Book review: The Making of the President, 1960-72, by Theodore H. White

Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.

White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.

1960

The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.

White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.

The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.

Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.

1964

Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.

“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.

1968

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.


But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.


At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”


There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.

1972

By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:

“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”

No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.

Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.

This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.

In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.

Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.

Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer

At the time of writing, Joe Biden is around forty days into his tenure as 46th president of the USA. Anyone who becomes US president is interesting simply on account of the fact that they have managed to achieve that position. Biden is less charismatic than Obama and not as dynamic as Kennedy was but is certainly much less stupid and unpleasant than Trump. This quick, readable biography offers the perfect opportunity for curious readers to brush up and gain some basic knowledge of the new guy.

He has been around for a while. He is seventy-eight years old, older than any of predecessors in that office and older today than four of the five living former US presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and the defeated Trump. It is widely suspected that he only plans to serve one term, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the strong favourite to win the Democratic nomination in 2024. If he does manage to serve two terms, Biden will be eighty-seven by the time he leaves office in January 2029.

He is undeniably a member of the political establishment. He was elected as the sixth youngest senator in US history as far back as 1972. He was thus a senator at the time of the Watergate scandal. His first bid for the presidency was launched as long ago as 1987. His rivals for the Democratic nomination then included such long ago vanished political figures as Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. Biden’s own ambitions were undermined by claims he allegedly plagarised a speech by British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, never a well-known figure in the United States.

The upside of all this is that Biden is very experienced, an attribute his now disgraced immediate predecessor so clearly lacked. Biden has had a long and successful career as senator and two terms as Barack Obama’s Vice President.

Tragedy has been a recurrent feature of his life. His first wife and one-year-old daughter were both killed in a car accident only weeks before he was first sworn in as a senator. His son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015, aged 46. Biden himself was almost felled by aneurysm when he was in his forties.

He is the only the second Roman Catholic to become president and the first former vice president to rise to the top job since George H.W. Bush in 1989. Even a year ago, Biden’s chances of winning the presidency looked doubtful. However, in November, he won, achieving more votes than any other candidate in US history and crucially comfortably beating Trump in the electoral college.

This is not a hagiography. Biden’s occasional lapses – his gaffes and occasional failure to support progressive causes – are not glossed over. But with American politics potentially entering a more compassionate and progressive phase after the unhappy turmoil of the previous four years, this offers a concise and readable insight into the newest resident in the White House.

Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos. Published by Bloomsbury.

Book review: When America Stopped Being Great, by Nick Bryant

What just happened?

This is essentially the gist of the question answered in this excellent book by experienced BBC journalist and author, Nick Bryant.

For in 2016, billionaire reality TV star, Donald Trump was elected US president having promised to “make America great again.” It was not an original slogan, but it clearly resonated with the US electorate. We now know, of course, that the outcome was the exact opposite of what Trump promised. His presidency was an unmitigated disaster for both the US and the world. Compared to where it stood in the middle of the last decade, America’s standing both at home and abroad has been dramatically diminished.

Trump never said, of course, when exactly in history he considered the US to have been great in the first place.

As the starting point of his narrative, Bryant takes us back to 1984, the time of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Ronald Reagan’s re-election and his own first youthful trip to the USA, “the summertime of American resurgence.” Bryant doesn’t gloss over Reagan’s weaknesses at all. He was essentially a film star in the White House just as Trump was a TV star and let his Hollywood-inspired concerns about ‘little green men’ and belief in astrology influence the content of potentially vital US-Soviet summits.

But 1984 was certainly a period when the USA seemed to stand tall. Bryant’s book is essentially the story of how conditions gradually shifted over the next 32 years resulting in the disaster of Trumpism, the unhappy period which dominates the last third of the book.

Reagan was partly to blame. Bryant argues “Reagan created a flawed blueprint, and showed that a president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering some of the basics of the job.” The Clintons were not blameless either. Bill’s behaviour set a new lower standard for the basic minimum morality requirement expected of a chief executive. Hillary didn’t help either by seemingly behaving as if she was almost insulted at the idea of having to assert her leadership credentials before such an unworthy foe in 2016. Her arrogant dismissal of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” also did her immeasurable damage. George W. Bush was also at fault, setting a new low for the standard of presidential crisis response after Hurricane Katrina after 2006 which foreshadowed Trump’s own woeful response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bush’s absurdly premature “mission accomplished” celebration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in  May 2003 also set a new standard for ‘fake news’. The war in Iraq still had a very long way to run.

Even Obama is partly to blame. In retrospect, his public goading of Trump at various Washington Correspondents’ Dinners, though often very funny, may have unwittingly provoked Trump into running. Obama, Bryant argues, also too often backed away from confronting genuine foreign policy challenges in Libya and Syria. Obama was genuinely an economically successful president, but the fact is many American voters didn’t feel the effects. The US was in many ways much poorer in 2017 than it had been twenty-five years earlier. Many Americans polled in 2016, incorrectly believed that they were still in recession.

Now they really are. None of this is to excuse Trump himself of ultimate responsibility for the disaster of his presidency. All the chief executives named, after all, had redeeming features. Trump has none. This book merely explains how these and other factors such as a growing sense of partisan division, the rise of Twitter, the deeply flawed electoral college system and a complacent media keen to flatter Trump by endlessly suggesting he run for president and which infected by “good story bias” garnished Trump with an endless supply of free publicity enabling him to win and make the resulting nightmare possible.

Book review: Reunited nation?

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The last two weeks have been a blissful period for America-watchers throughout the world. The new US President, Joe Biden has – believe it or not – spent the past fortnight busily getting on with things, tackling unglamorous but important issues like combatting the spread of COVID-19. Just like real grown-up politicians are supposed to do. There have been no absurdly narcissistic self-aggrandising public statements, no ludicrous proposals, no bullying of reporters or anyone else. When tweets have been sent out they have been of an official nature and presumably not actually written by the president himself, rather than spewed out by an overtired and inarticulate chief executive as he sits in front of Fox News. This is very welcome. It is easy to forget this is how things are supposed to be.

