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 the 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.
It is also 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.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty-four years today. It is sad to reflect that he has now been dead longer than he was ever alive. Although his reputation has undeniably been tarnished by revelations about his private life in the years since, he remains, broadly speaking, a much admired figure renowned for his eloquence and charm but also for his cool head at a time of extreme international tension, particularly during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is perhaps for this reason that American Republicans, displeased with their poor score sheet in producing decent US presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bush boys, Trump – you see my point?”) have adopted a new tactic: adopting JFK as one of their own. If Kennedy were alive today, they argue, he would not be a Democrat as he was in reality, but a Republican. One author has even produced a book “Kennedy, Conservative” based on this theory.
Some may argue it is a bit silly to try and assume what someone no longer able to speak up for himself would now be thinking. Some might argue the US political system is more fluid than some others, party-wise anyway. After all, Nixon oversaw Detente. The first Bush’s presidency coincided with the end of the Cold War. This does not make them liberals.
Others might feel that suggesting JFK would now be a member of the party headed by Donald Trump is rather dishonouring Kennedy’s memory. They would be right.
But here are a number of other reasons why claiming JFK for the Republican cause is fundamentally absurd:
JFK on communism
Kennedy was definitely anti-communist, sometimes to his detriment, launching the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and beginning the slow escalation of the war in Vietnam. In his anticommunism he is no different from every other post-war Democratic president. Consider: Truman started the war in Korea and established post-war containment policy. Johnson oversaw the disastrous full escalation of the war in Vietnam. Carter presided over an unprecedented military build-up (which Reagan continued).
JFK and the NRA
JFK was indeed, a member of the National Rifle Association. It was not then, the eccentric assortment of powerful but militant right wingers that it is today.
JFK and taxes
Kennedy did reduce taxes to help stimulate economic growth. In this, he is only as conservative as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (“the tax cuts in the stimulus package, for example, were arguably the largest in history” writes author Robert Schlesinger). JFK’s belief in tax cuts was routed in the context of the times and his Keynesian values too: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He also reduced the top rate of tax to 65%, far higher than it is today.
JFK and the rich
It is sometimes claimed the Kennedy family’s immense wealth makes him an unlikely Democrat. Of course, if this was true now, it was then. And it wasn’t true then. Many rich people have been Democrats e.g. Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Soros. It’s irrelevant.
JFK and race
JFK was firmly in favour of desegregation and pushed hard for civil rights. He would doubtless have been as delighted by Obama’s election in 2008 as his brother Ted was. He would be disgusted by Trump’s cheap, racist anti-Mexican jibes.
JFK and abortion
Kennedy is often referred to as “anti-abortion” by those who want to claim him for the Right. In fact, he never made any pubic pronouncements on the subject.
JFK and social programmes
JFK’s short administration paved the way for the “Great Society” and social programmes such as Medicare.
JFK and walls
Kennedy spoke eloquently against the division and unhappiness, socially divisive walls can create.
Like most right minded people, he would be disgusted by what the Trump administration is doing today. He was a Democrat then and most would assuredly be so today.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
“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).
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…
Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).
William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)
Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however. Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.
President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)
Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?
President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)
“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.
Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)
Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.
Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won. Quite a tame film by modern standards.
Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)
Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.
President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)
Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.
President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)
The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.
Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)
Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.
Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)
A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)
One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.
President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)
Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.
President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)
Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.
President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)
There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.
President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)
It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.
Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)
You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.
Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)
Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.
President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)
Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.
President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)
Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.
President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)
Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.
President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)
Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.
Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)
Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.
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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
“Au, H2o! Au, H2O!” may seem like an odd thing to chant (in fact, it definitely is). But in 1964, Senator Barry Francis Goldwater (Au=Gold, H2O=water on the Periodic Table) was the US Republican presidential candidate and, in truth, the science-themed chanting of his supporters was one of the least odd things about either the candidate or the campaign.
Goldwater is probably the most right wing US presidential nominee there has ever been. The Republican Party effectively jettisoned any attempt to appear moderate when it selected Goldwater as the party’s nominee instead of Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of the richest families in world history and later the Vice President to President Gerald Ford.
Unusually, the new nominee did not even pretend to be moderate, claiming famously:
“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
The contrast between the amiable golf playing Republican president “Ike” Eisenhower of just a few years before and the Arizona senator was striking. Goldwater was undeniably eloquent: fifty years on, few phrases from a convention address by any candidate have remained enshrined in popular memory (at least in the US) as well as the first sentence above. Only Kennedy’s “New Frontier” has proven as enduring.
But Goldwater’s timing was awful. The US craved stability after the Kennedy assassination of the previous year. They feared Goldwater’s aggressive Cold War rhetoric. A memorable TV commercial by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign exploited this fear with a broadcast showing a little girl apparently being obliterated by a nuclear bomb. “The stakes are too high to stay home,” the advert warned. Two years after the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the message was clear.
