Hurrah for David Cameron! He has promised an In-Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if he wins the next General Election.
Hurrah? Well, no. Not really. For one thing, Cameron has bad form on this. He famously made a “cast-iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty when he was Opposition leader back in 2007. Writing in the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, Cameron said:
“The final reason we must have a vote is trust. Gordon Brown talks about “new” politics. But there’s nothing “new” about breaking your promises to the British public. It’s classic Labour. And it is the cancer that is eating away at trust in politics. Small wonder that so many people don’t believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually. If you really want to signal you’re a break from the past, Prime Minister, do the right thing – give the people the referendum you promised.
“Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations. No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.”
Of course, this time it was Cameron who eroded the public trust. As some of you may have noticed, Mr Cameron IS now PM and er…no referendum has ever happened. Cameron broke his promise. He may well do so again.
But perhaps this would be a good thing? Referenda are bad. And here’s why:
1. Referenda are never held for anything other than party political reasons.
David Cameron knows it is not in our national interest to leave the EU. He is doing it for two reasons: to shore up his own support and to undermine the (exaggerated) threat presented by the UKIP lunatic fringe. It has worked, but don’t think for a moment his motives on this are honourable. Likewise, the first national UK referendum which was held on Common Market membership in 1975 was intended purely to keep the Labour Party from splitting, while the 2010 one on electoral reform was held purely to keep the Lib Dem grouping in the Coalition happy.
2. In referenda, nobody ever votes on the issues at stake.
Perhaps because we are more familiar with General Elections, voters nearly always end up voting for some party political reason. Last time, it was to piss off the unpopular Nick Clegg. In 1975, Britain voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Common Market (as it was then known) largely because a) the press were overwhelming pro-EC back then (yes, really!) b) because they were told it would be impossible for the UK to pull out anyway and c) to anger the unpopular anti-EC Labour Government. Margaret Thatcher, the new Tory leader, was then a keen supporter of the European ideal.
3. Don’t we elect MPs to make decisions on our behalf?
If the Tories want to pull out, they should go into the next General Election saying so! Labour did this in 1983 (and subsequently suffered their biggest post-war defeat). Why bother having a referendum as well?
4. No one knows when to call a referendum or not.
No one has a clue. There are no set rules on it. There have only ever been two national referenda in British history in 1975 and 2011. Generally, they are usually called for when the public already clearly want the change which is being proposed. In which case, why not just pass the law anyway if it’s good? If there isn’t a clear majority supporting the motion (as in the case of electoral reform), everyone whinges and says it’s a waste of time and money.
Here is a list of developments since 1945, none of which the public had a direct vote on. Some of us might feel they would like to have had the chance to vote on a few of these things:
Joining the UN.
The end of National Service.
The onset of Commonwealth immigration.
The abolition of hanging.
The legalisation of abortion.
The legalisation of homosexuality.
The closure of grammar schools/introduction of comprehensive education.
The stationing of Cruise missiles in the UK.
The reduction in trade union power.
The Single European Act/Maastricht/Amsterdam/Maastricht etc.
The abolition of fox hunting.
The decision to invade Iraq.
5. Not every issue is easily resolvable in a simple Yes/No debate.
6. Referenda rarely satisfy anyone.
I may well take part in the referendum “Yes” campaign assuming it ever happens. I did the same for the last one on electoral reform (which ended in heavy defeat). This isn’t hypocrisy. There is little point arguing against a referendum which is already happening.
But the 2011 referendum was not a happy experience. I can accept that most people didn’t want electoral reform and never would: the margin of defeat was heavy. But the whole affair was highly unsatisfactory for both sides. The victors hardly seemed hugely triumphant arguing that the whole exercise had been a pointless and expensive distraction. There were also lots of silly false rumours about expensive counting machines being needed if the Yes vote won (the reason why was never explained). The No team also enjoyed saying how expensive the changes would be, typically including the cost of the actual referendum in their calculations. The referendum, of course, was already happening and would cost the same regardless of the outcome.
The Scots/Welsh referenda on self government in the late Nineties were more justified although annoyed some English who wanted a say on the issue too. The EC vote in the Seventies left people dissatisfied too.