Most of us are very happy to forget about the last four years for a few days but in fairness, there are lessons to be learnt from the recent US presidential election and here ‘international businessman’ (millionaire tax exile), Lord Ashcroft uses polling evidence to see what they might be. Lord Ashcroft has been a major Tory donor and a leading figure in the Conservative Party and his prejudices do occasionally show through in this short book. He makes much of the fact that the high turnout in the November 2020 election ensured that even though he came a clear second, Donald Trump scored more votes than every other candidate except Biden in US history. He makes less of how generally unpopular Trump was throughout his entire presidency. He was never a popular leader at an one single point. He also performed poorly whenever he was presented with any even half-way decent alternative. Even the much maligned Hillary Clinton led him throughout the 2016 contest even besting him by three million votes in the final popular vote, while Joe Biden, perhaps not always the most inspiring candidate in the world, beat him hands down in 2020.

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It is difficult to square Ashcroft’s assertion that Trump’s “positive view of American life and opportunities” was a key aspect of his appeal when Trump was so relentlessly negative about so many pillars of US society (the media, the military, the electoral system) himself. It’s also difficult not to believe many Trump supporters were not fundamentally deluded as evidenced by the fact so many, for example, seem to believe Europe is predominantly under socialist governments or the fact that so many of them seem to have been unable to accept Trump’s defeat after what should have been a fairly straightforward and uncontroversial result.

Ultimately, however, there is much of interest to be found in Lord Ashcroft’s poll findings. Whether it was his intention or not, they may prove helpful towards helping nothing like the Trump presidency ever happens again.

Book review: How To Break Into The White House

As it turns out, the title of this book now seems a little unfortunate.

In fairness, author Ann Bracken had no way of knowing that two weeks before her book was published, an overexcited horde of psyched-up Trump supporters unreconciled to their fallen leader’s defeat in the November 2020 US presidential elections two months’ before would overrun the US Capitol Building, resulting in five deaths.

Let us be clear: there is nothing in this slim volume which even remotely encourages anyone to physically break into any government buildings or indeed anywhere else. To be strictly accurate, it’s not even a guide on how to “break into” the White House by legitimate, democratic means either. It is merely a brief memoir of Ann Bracken’s life so far which includes a chapter on her years working as a secretary in the first Bush White House. Interesting as her life may have been, I can see why she opted for this title as it ‘s a good deal snappier than ‘My Years Working for Bush (no, not him! The okay one) and some Other Stuff’ by Ann Bracken. It’s just unfortunate that given the current climate, even working from Britain, I could not help feeling a little nervous as I typed the book’s name into a search engine.

My search didn’t bring up much anyway. I don’t think she is a well-known figure currently. Perhaps this book will change this? It is a pleasant, readable account of how Indiana-born Ann rose to work as an assistant to Senator Richard Lugar and then for the US’s second most recent one-term Republican, US President George Bush (now usually referred to as George HW Bush or POTUS41 to distinguish him from his less than distinguished son) before settling in the UK.

I should say, I am not on her political wavelength at all. She thinks the first Bush was a more historically important leader than Clinton, thinks the fact that the US has reduced emissions in recent years justifies withdrawing from the Paris environmental agreement and is clearly prepared to gloss over the fact that disgraced former President Trump was not only a horrendous human being but an almost total disaster in office. Her views do not seem generally abhorrent, however, and I will try not to hold them against her as I review her book.

It is readable enough but is short and can easily be finished in an hour or two. There are some anecdotes about her ongoing obsession with the musician Sting and about her friend precipitating a famous public relations disaster during which the Queen’s face was completely concealed behind a microphone during an address from the White House lawn.

There seems to be a self-promotional aspect as there are a surprisingly high number of pictures of Bracken herself in it (around twenty). Some are, as you might expect, old pictures of her meeting luminaries like the late President Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle, who like Bracken is also from Indiana. Other pictures seem to have been specially commissioned for the book and are quite glossy. One shows her in a swimsuit, another is labelled “pretending to be a Brit” dressed up like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The tone is a bit odd.

The comments on the back of the book would sit more appropriately on a CV than on the cover. “I am grateful to have you on our team,” (President Bush), “She brightened up the White House…you have been a real asset” (other Bush people).

As I say, I am not on Ann Bracken’s political wavelength at all. But even were she a former Clinton or Obama staffer, there’s just no real getting away from the fact: this is very thin stuff.

A fine, very slight read. Her name may be ‘Bracken’ but don’t expect this to set the world on fire.

Book review: How To Break Into The White House, by Ann Bracken. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.

Book review: JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956

As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.

Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.

The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.

But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.

Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.

And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.

Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.

Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.

In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.

Head to Head: House of Cards Vs The West Wing

Gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

THE WEST WING

Welcome to the presidency of Josiah Bartlet. During the seven season run of Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning series, we see the fictional two- term administration take a rollercoaster ride through crises (a major assassination attempt and an attempt to kidnap the president’s daughter), scandal (is the president concealing something important from everyone?), disaster (a major nuclear accident in California), numerous triumphs and many other matters, some of global import, some, such as the president falling off a bike in public, more trivial.

In truth though, this is not just the story of a president but of the talented team behind him. In what may prove to be career-best role, onetime Brat Packer Rob Lowe excels in the first four seasons as razor-sharp speechwriter Sam Seaborn with Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer (the last of whom sadly died just as the final season was coming to an end) leading a stellar cast who make up the president’s White House west wing team.

Occasionally, things may get a little too bit earnest. Is everyone in US politics really so well-intentioned and decent as they are here? It’s actually something of a relief when Bartlet’s vice president John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) turns out to a scheming, malevolent toad.

Ultimately, however, for all of its high powered “walk and talk” conversations and highly-charged content, The West Wing was just as popular amongst those with little or no interest in current affairs at all as it was amongst battle-hardened political junkies.

Ten years after it finished, The West Wing, often funny, sometimes moving, has scarcely dated at all. If you’ve never seen it before, now is the perfect time to catch up with an all-time classic.

Box out: All The President’s Men (and Women)…

Three of Bartlet’s best and brightest…

Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)

Idealistic, witty and argumentative, communications deputy Josh is devoted to Bartlet, having previously backed his opponent John Hoynes who is now the Veep.  Badly wounded in the attempt on the President’s life.

