US Election Memories 1: The Reagan years

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Some might think it a bit silly that I’ve chosen to record my memories of all of the US presidential elections I can remember. I went through the same process for the recent British General Elections last year but that sort of made sense. I am British, after all. I am not American, have never voted in a US election and being a bad flier, have never been to the US, indeed have never even left Europe. As my hopes of there ever being construction of an Atlantic Tunnel recede, it is possible I may never do, especially as I’m not sure I’d fancy going on it anyway. Why should these elections concern me?

The official answer simply is that the United States remains so powerful that its actions have a huge impact way beyond its own borders. It’s sort of like the butterfly effect but one caused by a ginormous butterfly creating a hurricane by flapping its enormous wings. Cool eh?

But the real reason is that I am just interested. I have always been interested. I don’t know why. As some Americans might say: go figure…

Ronald Reagan with George Bush

12 Aug 1988, Washington, DC, USA — Washington: President Reagan acknowledged the applause of senior staff members August 12th, prior to speaking to them as Vice President George Bush looks on. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

 

How Ronald Reagan nearly killed me.

I was pleased when I learnt Americans could all speak English. Personally, I really appreciated the effort. Why couldn’t the French or the Swedish go to the same trouble? Frankly, it smacks of laziness. Regardless, this lack of a language barrier made it easier for my Uncle to move to New York when I was four (an example of the “brain drain” much spoken of in the Thatcher years). Another relative, a cousin moved to the US later. The common language also made it easier for me to consume Dr Seuss books, Bugs Bunny cartoons and episodes of Hart To Hart from an early age.

I was born in December 1976, a month after Jimmy Carter narrowly beat the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency. I’d just missed seeing Watergate and Vietnam (on the TV news at least). I am also too young to remember Jimmy Carter being beaten by Ronald Reagan in November 1980 or Carter’s old vice president Walter Mondale being trounced by “the Gipper” (Reagan) four years after that. There is thus not much about elections in this instalment.

I do remember Reagan, however, and despite every cell in my brain telling me otherwise, I liked him and sort of still do. Oddly, despite having a very real fear of nuclear war, Reagan’s rhetoric and massive defence build-up undoubtedly increased already fragile international tensions in the early Eighties. The Cold War was already colder than it had ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. He pushed us closer to the brink than anyone else.

Like the little girl with the flower in the famous 1964 campaign ad, I could have thus been killed several times before I even knew what was going on. Never mind everyone else.

Of course, some argue Ronnie’s plan all along was to push the USSR into submission through pressure which Gorbachev ultimately did. In fact, there is no evidence Gorbachev’s reforms had anything to do with western pressure. Certainly, nobody ever seems to have said this out loud if this was the case, even in now declassified private conversations.

Reagan actually probably delayed the end of the Cold War, refusing a total ban on nuclear missiles because he wanted to keep his treasured Star Wars program.

Jokes like this didn’t help: “My fellow Americans,” he began during a public sound check in 1984. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Arguably, the first bit is okay. No one was liked to think Russia had actually been outlawed. But the chilling words “we begin bombing in five minutes” understandably caused a panic.

Despite this, despite the horrendous deficit he ran up, despite the Iran-Contra affair, I still have a soft spot for Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps it was just because he wasn’t Thatcher.

Photograph_of_President_Reagan_at_a_Reagan-Bush_Rally_in_New_York_-_NARA_-_198556

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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…

General Election memories 2: 1983

Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher

Peterborough, June 9th 1983
I was six by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983.  I certainly remember the year if not the election itself.

I remember going to the Isle of Wight on holiday and falling over outside the saloon area of the Wild West Zone of Blackgang Chine (all now, apparently, under the sea). I remember my older brother (then 17) dragging me to see Return of the Jedi. I remember Bananaman, Danger Mouse and my teachers at Queens Drive Infants School. I actually remember being conscious that it was the year 1983, the first year I think where this ever happened, even though my memory banks seem to start in 1980. But other than noting that Labour leader Michael Foot’s surname was “Foot” and that this was, of course, funny, I don’t remember anything political at all.

This is perhaps a good thing.

thatcher 1983

Conditions were ripe for a landslide Labour victory. The Thatcherite monetarist experiment had failed dramatically. 1981 had been a good year for my family: my father got a new job, we moved from the then modern and acceptable area of Longthorpe to a big house in a more central and very nice part of Peterborough (no, this last bit isn’t an oxymoron). My younger brother was born and I started school, both developments that doubtless delighted me at the time. Helped by the Trotskyite adventurer known as “Roger Redhat”, I soon learned to read.