Both Clement Attlee (who I liked) and Lady Thatcher (who I didn’t) called referenda “the device of demagogues and dictators”. This is perhaps a bit strong in this case. But even if David Cameron is telling the truth this time, I’m not excited.
So Judge Dredd is gay. Or rather, he probably isn’t.
The latest Dredd story Closet which featured in the long running comic 2000AD, appeared to show the 22nd century Mega City One lawman entwined with another man in a gay club. The caption read: “I guess, somehow, I’d always known I was gay. I was just too scared to admit it.”
Judge Dredd, lest we forget, is an ultra-macho big chinned lawman of the future has been appearing in the British comic 2000AD since 1977. Inspired loosely by the characters Clint Eastwood played (particularly the Dirty Harry films) but transferred to a futuristic setting, Dredd dispenses instant justice to the masses of Mega City One, a chaotic post-apocalyptic metropolis built on the ruins of New York. Dredd is just the foremost of many “Judges” who are effectively imbued with the powers of police and judiciary and can sentence “perps” on the spot.
So is Dredd gay? Certainly, I never remember much about him having any sort of love life when I read the comic. But it seems not. Apparently the character in the strip is not Dredd at all but someone in fancy dress as the judge, at a gay club. As Dredd never removes his helmet and all judges look pretty much the same with their helmets on, this would actually be a fairly easy disguise to perfect, assuming you had the requisite chin. Presumably the story was a ruse to boost sales just as the second film version of Dredd comes out on Blu-ray/DVD.
The news is a bit disappointing in a number of ways. Firstly, the current author of the strip, Rob Williams has said Dredd “may well be gay, straight or bi” but that was secondary to his passion for the law.
“Although, can you imagine what would happen if that repression ever fell away, just for an instant? Sure, Dredd could be gay,” Williams said.
So why not make him gay then? Dredd is often referred to as a “fascistic” anti-hero but only in the sense that civil liberties and democracy are ignored in his world. Sexuality rarely comes up in 2000AD. And making Dredd gay could have been a major coup for the comic. It is a missed opportunity.
Worse still, is the reported reaction of some fans to the news of Dredd’s possible sexual orientation. Some have apparently threatened to burn their 2000ADs.
I’ve always liked to think sci-fi fans are an open minded, liberal bunch. Unfortunately a fair bit of evidence suggests that at least some of them are anything but. Witness the absurd reaction to the news that Star Trek Voyager was to feature its first woman captain in the 1990s.
Similarly, some seem to have missed the satire of a story set in a fascistic future by reacting to the news of Judge Dredd’s rumoured gayness by responding in a decidedly fascistic way themselves.
It is odd that science fiction fans so accustomed to stories set in the 22nd, 23rd and 24th centuries, so often still seem to have attitudes rooted in those of the 19th.
Eurosceptic Tories have been falling over themselves to praise David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership if the Tories win the next election. London Mayor Boris Johnson described the Prime Minster as “bang on” while Mark Pritchard said the PM’s speech was “well considered, thoughtful and long overdue”.
It was anything but.
Cameron’s speech does two things. Firstly, it diminishes the (much exaggerated) threat to the Tories presented by UKIP. Secondly, it gives Cameron the opportunity to curry favour with his own backbenchers. Cameron does not want Britain to leave the EU and indeed knows it would be very damaging for us to do so.
He has blatantly put his own party political interest above that of his country. It is a shameful decision.
So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?
Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).
Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.
Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.
To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.
That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.
Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.
Richard M. Nixon (Rep).
Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.
January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.
But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?
In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.
Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.
Ronald Reagan (Rep).
Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.
Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.
The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.
The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.
Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.
Bill Clinton (Dem).
Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.
Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.
Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.
George W. Bush (Rep).
“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.
Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.
Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.a
Every year since 1928, the American Academy has awarded a Best Picture Oscar to the movie deemed to have been judged “Best Picture”. Sometimes they have got it right (Casablanca, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire). Sometimes they have got it wrong. Hugely dramatically wrong. Here are some of the worst foul ups and some possible explanations for them…
1941: How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is bad. It’s just that Citizen Kane is supposed to be the greatest film ever made. The young Orson Welles’ performance in the lead role as Kane himself is peerless as is his direction. Witness Kane’s convincing transformation from a charismatic young idealist into an embittered old man. The innovative use of light and shadows. The scene in which Kane’s marriage declines from untroubled romance into weary silence in the space of a few shots. Citizen Kane transformed cinema forever. Why didn’t it win?