CJ Cregg (Alison Janney)

In a career-defining role, Janney is perfect as the sharp, sassy and on the ball press secretary CJ. And just as Josh secretly yearns for his assistant Donna, CJ loves beardy journo, Danny.

Josiah “Jed” Bartlett (Martin Sheen)

POTUS himself, the president is sort of an older wiser less promiscuous version of JFK (a role Sheen once played memorably on TV). Jed is ably supported by his First Lady Abby (Stockard Channing).

HOUSE OF CARDS

If The West Wing offers an optimistic view of the American political scene, House Of Cards represents its dark underbelly. In that respect, perhaps it is ideal viewing for the era of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

For make no mistake, from a fairly early stage, it is clear that the main character Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a very bad man indeed. We know this because of the way he speaks. We know this because of the things he does. And finally, we know this because he tells us so himself, confiding in us his every passing evil thought and deed.

It is this Shakespearian device which sees Underwood sharing his thoughts with the audience – sometimes just in the form of a wry smile to the audience (of course, always unseen by whoever Frank is talking to and presumably screwing over at the time) – which makes us feel complicit in his crimes. It was an appealing device when Ian Richardson (like Spacey, a Shakespearian actor) played the equivalent role of an upper class English Tory politician in the original version of House of Cards, 26 years ago. It works just as well now.

We watch Underwood climbing the greasy pole rising from party whip (being snubbed by being passed over for his promised position of Secretary of State) rising to Vice President and beyond. We watch him lie, cheat, have affairs and commit murder but we’re basically rooting for him. We want him to win.

For yes, Frank Underwood is a very bad man. But some of us do like bad guys. The problems begin when too many of us start electing them into positions of power.

Box out: Axis of Evil?

Three of the main players in this game of thrones…

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

US Democratic Party politician. Likes include: cooked breakfasts, the South, exercise, sex with young female reporters, murder, blackmail, gradually accumulating political power over a period of time, breaking the Fourth Wall.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright)

A million miles away from her breakthrough role as the Princess Bride, Wright is brilliant as Frank’s wife and partner in crime, a character every bit as ruthlessly ambitious as her husband.

Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly)

Not to be confused with Thumper (the rabbit in Bambi), as the Underwoods’ chief accomplice, Stamper’s sense of loyalty is the one thing that never seems in doubt. Or is it?

Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

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Alcohol has long been the fuel which has powered the engine of our nation’s political life. Sometimes the results seemed to be beneficial. Margaret Thatcher generally found it difficult to relax and enjoyed a whisky or two most evenings during her long stint in Number 10. Winston Churchill also seems to have been improved incredibly by the astonishing amounts of alcohol he drank during his premiership. One has to wonder if we would have won the war, as BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright does here, had he not drank.

Sometimes the results were less positive. During the 1970s, both Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon both saw their powers dim partly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.Much earlier, William Pitt the Younger went through the same thing.

Occasionally, the results have been funny. Wilson’s famously erratic Foreign Secretary George Brown experienced numerous embarrassments as the result of his frequently “tired and emotional” state while Tory MP Alan Clark was famously exposed by Labour’s Clare Short as being drunk in the House on one occasion, or at least did so as far as Commons protocol allowed.

Often,  of course, as in the case of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the results have been tragic.

Ben Wright’s book offers a witty and well informed insight into one of Britain’s longest standing political traditions.

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Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Book review: American Maelstrom

1968:  Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally.  (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his rather alarming opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by a record margin. But this already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme sidelined forever by the escalating war,
Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

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Michael A. Cohen’s book is especially effective in its portrayal of the hugely diverse range of characters who ran for president in 1968. President Johnson: a man so crude he would sometimes take his own “Johnson” out during meetings. Bobby Kennedy is also demystified. Tragic as his assassination was, Cohen dispels the myth that his victory would have been inevitable had he lived. In fact, he may well not have even won the Democratic Party nomination. McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

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But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. Everything shifted to the Right. Nothing was ever the same again.

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Book review: American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A Cohen. Published by: Oxford University Press.

Trump: The Dale Winton Factor

p01grcngDale Winton has come out for Donald Trump.

This may seem odd. Winton is, after all, British and best known as the unusually camp host of such lightweight daytime fare as Supermarket Sweep. He has never been known for having fiercely conservative views or indeed for having any political views at all. To be honest, I don’t tend to watch the kind of shows he is on but to be honest, I always thought he seemed pleasant enough.

What has drawn him to a monster like Donald Trump?

Let’s keep things in perspective. Winton’s intervention is unlikely to swing the election. It is rather as if Postman Pat had suddenly declared his support for Brexit.

But Winton’s article for Conservative Woman in which he declares his views is certainly rather strange and worth examining.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a quiz show host and I’m watching the ultimate game show?” he states at one point. “The contestants from both parties are fighting to the bitter end in the hope of winning four to eight years in the White House?”

This perhaps explains Winton’s interest in US politics, one I happen to share. It does not explain his enthusiasm for Trump, surely the most odious figure to arrive on the political scene in decades. The onetime host of Touch The Truck writes: “For sure he’s unruly, coarse and extreme, but he’s got a rare quality for someone in politics. He is truly authentic”.

Is Winton being serious? There are a few hints in his complementary references to Trump’s hair and complexion that he is being tongue in cheek.

But generally he seems sincere, hinting he has been conservative since at least 2012;

“I went from fan to obsessive acolyte at the second national televised debate between Obama and Romney, ” he claims.  “I watched in awe as Romney found his voice and all but secured the keys to the White House. ” That’s right. Winton seems to be the only man on Earth to have been in awe of Mitt Romney, surely one of the blandest candidates in US electoral history.
He also seems to have been the only person surprised by Romney’s defeat: “By the third and final debate it was Romney’s to lose…and he did. It was an unexpected epic fail. I was devastated and by election night I needed alcohol to get me through the process, as my worst fears were realised.”
He continues, growing increasingly melodramatic: “That was 2012 and I’ve counted the days until the next wave of primaries in the hope that the world would survive by a thread until America voted in a new leader of the free world. The days and nights were long as horror upon horror was inflicted upon an unexpected world. It seemed that no one was doing anything about it.” 
What horrors upon horrors does he mean? Why does Winton think Obama is so terrible? He never explains.