But aside from Charles and Diana’s wedding, 1981, seems to have marked a major low point in the fortunes of the country as a whole. Margaret Thatcher became one of the most unpopular leaders on record as a major recession kicked in. Unemployment surged to a post-war high, inflation went nearly as high as it had in 1974. Callaghan’s predictions of rioting on the streets if Thatcher won, were soon vindicated in Brixton and Toxteth. Alan Moore predicted a Labour victory (as well as a second Kennedy presidency) in V For Vendetta. Chris Mullin predicted a Tory-SDP Coalition in A Very British Coup.

Two years later, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to their largest ever post-war election win. Labour were smashed. The Tory majority of 144 was smaller than Attlee’s in 1945 and Blair’s in 1997 and 2001, but was basically huge. What on Earth happened?

200203031254019Basically, the Falklands War happened. As Andrew Rawnsley has pointed out, Thatcher would definitely have had to resign had she not re-invaded the South Atlantic islands. But her strong war leadership gave a boost which effectively kept her in power for the rest of the decade.

But it wasn’t just that. The economy was starting to recover. And crucially 1981 was also the year Her Majesty’s Opposition pretty much collapsed completely.

Put simply: Roger Redhat proved too “red” for some, so Jonathan and Jennifer Yellow Hat broke away and formed their own group. But this weakened both, enabling Billy Bluehat to win.

Or put a bit more plainly: Labour coped very badly after their 1979 defeat. Labour has a tendency to go into a state of civil war after leaving government (and to Ed Miliband’s credit this didn’t happen at all in 2010. 2017 update: Ahem…) and in the Eighties this happened worse than ever. With the increasingly troublesome left winger Tony Benn opting out, the 1980 party leadership election was between two men Michael Foot and Denis Healey. Both were sixty something intellectuals first elected in the great landslide of 1945. Both would live into their late nineties (Healey is still alive. 2017 update: he died in 2015 age 98). But the left-winger Foot won unexpectedly, beating the more populist Healey. Many on the Right (some of whom may have sneakily voted for Foot to strengthen their own argument that Labour had slid into the loony Left) jumped ship forming a new centrist party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). By the end of 1981, they were more popular than the “evil” Thatcherites on one side and the “Loony lefties” of Labour on the other. The SDP’s allure quickly faded after they unwisely allied with the Liberals.

1983 michael-foot

The practical upshot of this was that three parties went into the 1983 election.

Mrs Thatcher’s Tories were less popular than in 1979 (their share of the vote fell). But boosted by the jingoistic fervour of the post-Falklands War mood, a slick campaign and the keen support of the Murdoch press, they won handsomely. The only awkward moment of the campaign for the Tories was the public grilling the Prime Minister received during a TV phone-in over the sinking of the General Belgrano. But this was not from Labour but from a member of the public.

Labour’s campaign, in contrast, was a gaffe-prone shambles. Michael Foot was a thoroughly decent man, intellectual and ultimately less of a “loony” than Thatcher would prove to be. But he looked terrible and scruffy on TV. Labour were furthermore undisciplined and all over the place. It is obligatory to repeat Gerald Kaufman’s remark that the manifesto represented “the longest suicide note in history” at this point and I will happily do so as it is very clever. The manifesto was indeed unusually long and supported unilateral disarmament. The world has only occasionally been closer to nuclear war than it was in 1983 but only a fifth of the UK saw full nuclear disarmament as a solution.  Labour came close to coming third behind the SDP vote-wise but the unfair electoral system ensured the SDP barely won any seats.

1983 everett

Would Thatcher have been re-elected without the Falklands War? I actually suspect she would have been, though the margin would have been narrower. Did the SDP deny Labour victory? Again, I suspect the answer is “no”. Labour were heading for defeat anyway. Had Healey been elected leader, Labour wouldn’t have split, the defeat would have been smaller. Labour may have recovered earlier, perhaps returning to power in 1992.

1983 Blair

As it was, the election was a disaster. New Labour MP Anthony Blair surely observed that Labour had a long way to go policy and presentation-wise but to his credit never seems to have considered joining the SDP. Tony Benn lost his seat.

And for me this is the most recent General Election I have no memory of.

And frankly, I think I was lucky to miss it.

London Tony Benn

 

Blu-ray review: The Americans: Season 1 (15)

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DVD/Blu-ray. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment

Starring: Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale.

It’s 1981, Ronald Reagan has just been elected president and the Cold War is colder than ever. In Washington DC, seemingly ordinary suburban couple Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) bring up their two children and get on with their busy lives.

Yet in reality, “Philip” and his “wife” “Elizabeth” are much “busier” than anyone, even their own children, realise. For they are not American at all but are in fact Soviet undercover KGB agents planted during the Khrushchev era and dedicated to the destruction of (as Superman memorably put it) “truth, justice and the American way”.