The simple answer is that by basing Kane on the real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (who was still very much alive in 1941), Welles assured the film’s critical and commercial failure. The journalist’s quest to uncover the secret of “Rosebud” (the name of Kane’s childhood sledge and the character’s last word) in the film alluded to Hearst’s own private nickname for his mistress’s (ahem) private part.
Hearst was hugely powerful and buried the film amidst hostile reviews just as Rupert Murdoch would do if a similar film were made about a thinly disguised malevolent Australian TV and press baron today. The genius Welles who had read the complete works of Shakespeare before he was ten, ended his days as fat as a house and lending his distinctive voice to Transformers: The Movie. As well as probably the best beer commercial voiceovers in the world.
But critically he had the last laugh. It’s difficult to think of William Randolph Hearst these days without inviting thoughts of Citizen Kane.
And to be fair, for all its technical excellence, Citizen Kane is hardly a natural crowd-pleaser. It might not have won anyway.
1976: Rocky beats Taxi Driver (and a few other things).
1976 should have been a classic year. Sydney Lumet’s Network was a powerful critique on the media portraying a news programme’s cynical exploitation of one of its presenters when he suddenly has a breakdown and announces he’s going to kill himself on air. All The President’s Men saw Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real life Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein as they uncovered the Watergate scandal. Taxi Driver saw Robert De Niro deliver one of the finest performances ever committed to film as a Vietnam vet driven mad by insomnia and loneliness comes close to assassinating a presidential candidate.
But 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial year. the Academy are a conservative bunch and were keener to reward a film endorsing the American dream than one about Watergate (in an election year) or one about Vietnam vets. This why Rocky beat all of these films, despite being clearly the worst of the lot.
1979: Kramer Vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now.
Actually for all Apocalypse Now’s classic status, I’m less sure this was such a bad call. Kramer is actually an excellent and extremely powerful film while Apocalypse Now does rather go on a bit and – let’s face it – doesn’t end properly. Besides, the much more conservative Vietnam film The Deer Hunter had already won the previous year.
1989: Driving Miss Daisy beats Born on the Fourth of July (1990 Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas).
Driving Miss Daisy was a ludicrously safe choice which barely even begins to discuss the issues raised by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Even worse, the Oscars opted for Kevin Costner’s picturesque western snooze fest the following year, thus snubbing Goodfellas, probably the best film of the entire 1990s.
1994 Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction.
The Oscars got everything wrong this year snubbing the most iconic and watchable film of the decade in favour of a film which a) portrays the entire anti-Vietnam movement as a bunch of sneering wife beaters b) suggests women should marry young and be good housewives or they’ll descend into drugs, promiscuity and prostitution c) spends a good half hour showing Forrest running across the US in a bid to win the Best Cinematography Oscar…which it didn’t win anyway! And d) is scared to mention the AIDS virus by name. In 1994. A full year after Tom Hanks had appeared himself in the Oscar winning Philadelphia which is all about AIDS.
Even worse: the one Oscar Pulp Fiction did win (Best Original Screenplay) should actually have probably gone to Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Samuel L Jackson’s response on losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (visibly mouthing “Shit”) says it all.
2006: Crash beats Brokeback Mountain.
Were the Academy attempting to show their liberal credentials by awarding a film about racism? Or were they just being homophobic? Or were they just idiots? Who knows? Either way Paul Harris’s Crash must rank amongst the weakest Best Film winners ever. It’s barely any better than the David Cronenberg car crash fetish film of the same name.
The name is fitting though: the choice was a disaster.
So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:
Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).
Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.
Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.
Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).
Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.
Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.
Dwight David Eisenhower
Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.
Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.
Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.
Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.
Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.
Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.
Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.
Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.
Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.
Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,
Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.
George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.
Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.
Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.
The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.
JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.
Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).