Winton seems to have been blown away by Trump’s early campaign appearances. “Maybe it was because I genuinely hadn’t expected such a no-holds-barred delivery. It felt like the man had reached through the TV screen and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. I defy anyone watching on that morning to look away until he was done., ” adding “Talk about car crash TV”. This last point is at least on the button.

Winton seems to have been drawn to Trump partly through disgust at the vicious attacks by the Republican establishment. But he goes further than that quoting the title of one of his own shows to explain why the tycoon is In It To Win It. 

“His attack on political correctness is reason enough, but that’s still not it. I’ll tell you why. He’s fearless and he promises to make his followers safe and prosperous. He loves his country and he’ll do his best to protect it from anyone who threatens its constitution. He’s also recognised that the liberal Left and political correctness have bullied us into silence. And there’s the rub. You cannot bully Trump and at the same time, he’s got your back. That’s a safe feeling for the millions of his followers who feel ignored by both parties. They’ve had enough of the Washington two-step performed by the politicians they’ve put in power.”

 He then reveals his thoughts on Trump’s character: “There are many who have met him and benefited from his acts of generosity and compassion. Those in need are many and they’re well documented.”
The presenter ends the article in a very clumsy fashion. “He’s polarised an entire nation and whatever the outcome, as the saying goes, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. If anyone can come a little closer to disproving those words, it’s Mr Donald Trump. Well maybe not all of the people, but enough of them to matter.”
What on Earth is Dale Winton on about? What horrifies him, a gay man, so much about “political correctness” that he is prepared to overlook Trump’s overt racism and misogyny? How are these traits in any respect superior to political correctness? Are we to assume Winton agrees with Trump’s insane plan to build a wall around Mexico? That he supports Trump’s anti-Muslim stance? Does he really think in the face of all the evidence that Trump is either compassionate or “authentic”?

As mentioned, Dale Winton is best known for being a low brow British TV quiz show host.
What is his game here?

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How to lose the US presidency in 21 ways

There are many ways to lose the presidency whether you’re fighting a primary or battling for the ultimate prize itself in the November general election. These are just some of them…

Cry (Ed Muskie, 1972)

Public crying has played well for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama more recently but when Muskie appeared to weep over allegations about his wife’s drinking, he soon lost his status as the Democratic front-runner. Ultimately, the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by the Nixon camp, Muskie denied crying, saying reporters had mistaken snow melting on his face for tears.

Lose your temper (Bob Dole, 1988)

Dole snarled that his opponent George HW Bush should “quit lying about my record” after losing a Republican primary. Dole looked like a sore loser and his campaign never recovered. He later won the nomination in 1996, losing comfortably to President Bill Clinton.

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Scream (Howard Dean, 2004)

Although he was probably on his way out anyway, Dean’s hysterical “I had a scream” speech which ended with a Kermit the frog-style note of hysteria ended his prospects of getting the Democratic nomination. John Kerry got it instead and subsequently lost to George W. Bush in November.

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Fail to answer a simple question (Gary Hart, 1984)

Democrat Hart (of later sex scandal fame) proved unable to explain why he had changed his surname from Gary Hartpence. In 1980, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy floundered desperately when he was asked the most basic question, during a TV interview: why do you want to be president?

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Be inadvertently racist (H. Ross Perot, 1992)

The Texan billionaire independent offended a largely black audience by referring to them repeatedly as “you people” throughout a campaign speech.

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Terrify everyone (Barry Goldwater, 1964)

The Republican nominee’s open extremism and apparent enthusiasm for nuclear weapons led him to lose by a record margin. “In your heart, you know he’s right” his campaign claimed. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” countered his opponents.

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Have an affair (Gary Hart, 1988)

Recovering from his 1984 failure, Hart enjoyed a 30% lead over his nearest rival and was the clear favourite to succeed Reagan until allegations of infidelity with model Donna Hart emerged. Hart initially denied meeting her until photos emerged of her sitting on his lap. Hart then withdrew from the campaign, then re-entered it later, totally sabotaging his own career in the process.

Skeletons in the closet (George HW Bush 1992, George W. Bush 2000)

A last minute recovery for President Bush against Bill Clinton stalled after allegations over his role in the Iran-Contra affair re-emerged. Later, his son was harmed by a last minute revelation over a 1979 drink driving incident during the closing stages of the very close 2000 campaign.

Picture: 43rd US president, George W. Bush and his father, the 41st president, George H.W Bush)

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“Steal” a speech (Joe Biden, 1988)

Obama’s future vice president (and 2020’s current Democratic front-runner) withdrew after striking similarities were spotted between a campaign speech he delivered and one which had been made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).

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Ignore all attacks (Michael Dukakis, 1988)

When the Bush campaign cast doubt on the Democratic nominee’s mental health, Dukakis refused to sink to their level. Unfortunately, by the time he did release his records (which revealed a clean bill of health), the damage to his campaign had already been done.

(Picture: Future 2004 nominee John Kerry, ex-1980 candidate Ted Kennedy and 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis)

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Insult your rivals (Bush, 1992)

“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” President Bush said of Clinton and Gore late in 1992. The “bozos” bit went down very badly with voters. Clinton’s lead grew by around five percent just before election day.

(Picture: 1992 debaters: Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Bill Clinton, Independent Ross Perot and the incumbent President Bush).

Be too honest (Walter Mondale, 1984, Michael Dukakis, 1988)

Both these Democratic nominees admitted taxes would have to increase substantially to tackle Reagan’s huge escalating deficit. Bush in 1988 was much less frank “read my lips – no new taxes” but won. Taxes went up dramatically soon afterwards (Picture: Walter Mondale in 1984)

Insult women (Mitt Romney, 2012)

The Republican nominee referred to “binders full of women” he could choose from for his cabinet. This played badly.

