It pays to be the person who can GTD (get things done), especially in Tudor England. In the case of Thomas Cromwell, currently undergoing a reframing from the Man for All Seasons approach–thanks to Hillary Mantel’s multi-format blitz (best selling book series, called “novelistically intelligent“, Broadway, and now PBS), his reputation appears to be on the mend–at least a little.
No one is likely to push for Cromwell’s canonization. Even if he had remained faithful to Rome, there are few realistic prospects for a patron saint of realpolitik. Yet this is high season for him and his ilk. Dirty things done dirty, clean things done dirty — people who get stuff done, somehow or other, now rise in glory on stage and film. Perhaps the long stall of Washington politics has made us yearn for those grease-stained mechanics whose unseen guile, we imagine, would protect the engines of power from seizing up. Says Henry: “I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents.”
A few kindred figures might go in that same bag: Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Caro’s biographies; Doug Stamper, the aide to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” (not to mention Underwood himself); the William Seward of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a cabinet secretary who hired lobbyists skilled in the hook and crook, in bribes and whiskey, to round up votes for emancipation.
The trick in Tudor times was to keep your head attached.