As if life wasn’t complicated enough, look whose moving in next door! Why it’s the Beeman family headed by patriotic American Stan (Noah Emmerich) who is (of all things) an FBI agent! Stan’s s own marriage is recovering after a long spell undercover himself with the Klan in the Deep South. But while the Jennings know what he does (he is quite open about it), he has no idea that the Jennings are in fact the enemies in his midst although he does sense something is a little “off” about Philip.  With the two suburban families apparently growing friendlier, the stage is set for an enormous game of cat and mouse to begin.

As The Sopranos demonstrated, there’s plenty of fun to be had by mixing apparent suburban bliss with a morally ambiguous double life. Although they were formally paired together in the 1960s, the Jennings’ marriage isn’t a total sham. They love their genuinely all-American kids and do at least get jealous of each other when one or each of them takes part in the inevitable liaisons with other people which are an inevitable part of their work. Although the air of mystery is slightly undermined by the silly wigs and disguises they are forced to wear (think Val Kilmer in The Saint), we are left under no illusions: even Philip who has nagging doubts about the cause and has contemplated defecting to the West for good, is still prepared to do horrendous things in the name of the USSR.

Emmerich (once again playing a neighbour/spy as he did in The Truman Show) is actually the best thing about this in this and in some ways, the ups and downs of his life are more compelling than those of the Jennings who all too often vent their frustrations by simply  whingeing at each other. This and a general lack of a sense of humour are probably the main flaws of the series.

But with Season 2 of ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg’s series already screening on ITV 1, this certainly shows promise. And it’s hard to be too critical of a series which gives Richard Thomas his best role (as Stan’s boss at the FBI) since his heyday as John -Boy Walton.

Extras: Deleted Scenes, Audio Commentary on Episode “The Colonel”, Executive Order 2578: Expanding The Americans Featurette, Perfecting The Art of Espionage Featurette, Ingenuity Over Technology Featurette, Gag Reel.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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The Seventies were a very long time ago. It was a time of Cold War, industrial unrest, power cuts, states of emergency and economic decline. The Right were alarmed at the possibility of a coup from the Marxist Left, perhaps led by Anthony Wedgewood Benn. The Left were, in turn (perhaps with more reason) worried about the prospect of a military takeover by the Right, perhaps with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed as its symbolic head.

None of this news. The Seventies have been well covered in recent years, in non-fiction (such as Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent State of Emergency) and in fiction (Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is just one example).

The era, specifically the Heath years (1970-74), do, however, provide an excellent backdrop for Ian McEwan’s latest spy novel Sweet Tooth.

Perhaps “spy novel” is a misleading term (although it definitely is one) as this has a more literary flavour than most books in the genre. The young pretty heroine Serena Frome (perhaps Hayley Atwell could play her if there’s ever a TV or film version?) is groomed for MI5 after leaving Cambridge once an affair with one of her lecturers turns sour. But Serena’s suitability for espionage is as based as much on her reading habits as any other talents she might have. For Serena is soon used as a tool to bring an emerging star of the literary world “on side” and like George Orwell before, become ensconced in the MI5 Cold War camp.

Ian McEwan is a rarity in British fiction in that he manages to attract both popular appeal with literary acclaim. Here, he does so again, exploring a world of intrigue as well as a vanished literary scene (Anthony Powell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis) in reality poised to give way to a new generation of writing talent, namely Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Ian McEwan himself.

Thatcher didn’t save Britain: and other myths of the era dispelled

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher “saved Britain”: Whatever you think about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, David Cameron and the Daily Mail are clearly wrong. While Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill arguably saved Britain from invasion and President Kennedy’s actions may have saved us from nuclear destruction over Cuba in 1962, Thatcher cannot claim this. Without her, you might argue we might have lost the Falklands, still be strike bound or a poorer nation than we are currently. Or alternatively, you might think, we would have a fairer, wealthier society, fewer homeless, less crime  and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.

Thatcher won the Cold War: Thatcher identified Gorbachev as “a man she could do business with” early on (in 1984) and this is to her credit. But the thaw in East-West relations had little to do with US President Ronald Reagan, less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any difference whatsoever.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher: She did cut free school milk as Education Secretary, yes. But her Labour predecessors had already done so too. The name “milk snatcher” only stuck because a) she’s a woman and b) it rhymes with “Margaret Thatcher”.

She enjoyed warm relations with Reagan: This is generally true. But they almost fell out in 1982 when the US threatened to remain neutral in the Falklands dispute. They almost fell out again in 1983, when the US invaded the Commonwealth nation of Greneda without even warning the UK in advance.

Thatcher was consistently anti-European: Not so! As Opposition leader, she enthusiastically campaigned for the successful Yes campaign in the 1975 EEC Referendum ensuring continued membership. In power, the Single European Act passed in 1986, went much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.

Delusions of grammar: as Education Secretary, she closed more Grammar Schools than anyone before or since.

She was Britain’s first woman prime minister: Okay, this is true!