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Rely too heavily on your war record (John Kerry, 2004)

This backfired when several campaign groups began casting doubt over the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War heroism which had been contrasted with Bush’s decision to join the state National Guard (a classic draft dodging tactic) and Vice President Cheney’s decision to duck out of the war altogether.

Run against your own party’s incumbent (Eugene McCarthy, 1968, Ronald Reagan, 1976, Ted Kennedy, 1980, Pat Buchanan, 1992)

This has never worked, although McCarthy undoubtedly made history by prompting President Johnson’s withdraw from the 1968 contest. Reagan also undoubtedly enhanced his credentials for a future run by challenging President Ford. Four years later, Reagan ran again and won.

(Picture: Eugene McCarthy in 1968)

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Pick the wrong running-mate (George McGovern, 1972, John McCain, 2008)

The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos when running-mate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced. John McCain’s campaign was similarly undermined when Sarah Palin’s intellectual shortcomings became too obvious to ignore. Oddly, however,  Bush’s disastrous choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 seemed to do him little real harm.

Screw up the TV debate

Notably Richard Nixon in 1960.

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Insult 47% of the electorate (Mitt Romney, 2012)

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser. Ironically, he ended up losing having received 47% of the vote.

Get paranoid (H. Ross Perot, 1992)

The independent candidate accused the Bush camp of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by labelling her a lesbian.

Make huge factual errors in public (Gerald Ford, 1976)

“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” President Ford made this absurd claim in the 1976 TV debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter. (Picture: 1976 Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Jimmy Carter debating President Ford).

“Win” (Al Gore, 2000)

Few election results look more dubious than the 2000 one. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush not Al Gore the winner.

US election memories 2: 1988

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You might want to skip this blog.

It’s about George HW Bush (or as he was known then “George Bush”). That is, The Boring One.

Like episodes of the US sitcom Friends, US presidents can be easily identified in this way. There’s The Corrupt One Who Resigned, The Cool One Who Got Shot, The One Who Couldn’t Walk and many more. The only downside is there are too many eligible for the title The Stupid One.

To be fair the first Mr Bush was not actually stupid. This makes him unique along with Eisenhower amongst post-war US Republican presidents in being neither stupid nor a crook.

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“What’s wrong with being a boring kinda guy?” he admitted and he had a point. You can’t have two Nixons, two Reagans or two Clintons in a row. You need someone dull in between. In Britain, we went for the similarly nice but dull John Major around this time. Two Thatchers in a row would have finished us off.

It was also a sensitive time on the international stage. Someone like Reagan or the second Bush would have been a disaster in the delicate period which saw the Berlin Wall come down, the USSR collapse, Apartheid end in South Africa and UN forces liberate Kuwait. Someone like George W Bush would have ignored the UN and escalated the war disastrously into Iraq without any thought as to the likely consequences. In fact, later on he did just that.

The 1988 elections did grab my interest though. I was only eleven and I hadn’t even noticed that the nation which had produced Garbage Pail Kid  stickers had elections before. The large number of contenders involved grabbed my interest. It also didn’t hurt that British politics looked fairly dull at the time with Thatcher looking invincible as she approached a full decade in power.

I was less partisan then and thus more detached. The Republicans were torn between Bush and grumpy old Bob Dole who lost support after snarling that the Veep should “quit lying about his record” something that made him look like a sore loser after a primary defeat. There were others. Evangelist Pat Robertson represented the Religious Right lunatic fringe. The fact that Rupert Murdoch backed him tells us two things: one, that Murdoch wielded very little influence in the US back then. Another that Murdoch contrary to myth does not back winners, just people who share his own reactionary views.

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Who would oppose Bush? The Democrats were unkindly referred to as the “seven dwarves”, a funny reference even though there were actually more than seven of them and they were not all short.

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Michael Dukakis (in fact, only 5 ft. 6) emerged as the nominee. People don’t tend to remember presidential election losers and while I’m sure many Americans remember him, I doubt many Britons do. “Duke” is even less famous than many of those who opposed him in the primaries. Jesse Jackson, his main opponent for the nomination, came closer to the presidency than any other black man before Obama. Al Gore similarly is the only man to have won the US presidency (in 2000) and not actually become president. Another contender was Joe Biden who is in fact Obama’s Vice President today. Biden withdrew after it turned out one of his speeches had been stolen from one by Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).

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Early favourite Gary Hart meanwhile earned eternal notoriety for his spectacular fall from grace in a sex scandal, something that apparently discouraged Arkansas governor Bill Clinton from running until 1992.

Dukakis looked like a strong candidate at first leading the privileged unexciting Bush by around 15% in the summer. His rhetoric was Kennedy-esque. His running mate Lloyd Bentsen also memorably smashed Bush’s disastrous choice of vice president Dan Quayle in the TV debates destroying him with the words “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

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But Dukakis, though in some ways a better man than Bush, was undeniably a weaker candidate, slow to respond to often unfair attacks and lambasted for his controversial opinions on the death penalty (he opposed it) and “liberalism” by this point an insult in the US political lexicon.

Bush seemed to offer a continuation of the Reagan boom years and a continuation of the tax cuts better off Americans had enjoyed. “Read my lips. No new taxes” Bush intoned, probably the most famous thing he ever said. He was foolish to promise it. Thanks to Reagan, the deficit was already woefully out of control. Bush would soon introduce the second biggest tax increase in US history. And by then there would be a recession.

How closely did I follow all this as an eleven year old in Peterborough in 1988? Not THAT closely. I had other distractions: a school trip to Pwllheli in Wales, youth club, the difficult transition from junior to secondary school, reading Douglas Adams books, riding my BMX, a family holiday to the Netherlands, reading, writing and drawing comics, watching Neighbours, seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the cinema, experiencing the first stirrings of adolescence.

But my interest in US politics had begun. Both Dukakis and Bush are retired now and in advanced old age. If you want to see them now, they appear on TV briefly in the opening minutes of the 2001 film Donnie Darko.

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Why all Democrats love war and all Republicans are wet girly sissies

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We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
Qualifications.
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
Even so…

Could it be Clinton Vs Bush in 2016?