Are you a film actor? Would you like to win, or at least be nominated for, an Academy Award? Well, you’re probably cutting it a bit fine for this time round. But if you want to be considered in the future, perhaps try one of the following:
Play a real person.
The Oscars always like this. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone instantly recognisable (the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, George VI, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote, Ray Charles) or not (Erin Brockovich, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Harvey Milk, Ron Kovic) playing a real person living or dead definitely gives you an edge.
Do an accent.
Meryl Streep isn’t the only one to have benefitted for doing accents other than her own. This often goes hand in hand with playing real people (see above). It need not be an overseas accent either: even Colin Firth did a bit of a funny accent in The Kings’s Speech.
Doing an accent sometimes even leads to Oscars when the accent is bad. Witness Sean Connery’s inconsistent Irish brogue in The Untouchables or Michael Caine’s bizarre accent in The Cider House Rules. The effect works less well if the film in silent (The Artist).
Don’t win too often.
Tom Hanks won two years in a row (for Philadelphia and Forest Gump) but this is rare. Generally, the Academy is more likely to favour you gradually. Meryl Steep and Jack Nicholson won each of their three Oscars apiece during different decades. On the other hand, if you are felt to have had a near miss one year (like Colin Firth for A Single Man or Kate Winslet several times) you are more likely to win at the next one.
This is statistically likely to favour you perhaps because of the perceived gravitas the accent is thought to imbue (rightly or wrongly).
Be very old or very young.
The Oscars like a novelty like Jessica Tandy or Anna Paquin in The Piano. This has been less true in recent years though.
Russell Crowe’s phone throwing tantrum probably cost him a second Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. Avoid belittling or attacking the Oscars too. They won’t thank you for it.
Play someone with something wrong with them.
It doesn’t matter what. Autism, blindness, dementia, madness, a stammer. All go down well with the Academy.
Finally…combine as many of the above as possible into one performance…and Oscar glory will be yours!(Just remember to thank us in your speech…)
A paranoid crook who should never have got close to power in the first place, a triumphant success and one of only two men to carry 49 out of 50 states in a US presidential election, Richard Millhouse Nixon was a mass of contradictions. On the centenary of the disgraced US president’s birth in January 1913, what lessons can we draw from his life?
US presidents never resign…except in his case.
Resignation mid-term is the norm as a way out for UK prime ministers: Thatcher, Blair, Wilson: all went this way. Not so in the US. Only three presidents have ever faced the humiliation of impeachment: Andrew Johnson (in the 1860s), Bill Clinton and Nixon. And only Nixon was driven from office as a result… had not his successor President GeraldFord pardoned him soon afterwards, he may well have become the first president to go to jail too.
He was genuinely born poor.
Abraham Lincoln was famously born in a log cabin but most other US presidents have been of far less humbler stock. Not Nixon: he was born into a genuinely impoverished Quaker lifestyle and two of his brothers died during childhood. This unfortunately gave him a huge chip on his shoulder about anyone he perceived to have had a cushy privileged upbringing (for example, the Kennedys).
He was an anti-Communist through and through.
Nixon’s rapid rise to power occurred only by dipping his hands in the murky waters of McCarthyism. It was the key issue of his times but by embroiling himself in the case of State Department official Alger Hiss who had been accused of being a Soviet spy, the young congressman shamelessly courted publicity which most young politicians would have shunned.
He was called “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…
The 1950 campaign for the US senate seat muddied Nixon’s reputation still further. His opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Hollywood actress married to the actor Melvyn Douglas and later the grandmother of Illeana Douglas, a character actress known today for roles in films such as Cape Fear, Grace Of My Heart and Ghost World. The campaign became notorious for Nixon’s dirty tactics. Although she was, in reality, no more left-wing than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon argued she was a fellow traveller for the Communist cause. He famously labelled her the “Pink Lady” claiming “she is pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed claiming just that.
The tactics worked. Nixon won by a landslide. He was famous and picked by General Dwight D. Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate less than two years later off the back of this success. Douglas’s political career was over. But the Tricky Dicky nickname would stay with Nixon forever.
Nixon lost the presidency in 1960 because of the TV debate…or did he?
