of course, the U.S. outlook on global trade won’t be changed by a movie, no matter how boffo its box office. But if Lucas’ vision of the threats America faces today connects with Americans as strongly as his vision of 22 years ago did, then those who would build walls to keep out global competition and exchange may be more powerful than supposed. For American workers and their economic prosperity, that menace would be anything but phantom.