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Could the next US presidential election end up being fought between the wife of one former president and the brother of another? Very possibly, is the only answer.
To start with, Hillary Clinton is currently the overwhelming favourite to be the Democratic nominee and is probably the general favourite to win overall. We have been here before, of course, but this time there seems no obvious signs of a charismatic Obama-type sweeping in to deny her the nomination as occurred in 2008. Indeed, her previous opposition to Obama probably stands her in good stead in the light of his recent unpopularity.

Clinton’s main hindrances are likely to be her age (she is 67, and would be the second oldest elected president ever if she won in 2016), concerns over her health and the rich array of baggage she has inevitably accumulated during her twenty years as First Lady, New York senator and Secretary of State.

Refreshingly, even though no woman has ever been nominated as a presidential candidate by either of the main parties, nobody seems very bothered that she’s a woman any more. It is as if the world has got used to the idea. Yet a lot still rides on her shoulders. For if Hillary failed (or even didn’t stand – she is yet to formally announce her candidacy), when would a woman get another chance as good as this?

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The prospects of Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, son of former president George HW and younger of President George W. look less good. Bush has always had a more competent air than his brother, but is far to the left of many in his party. What’s more, while Hillary can point to a largely successful Clinton presidency, the first Bush presidency ended after one term and the second was a near total disaster. Jeb will be lucky to get the nomination. Though if he does, Republicans will be praying he can perform a reversal of the 1992 result when Clinton outfoxed Bush. A third president would be a first for any family.
There are a number of cases of political dynasties taking the highest office in the US, mostly in the 19th century. But despite our hereditary monarchy, Britain rarely does the same when it comes to elected politicians. There have been a long line of Churchills either Winstons or Randolphs in the Commons, but only one has ever achieved glory. There have also been a number of Benns and Hoggs in Parliament over the decades, but none in Downing Street.
Elsewhere, one wonders if a more clearly defined fixed four-year presidential system might have prevented the disharmony caused by the two Miliband brothers competing for the Labour leadership in 2010 or the potential issues arising from the fact that both Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper are both seen as potential future contenders for the party leadership.

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Why Richard Nixon was pretty bad, after all

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Forty years after his resignation as US president and twenty years after his death, many have sought to revise the general opinion about disgraced US president Richard Nixon. But though he did achieve successes,  it’s worth remembering: he was known as “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…

The Pink Lady campaign

Nixon played dirty from an early stage, shamelessly exploiting the post-war ‘Red Scare’ to demolish his Democrat opponent, the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in his 1950 campaign for the US Senate.  Although she was basically a New Deal Democrat, Nixon using provocative and sexist language labelled her “the Pink Lady…pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed saying the same thing. Douglas lost and gave up politics (her granddaughter is the actress, Illeana Douglas). Nixon won by a landslide and became a senator but at a price: he would be known as “Tricky Dicky” forever.

Sabotaged peace talks

Having lost the 1960 election narrowly to JFK, Nixon wasn’t prepared to do so again in November 1968. But President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to halt the bombing campaign in Vietnam in October was calculated to help Nixon’s opponent Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Acting covertly, Nixon used an intermediary to sabotage the peace talks. The Humphrey team knew about it, but confident of victory, stayed quiet. Instead, Nixon won narrowly. The truth wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1994.

Foreign policy dishonest

Nixon was elected claiming to have a “secret plan to end the war.” In fact, he had no plan. He first attempted to win the war as  Johnson had, by fighting, also illegally invading Cambodia before ultimately withdrawing US forces and  ensuring a Communist victory (in fairness, probably an inevitable outcome, whatever he did). Nixon’s administration also backed General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973, leading to the deaths of 3,000 people.

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Obsessed with his “enemies”

Nixon generally confused legitimate and fair political opponents with enemies of the state. His “enemies list” included everyone from Senator Ted Kennedy to entertainers like Bill Cosby (ahem) and Barbara Streisand.

Watergate

In 1972, having sabotaged the primary campaign of his most feared opponent Senator Ed Muskie, the Nixon team’s attempts to wiretap and destroy their political opponents escalated when a botched break-in at Democrat HQ led to the Watergate scandal which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. No scandal, other than the Iran-Contra scandal, has come close to Watergate in terms of severity. Nixon lied repeatedly, humiliated his country and himself and destroyed his own presidency.

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Book review: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism

Book review: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Viking/Penguin.

Bully Pulpit

Although not exactly a dynasty, the Roosevelts produced both the best Democrat president (Franklin Delano) while his cousin Teddy, discussed here, was the best Republican one.
Hugely charismatic, energetic and popular, Theodore, a keen hunter and former veteran of the Spanish American Wars, became the nation’s youngest ever president, when at 42, he inherited the office from the unfortunate William McKinley who was assassinated by a Polish anarchist while opening the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo in September 1901.
Roosevelt was elected comfortably in his own right before unwisely relinquishing office in 1988, ignoring enthusiastic pleas from within his own party to stay (there was no two term limit then). He later came to regret his decision even to the point of standing against his successor and old friend Republican President William Taft as a third party Progressive “Bull Moose” candidate. But TR’s intervention proved hugely divisive. Taft, the incumbent, was pushed into a humiliating third place, Roosevelt, the ex-president came second. The victor was Woodrow Wilson, winning only the third victory for a Democratic presidential candidate since the end of the Civil War. Wilson won with 42% of the vote and would undoubtedly have lost had it not been for Roosevelt’s presence in the campaign. Taft went onto achieve his foremost lifelong dream: becoming Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Roosevelt went onto a fairly early death thus only witnessing the start of his cousin Franklin’s rose to power. Wilson led the United States into and through the First World War. The course of global history might have been very different had William Taft or Teddy Roosevelt led in his place.
This is a massive, thorough and entertaining book from Doris Kearns Goodwin whose Team of Rivals inspired not just Steven Spielberg to make his fairly dull Lincoln movie but which may have inspired President Obama to appoint his defeated opponent (and possible successor) Hilary Clinton as his first Secretary of State. This book may turn out to have some lasting political impact too as it is thought to have influenced Ed Miliband, the man most opinion polls suggest will be British Prime Minister within the year. Miliband could do worse than look to Teddy Roosevelt as a role model. Roosevelt was able to use the press of his time to press home the need for reform, however. In 21st century Britain, conditions are less favourable, however. The hostility of the right wing press may ultimately prove the greatest barrier not just to reform but to Mr Miliband even winning office in the first place.