We all know the story. Nixon was robbed of the presidency in 1960 by a slicker, handsomer opponent. Radio audiences thought Nixon had won the famous debate with the young John F. Kennedy but on TV, JFK nailed him. Voting irregularities in Chicago further ensured JFK’s narrow win.
But it is wrong to attribute Nixon’s defeat in 1960 wholly to a triumph of style over substance. Nixon was already widely distrusted. He had almost been dropped from the vice presidential ticket in 1952 over claims he had profited from campaign contributions. Only the famous “Checkers speech” on TV, the sentimental address in which he referred to his daughter’s dog Checkers, was his salvation. But TV would prove his undoing in 1960.
Yet this is not wholly true either. For one thing, as with Obama and Romney in 2012, while the vote between Kennedy and Nixon was very close, the Electoral College margin between the two candidates in the final vote was actually quite wide (303 for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon, although Nixon, oddly, carried more states). Whatever happened in Chicago, Nixon wasn’t even close to winning. Distrust had played its part too. In 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower’s opponent Adlai Stevenson had milked fears over the ageing Eisenhower’s health to exploit concerns that Nixon not the beloved Ike would end up being president. The president had had a heart attack in 1955. In 1960, a Democratic poster depicted a cartoon of a shifty looking Nixon and asked memorably: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”
If in doubt…blame the press.
Nixon soon reached rock bottom losing in a landslide to Edmund G “Pat” Brown in the 1962 California Gubernatorial election. The father of the present Governor Jerry Brown, the Democrat was doubtless helped by President Kennedy’s deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. How Nixon would have handled it, we will never know. At any rate, Nixon appeared to quit politics. Like his future biographer Jonathan Aitken (and others), he was keen to blame the media for his own failings:
““For sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of fun. You’ve had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken. I leave you gentlemen now, and you will now write it, you will interpret it, that’s your right. But, as I leave you, I want you to know, just think how much you’re going to be missing — you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
But it was not to be. Nixon returned (in fact he had never had any real intention of quitting) and achieved the presidency ….
The Comeback Kid.
No presidential nominee has ever lost the presidency, returned to regain the nomination and then gone onto win the presidency. The sole exception is Richard M. Nixon.
Vanquishing the Kennedys.
JFK narrowly beat Nixon in 1960. Bobby Kennedy might well have beaten him again had he not been gunned down during the summer of the 1968 campaign. Nixon instead faced and narrowly beat the vice president, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 but feared the third brother Ted Kennedy would dethrone him in 1972. He even started a file on Ted Kennedy’s sex life. There was no need. The Chappaquiddick Incident in July 1969 (In which a young girl was found drowned in the Senator’s car from which Kennedy had mysteriously escaped) wrecked the youngest Kennedy brother’s presidential dreams forever, though not his career. Ironically, Kennedy had declined an invite by Nixon to attend an event celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landings that very weekend. Had he gone, the accident would never have happened and history might well have played out very differently.
Vietnam and China.
Nixon’s firm anti-Communist credentials were such that with the aid of Henry Kissinger, he was able to end the war in Vietnam (albeit still in a humiliating but unavoidable US defeat) and spectacularly re-open relations with Communist China in 1972. A president with a more liberal reputation could never have got away with this. A landslide re-election win was assured. Nixon won 49 states, his opponent Senator George McGovern, only one.
Nixon had won narrowly in 1968 only by using a mole to sabotage Vietnam peace talks which threatened to deliver Humphrey a last minute victory. The Humphrey team was well aware of this but feared releasing the information on it as they had acquired it by wire-tapping. Their own polling suggested they would beat Nixon anyway. This turned out to be wrong.
In 1972, the Nixon team sabotaged their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie’s primary campaign partly through silly tricks (releasing mice in a press conference with the message “Muskie is a ratfink” on their tails) but also by spreading rumours Muskie’s wife was an alcoholic. Muskie cried on TV, effectively finishing the Nixon team’s work for them.
Nixon would doubtless be amused to see phone hacking in the news again. But in 1972, it was the journalists, notably the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were the heroic ones.
Nixon’s enemies list.