Second term blues

Barack Obama Is Sworn In As 44th President Of The United States

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.Imagea

Presidents on screen

Ronald Reagan

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:

George Washington

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.

 

Teddy Roosevelt

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.

 

Ronald Reagan

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).Image

Thirty years of A Very British Coup

Written during the gloomy days of the early Thatcher era, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has since inspired two Channel 4 dramas series: a 1988 series adapted by Alan Plater and the current  The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne..

The second of these has so far has shown only a slight resemblance to Chris Mullin’s novel. But thirty years after it was first published, A Very British Coup remains one of the finest political novels ever written.

The story is set in what was then the future: the year 1989. The General Election has ended with an amazing shock result: the Labour Party led by former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins has been swept to power in an unexpected popular landslide. The result is a clear mandate for a truly radical agenda which proposes “consideration to be given” to withdrawal from NATO, an end to the nuclear deterrent and to UK membership  of the then Common Market, abolition of the House of Lords, an end to public schools and much more.

Little wonder the establishment react with alarm. The story of A Very British Coup is essentially of how the security services (with US help), the media and civil service all conspire to thwart the new government’s agenda and ultimately subvert democracy.

Some might scoff at the premise. 1989 after all, turned out to be the high watermark of Thatcherism in reality. And how likely is it that the Tories and SDP would form an alliance or that Labour would beat them with a manifesto which makes Labour’s real “longest suicide note in history” from 1983 look mild in comparison?

In fact, it’s not so far-fetched. Since 2010, we have been living under something very close to a Tory-SDP “Government of National Unity”. Labour also won an unexpected landslide on a very socialist agenda in the “khaki” election of 1945 and again, won unexpectedly (though much more narrowly) on a hard left manifesto in 1974.

There are also similarities between Harry Perkins and Harold Wilson, another Yorkshire-born Labour Prime Minister who resigned very unexpectedly in 1976. Even their names are similar. Wilson often talked of MI5 plots against him and it is easy to dismiss his talk now as an early manifestation of the Alzheimer’s disease which would blight his old age.

Except… it has since emerged: elements of MI5 were genuinely actively plotting against Wilson. Maybe not at the very top of the service, but some more eccentric right-wing agents apparently genuinely believed Wilson was a KGB agent who had assassinated his predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell who died in 1963. In reality, this conspiracy theory is unlikely as Wilson was not even favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of the latter’s death, George Brown was. There is talk at the end of the novel of a book being written which would tell the true story of “what happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must, however, be some doubt as to whether it will ever be published.”

Such talk should only go so far though. The book is a novel. Chris Mullin, later a Labour MP and now an acclaimed political diarist would not actually have expected events to turn out exactly as he wrote them, any more than George Orwell would have expected the horrors of his vision of 1984 to be fully realised. Harry Perkins is not Harold Wilson: he is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Mullin’s vision of the pernicious effects of Thatcherism in the Eighties is highly prescient. He may not have anticipated the peaceful end of the Cold War (virtually nobody did in 1981) but nor did he predict a Labour election landslide for Michael Foot or a limited nuclear war started by President Ted Kennedy as Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta which also appeared in 1982 did.

Perhaps more by coincidence, Mullin did foresee a Labour Foreign Secretary being revealed to have had an extramarital affair soon after a landslide election win. This is exactly what happened to the late Robin Cook in 1997 although he didn’t resign and the affair thankfully ended more happily than it does for the fictional Tom Newsome. On the other hand, Mullin was somewhat off in predicting the age of King Charles III and Queen Diana would have begun by 1989.

My copy of A Very British Coup features the quote “A delicious fantasy” by The Observer on the cover. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly delicious but it clearly isn’t entirely rooted in fantasy. Remember, the first ever Labour Government was brought down at least in part by the faked “Zinoviev Letter” distributed by MI5 in 1924. Think about how ungracious the response to Obama’s re-election has been amongst some on the US Right (such as Donald Trump). Or how the UK establishment might react to an unexpected Ed Miliband win in 2015.

Consider finally, this real life quote by the noted right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne in the Daily Telegraph from 1979 with which Mullin begins the novel: “When treason can be right”, it explains: “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour government dominated by the Marxist left . . . Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in seeking to ‘destabilise’ this far-left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation?”

No wonder A Very British Coup also features a villain called Peregrine.

Whatever happened to the end of Communism?

We all remember the fall of Communism don’t we? Certainly, anyone who is over twenty five will.

Who could, after all, forget the end of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Or Boris Yeltsin’s heroic role following the coup two years later? Or the final collapse of the USSR?

For many, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to signal an ideological victory for capitalism. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and “the end of history”. Many argued that the end of the USSR proved that Communism and Marxist-Leninism, like fascism before it, simply could not work. It was contrary to human nature, they said. Reagan, Bush and Thatcher claimed the war had been won
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