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The wit and wisdom of Dan Quayle

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In July 1988, the Republican presidential nominee George HW Bush (then generally known as plain old George Bush or more formally Vice President Bush) announced his choice of running-mate for the forthcoming presidential election. His choice, James Danforth (Dan) Quayle would generally be viewed as a disaster. The next four years would witness one of the most gaffe-prone vice presidencies of all time.

Quayle, a 41-year-old senator from Indiana certainly looked the part. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, by then 77, and his potential successor Bush already in his mid-sixties, Quayle certainly helped give the Republican Party a more youthful image. He was also much younger than his opponent Michael Dukakis’s 67-year-old running mate Lloyd Bentsen.

But doubts were immediately raised about Senator Quayle’s experience. Most observers had expected Bush to pick his defeated primary opponent, Senator Bob Dole as his running mate. Quayle’s speaking style was stilted and unconvincing. It also soon emerged that twenty years before, he had used his family’s powerful business connections to ensure enrolment in the Indiana National Guard. The National Guard was usually seen as a sure way of avoiding the draft. It was in short an easy way to dodge involvement in the Vietnam War.

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Quayle was not the last public figure to face such allegations. Four years later, the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton would be accused of draft dodging too, taking some of the heat off Quayle who was by then vice president. But Clinton had at least opposed the war, unlike Quayle and Quayle’s opponent Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s running mate, had actually served in Vietnam. Worse was to come: Bush’s own son faced the same charge when he ran for president himself in 2000 and 2004 and even managed to go AWOL during his time on the Texan National Guard. His running mate Dick Cheney also avoided serving claiming simply that he had had “other priorities.” But Quayle had left the political arena by then.

Donald Kaul reflected the general furore: “Faced with a smorgasbord of vice presidential candidates – all conservative, some politically useful and some who might even wear the label ”distinguished” without embarrassment – Bush picked a callow, braying arch conservative from a state Bush was going to carry anyway. Quayle may not be on the lunatic fringe, but he can see it from where he’s standing. Of such decisions are concession speeches made…Quayle is a chicken hawk, a flag-waving jingoist who never met a war he didn’t like, but sought refuge in the National Guard when the opportunity to actually fight in one presented itself”.

The endless gaffes continued. A selection are included below.
Quayle was also humiliated in the 1988 vice presidential debates with Senator Lloyd Bentsen. By that stage in the contest, Vice President Bush was easily beating his opponent, Democrat Governor Michael Dukakis. But questions remained over Quayle’s experience. Nearly half of the United States’ post-war vice presidents had at that point, ended up being president (four out of nine. Bush would make it five out of ten, although no former vice presidents have become president since 1989). Bentsen was a veteran politician, who in the Sixties had beaten George HW Bush in an election for the Senate himself.

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Quayle attempted to defuse the issue, by unwisely comparing himself to President Kennedy, who had been assassinated in 1963:

Quayle: It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.)

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.)

Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

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It was the most stunning TV debate defeat ever.

Satire had a field day. An urban myth developed that Quayle had initially clumsily first raised his left hand when asked to take the oath of office, before hastily correcting himself and raising his right (this was untrue) A record entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Dan Quayle” was released, just as one entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan” had been released before. In both cases, both sides were of the record were completely blank. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip meanwhile portrayed the new Veep as being distracted by the “spinny” chair in his new office. Saturday Night Live actually portrayed Quayle as a child in several sketches.

Why didn’t Bush drop Quayle? Did he as a former vice president himself secretly fear the power of the vice president and so like Nixon picking Gerald Ford in 1973 hope to protect himself from any risk of future impeachment by putting a supposed idiot in the Number 2 spot? Did he secretly see in Quayle, a young southern draft dodger, someone who reminded him of his own son? Most likely, he thought to drop Quayle would seem to concede error and might prove more damaging. In 1972, democrat nominee George McGovern’s campaign never recovered after his decision to drop his running mate Thomas Eagleton after questions were raised about him.

And in fact, Quayle’s selection seems to have had little electoral impact. The Bush-Quayle ticket won a comfortable forty state victory, over Dukakis and Bentsen in 1988. Quayle seemed to have had little impact in 1992 either. Voters, as usual, seem to have been voting for the main candidate not the running mate.

Quayle continued to make real gaffes too, none, it must be said of real global importance,  notably launching a scathing attack on the fictional US TV character Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) for giving birth out of wedlock. President Bush, in fairness, had fallen into a similar trap declaring Americans should be “more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons”. On the show, Bart hit back: “We are like The Waltons…we’re all praying for an end to the Great Depression too!”

By now, it was 1992 and an unpopular Bush was facing possible defeat as he ran for re-election. There was talk of dropping Quayle. Bush had suffered a mild heart attack in 1991, reminding voters that Quayle was only a heartbeat away from the presidency. A secret service chief was fired after joking that if Bush were assassinated, his operatives should immediately shoot Quayle to prevent him becoming president.

1992 actually saw one of Quayle’s most memorable gaffes incorrectly changing the spelling of the word “potato” on a visit to a school after a pupil had written it on the board correctly (“You’re close, but you left a little something off,” he said “The “e” on the end”).

But generally Quayle performed better than expected during election year. He lost the TV debate to Al Gore, though not as spectacularly as in 1988. But when Bush lost to Clinton in November, Quayle wasn’t blamed. In 2000, he even launched an exploratory bid for the Republican presidential nomination himself. In the end, another Bush, George W, got it.

The vice presidency is an unfulfilling job for most. Unlike Nixon’s first Number Two, Spiro Agnew, who ultimately resigned when it emerged he had evaded paying his taxes when he was Governor of Maryland, Quayle avoided scandal. But a stream of gaffes and unconvincing public performances ensured that he never gained the confidence of the American public.