The “Enemies List” which Nixon drew up during his presidency gives a unique insight into just how paranoid he had become. In addition to politicians like Ed Muskie, Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy (more accurately described as legitimate political opponents. Nixon’s view of them as “enemies” was unhelpful) the list also included figures as diverse as John Lennon, Bill Cosby (!), Gregory Peck and Barbara Streisand.
Once it emerged Nixon had routinely recorded conversations in the White House a legal battle emerged to gain access to the tapes. Nixon refused on the grounds of “executive privilege”. The tapes when revealed had some mysterious gaps on them (Nixon’s secretary had apparently accidentally wiped one section), showed that Nixon swore a lot (the phrase “expletive deleted” was used a lot) and, worst of all, proved his role in covering up the investigation into the break-in. Impeachment proceedings began. Though “not a quitter”, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in August 1974. He spent his last twenty years attempting to restore his shattered reputation. He died, soon after his wife Pat, in 1994.
Nixon achieved much mostly in the field of foreign policy. But for all his talent, he was deeply flawed and perhaps unsuited to high office. He wasn’t the US’s worst president (that might be George W. Bush) but his remains an unhappy period for the US presidency.
Poor Hillary Clinton.
While it is tempting to think of her recent illness purely in terms of its likely impact on her presidential prospects, it should be remembered that the Secretary of State faces a very serious medical condition. We all wish her well.
However, Mrs Clinton’s agony will undoubtedly have been compounded by the possibility that the news of her blood clot may well prevent her becoming the first woman president of the USA. Even more annoyingly, she has already had two great opportunities to achieve this in the past…
It’s easy to see why Hillary didn’t run for the presidency in 2004. She had only been elected as a Senator in 2000, after all, and incumbent presidents – even terrible ones like Bush – are rarely defeated when they run for re-election. It made much more sense to hold out until 2008, when the field would be clear. Had I been writing this blog in 2004, I’d probably have urged her to hold out until 2008 too.
Yet in retrospect, 2004 might well have l have been the former First Lady’s best ever chance of winning the presidency for herself. Senator John Kerry who was not, after all, the most inspiring presidential candidate the Democrats have ever produced came within a hair’s breadth of dismounting Bush (Kerry is now, of course, Clinton’s most likely successor as Secretary of State). Bill Clinton too, it should be remembered, seemed to have little chance when he announced his candidacy against a post-Desert Storm President George HW Bush in 1991. A bolder attitude would perhaps have favoured her in 2004.
But then nobody knew about Barack Obama…
Hillary Clinton came tantalisingly close to securing the Democratic nomination in 2008. Yet in truth, this time, she didn’t deserve it. Her campaign shared many of the faults of David Miliband’s campaign for the Labour leadership in 2010: arrogance and assumption that the prize was owed to them by right as well as support for the unpopular Iraq War.
Admittedly, Hillary was not to know just how strong a candidate her opponent Obama was to prove. She stayed in the race long after she should have pulled out, feebly claiming she needed to be on hand in case Obama was assassinated. It was not her finest hour.
Age does not seem to be the deterrent to high office that it can be in the UK. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, elderly leaders were the norm in Britain. Jim Callaghan was 68 when he stood down as Labour leader in 1980. The resulting leadership contest was between Denis Healey (62) and Michael Foot (67).
All of these men would live into their nineties: Healey is still alive today. Yet Foot’s advanced age was widely seen as a major factor in Labour’s landslide 1983 defeat. Since then, Britain’s leaders have got younger and younger. John Major became the youngest PM of the 20th century in 1990. He was 47. His successor Tony Blair was 43. David Cameron in 2010 was younger still. Today all three party leaders are well under fifty.
In the US, Reagan seemed to set a different precedent. While Foot had long white hair, a walking stick and glasses, Reagan (who was in power at the same time as Foot was Labour leader) had somehow retained his dark hair despite being two years older than Foot. Reagan was the first ever presidential nominee to be over seventy. Since then Bob Dole and John McCain have followed his example. Although, of course, neither won. Mitt Romney was 65.
So Hillary being 69 in 2016 was not seen as a serious obstacle to her running in 2016. And the omens looked better than ever after a successful stint as Obama’s first Secretary Of State.
But the blood clot is more serious. Hopefully, both Mrs Clinton and her presidential prospects will make a speedy recovery.