The Goldwater campaign used the slogan “Goldwater: In your heart, you know he’s right.”
But people did not, in truth, know any such thing. A common retort to the Republican slogan was: “Goldwater: In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” As with the Tory slogan in the UK 2005 General Election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Goldwater had totally misread the public mood.
Ultimately, Goldwater was routed. He won only six out of fifty states and was beaten by President Kennedy’s successor, Johnson by a record margin of votes in the November 1964 election. He was one of the biggest presidential losers of the 20th century.
Fifty years on, three things stand out. On the one hand, while World War III may have been averted, the US certainly did not enjoy peace and stability under his opponent LBJ. By 1968, the nation was being ravaged by disorder and assassination, largely due to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Goldwater was at least as hawkish as Johnson in backing this war, however, so it is unlikely either candidate could have provided a peaceful future.
A lasting consequence of the campaign was also that the actor Ronald Reagan first made his mark with a speech for Goldwater. Reagan had been a Democrat as late as 1962. By 1966, he was Governor of California and by 1981, president himself. Reagan had a charm which Goldwater lacked but had it not been the ascent of Gorbachev in the USSR his aggressive Cold War stance which echoed Goldwater’s, Reagan’s anti-Soviet position might have ended as disastrously as Goldwater’s threatened to do.
Ironically, in old age, Goldwater who died in 1998, came to retreat from his earlier extremism. He attacked Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and in 1996, with parallels being drawn between presidential contender Pat Buchanan and the Goldwater of 1964, Goldwater, by then an old man, made clear he supported Buchanan’s moderate opponent Senator Bob Dole (the eventual nominee although not the ultimate victor).
Fifty years on, many today still sympathise with Goldwater’s creed. But his policies were decisively rejected by the electorate and ultimately by Barry Goldwater himself.
John Heilemann And Mark Halperin: Double Down: The Explosive Inside Account Of The 2012 Election.
Published by: WH Allen.
They had a tough act to follow. Following on from the triumph of their book, Race Of A Lifetime, which chronicled the highs and lows of the 2008 presidential contest, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann must have confronted the task of repeating the trick with an account of the 2012 election with some trepidation.
2008 was, after all, an unusually eventful campaign, literally the “race of a lifetime”. That election featured an incredibly bitter Democratic primary battle between a former First Lady and a dynamic black hopeful, a calamitous sideshow (the disastrous campaign of Senator John Edwards), a grumpy an aged Republican nominee (John McCain), the rise and fall of Sarah Palin and ultimately an unprecedented outcome: the election of the first black president, a result that would have seemed unthinkable only a year before. How could 2012 compete with such drama?
Happily, it very nearly did and this is a worthy follow up to the earlier book (even if as a Brit, I’ve still no idea at all what the term “double down” means, despite it being used several times in the book).
For one thing, the 2012 contest was never a foregone conclusion. Having done well with a disastrous inheritance from his appalling predecessor (Bush), the economy remained sluggish in 2012, leaving the president unusually vulnerable particularly after his poor performance in the first presidential TV debate.
Despite this, the Republicans remained in a state of crisis throughout the year. An unlovely bunch of grotesques such as the eccentric billionaire Donald Trump threatened but ultimately declined to throw their hats into the ring. Others did, including the horrendous Newt Gingrich and arch homophobe Senator Rick Santorum (one Democrat wag claimed “Santorum” is Latin for “asshole”).
The party ultimately opted for the immaculately coffered but incredibly gaffe-prone Governor Mitt Romney: a decent man in many ways but one almost incapable of speaking without either offending someone (including Boris Johnson and the London Olympic Committee) or reminding everyone just how rich he was. Random cock-ups such as Clint Eastwood ranting at an empty chair at the party convention did not help. But Romney’s lowest moment was his notorious “47% gaffe” when he was recorded saying:
”There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”
Romney, nevertheless, came surprisingly close to victory before Hurricane Sandy and Republican Chris Christie’s enthusiasm for the Democrat president sealed his fate. Ironically. Romney scored 47% of the vote.
A hugely compulsive read even when you know the outcome already.
The new Netflix US version of 1990 BBC drama House of Cards has met with widespread and deserved critical acclaim. But how does it compare to the original series by Andrew Davies, itself adapted from a novel by Michael (now Baron) Dobbs? (Expect spoilers).
The essence of the story is the same. In the UK version, Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is denied a cabinet position after a broken promise by incoming Prime Minister Henry Collingridge. Using young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) as a conduit, Urquhart plots revenge and begins a steady rise to power. In the US version, House Majority Whip Frank (or Francis) Underwood is angered after the new President Walker retreats from a pre-election promise to back him as his nominee for Secretary of State. Journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) plays a similar role to Mattie in the original.