Like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin since, he was a rich source of gaffes. Here are some of his ‘finest’ moments…

President George H. W. Bush

The best of Dan Quayle…

The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history….No, not our nation’s, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history.

People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.
(Interview referring to Rasputin).

We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

On Hawaii:

Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States. That is an island that is right here.

When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful, how true that is.
(Speech to the United Negro College Fund . The Fund’s slogan was “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”)

The other day [the President] said, I know you’ve had some rough times, and I want to do something that will show the nation what faith that I have in you, in your maturity and sense of responsibility. Would you like a puppy?

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy. But that could change.

Mars is essentially in the same orbit.… Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.

On the 1992 LA Riots:
I have been asked who caused the riots and the killing in LA, my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

On TV show Murphy Brown:

Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomises today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

This is what I say about the scorn of the media elite: I wear their scorn as a badge of honour.

I believe that I’ve made good judgments in the past, and I think I’ve made good judgments in the future.

We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to move forward.

We understand the importance of having the bondage between the parent and the child.

The future will be better tomorrow.

I made a misstatement and I stand by all my misstatements.

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Ten reasons why Labour will win the 2015 General Election

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The media seem to have already decided the result. They don’t want Labour to win so therefore they cannot win. Really? Take a look at the following before deciding for yourself…

  1. Labour are ahead in the polls.

As of July 2014, average opinion polling would give Labour a majority of thirty if replicated in a general election. This is easily enough for a five year parliament and a solid basis for an even longer spell in government. No recent opinion polls have given the Tories anything like enough to come first, let alone enough to win a majority in the House of Commons.

  1. Nobody likes the Tories.

They haven’t won a General Election since April 1992. That’s twenty two years! Many current voters were not even born then.  Even in 2010, in the throes of a global recession and with Gordon Brown less than popular, they were unable to achieve outright victory.

  1. Many Lib Dems will flock to Labour.

The Lib Dem leadership have totally betrayed their supporters and their progressive origins. The party now has more in common with George Osborne than Lloyd George. Some Lib Dems sadly will never vote again. Some might drift towards UKIP. Far more will move towards Labour.

  1. UKIP are hurting the Tories more than anyone else.

Yes, it would be foolish to deny that UKIP are taking votes off all the major parties. But as a right wing party they are clearly hitting the Tories hardest.

  1. More voters care about the NHS than anything else.

This is Labour’s issue. Labour created the NHS and saved it from destruction after 1997. People care about their health more than anything else.

  1. The last Labour Government had a great record.

A lasting peace in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. A decade of prosperity. A dramatic fall in the levels of crime. The introduction of the minimum wage. And if Labour were so awful why did they win three landslide victories in a row, including the two largest since the war? Even in 2010, their actual defeat was small enough to deny the Tories a majority.

  1. Ed Miliband has been a success as leader.

Contrary to media myth, Miliband has connected strongly with public opinion on the issues of newspaper phone hacking, rising energy prices and the ongoing struggle to make ends meet.

  1. The bedroom tax has been a disastrous failure.

Ill conceived, malicious and badly planned, it is David Cameron’s Poll Tax.

  1. The Tories are still hopelessly divided over Europe.

EU membership is guaranteed under Labour. Under Cameron, as under past Tory governments, years of uncertainty, division and infighting are assured.

  1. Nobody is happier under the Tories.

The last few years have witnessed endless cuts, uncertainty and insecurity. It is time to put this to an end and restore Labour to their rightful place in government.

 

 

Book review: Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister

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Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister.

Michael Jago.

Published by Biteback.

Few great political leaders have been so frequently underestimated as Clement Richard Attlee. In his early years, he showed little sign of becoming anything special or indeed of developing a socialist outlook. As Jago explains, for a Victorian boy of Attlee’s background born in 1883, there was simply no means of becoming a socialist. The teenage Attlee once argued that the working classes could not be expected to appreciate museums and art galleries in a school debating society. Attlee would later be embarrassed by these views, although as a lifelong champion of both the monarchy and the public school system, a conservative strain to Attlee’s thinking always remained.

Attlee And Bevan

Attlee seemed set for a fairly unpromising legal career until a period of voluntary work which started before the First World War transformed his outlook and which in the 1920s launched him towards politics. He continued to be underestimated, however. The first ever Oxford graduate to become a Labour MP, his rise to the leadership in 1935 surprised many. Most assumed he would be a temporary stop gap leader. In fact, he would be the longest serving Labour leader there has ever been, lasting twenty years until 1955 (Ed Miliband will need to last until 2030 to do as well! )

Churchill underestimated him too describing him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” despite witnessing his competence working alongside him in the wartime coalition in which Attlee eventually became the first ever Deputy Prime Minister. Churchill invited him to the first half of the critical post-war Yalta Conference on the off chance that Attlee might win the 1945 election and thus need to attend the rest as Prime Minister. But this was a formality. Churchill didn’t expect him to win. Neither did Stalin or his foreign minister Molotov, who, apparently not quite grasping how democracy works, had expected Churchill to fix the result.

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Labour’s spectacular 1945 General Election victory gave them their first ever majority. It was also a  huge one:  146. Only Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 has won bigger victories since. The new intake of Labour MPs included most of the key Labour figures of the next forty years: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, George Brown, Denis Healey, Michael Foot with Tony Benn and James Callaghan soon to follow.

Attlee’s government did so well that every government since has been disappointing in comparison. Despite walking an economic tightrope throughout, Attlee ensured the return of full employment, a house building boom, the establishment of the post-Cold War foreign policy, independence for India, the nationalisation programme and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.

Even now, nearly fifty years after his death in 1967, Attlee remains a somewhat underappreciated figure; his success often attributed more to his hugely talented cabinet (Cripps, Bevin, Bevan, Dalton and Morrison) than to the man himself. Jago’s excellent biography contains a couple of errors (a chapter entitled From Lord Haw Haw to Burgess and Maclean does not actually mention Lord Haw Haw aka William Joyce once) but is a masterly piece of work and goes some way to redressing the balance.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher shamelessly savaged Attlee’s cherished post-war legacy, it remains a shame that there is no one of Attlee’s stature around in Britain today.

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