The original series was set in what was then the near future. Collingridge succeeds in a leadership contest following the fall of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in fact, Thatcher fell while the series was being broadcast, a fortunate stroke of timing as it made the series hugely topical). The US version is simply set in an alternative 2013 in which Walker is president instead of Obama.
The US version is about three times as long as the UK one and includes a number of new storylines. Blogging, instant messaging and other 21st century innovations also play their part.
Underwood is a southerner, perhaps making him feel like an outsider. The north/south divide has no real equivalent in UK politics at least not in the same way, largely due to the American Civil War.
Urquhart is from an extremely privileged background which in 1990 was reasonably unfashionable for a prospective Tory leader (Heath, Thatcher and Major all came from quite humble backgrounds while Douglas Hurd was harmed by a perception that he was “posh”). Class plays less of a role in US politics and Underwood is, in stark contrast, from a very poor background.
Underwood is a Democrat, not a Republican as one might expect (the US Republican Party is closer to Urquhart’s Tory Party than the Democrats are). Perhaps this is simply to give the show extra contemporary resonance as the US currently has a Democrat president.
Although Urquhart’s wife plays an important supportive role in the British series (and even more so in the follow ups To Play The King and The Final Cut), Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) plays a far greater role in the Netflix series. There is a strong Shakespearian vein running through both versions. Both Ian Richardson and Kevin Spacey had backgrounds in Shakespearian theatre.
Frank Underwood is actually a very different character to Urquhart and much more obviously ruthless from the outset. Urquhart conceals his true aims behind a veil of false modesty. Underwood speaks more crudely than Urquhart too but with a sort of eloquence reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson.
The wry asides to the audience remain, however. Underwood even waves to the audience during President Walker’s inauguration ceremony.
The relationship between Underwood and Barnes has a more overt sexual undercurrent from the outset. This could be because of their use of instant messaging or simply because Barnes is a more flirtatious character than Mattie Storin was. It could also be because Underwood appears much younger than Urquhart did, making a relationship seem more credible from the start. In fact, in the actor Kevin Spacey was only three years younger than Ian Richardson was when he performed the role (Richardson was 56 in 1990, Spacey was 53 in 2013).
The president barely appears in early episodes of the US series. Underwood complains he is not present at the meeting in which he is denied promotion. In the British version, Urquhart meets Collingridge frequently.
The affair between Congressman Russo and his staffer no longer has an interracial dimension as that of his equivalent Roger O’Neill did in the UK series.
“You may very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” This catchphrase remains. Essentially, as an answer to a direct question, it is a euphemism for “yes, you are right”.
How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity? Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?
Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.
If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.
Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.
Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.
General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.
But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.
Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw, Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.
Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.
Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.
Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.
In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.
Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft. But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.
Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.
Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?
Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?
Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:
1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.
2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.
2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.
As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.
So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.
In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.
Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.
Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.
Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.
Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.
He has mastered different genres to such an extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?
Reiner directed them all.
Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long-running Seventies US comedy show, All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies.
Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).
Nigel: “It really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?”
David: “Too much. There’s too much fucking perspective now”.
The Sure Thing (1985)
A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER actor, Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.
Stand By Me (1986)
Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body), actually improves on its source material in its depiction of four boys embarking on a macabre camping expedition into the woods to see the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes, this is Reiner’s greatest film.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
The Princess Bride (1987)
Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Robin Wright, Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.
“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s late mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.
“When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.”
Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad going.
“I thought you were good Paul… but you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy”.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.
Col. Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!
Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
The American President (1996)
Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City TV comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.
Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies). Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.
Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?
There are several reasons:
He has genuinely gone off the boil since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful.
Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has. All were admittedly great.
But credit where credit’s due, Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.
The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.
But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.
Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.
Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.
President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).
History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.
The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president, Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.
Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.
President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.
Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.
Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.
Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.
President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.
A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves behind a pregnant wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.
At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election.
Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.
That very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is re-elected to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.
Father Joseph P. Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.
George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.
Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.
Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice, Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.
McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.
Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive for a period between January 1973 and August 1974.
The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.
Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.
President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.
President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.
Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.
The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released. As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.
Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Gerald Ford for the White House.
Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.
The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.
Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this was the case between 1968 and 1996).
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.
President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting that after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect (he was third in line after both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House) and the “I’m in charge” gaffe reassures no one on an alarming day. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.
This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).
Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.
David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.
Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.
Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.
Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis.
Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:
Quayle: 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.
Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.
William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.
Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when the 35th president visited his high school when Clinton was 16.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.
John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies, aged 76. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.
Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film, Forrest Gump.
Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.
Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.
The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age. Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination.
Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.
The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.
John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister-in-law. He is 39.
Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (although does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days referred to in the title are October 14th-28th 1962).
Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.
The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.
The film Bobby, directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released. Estevez is the son of Martin Sheen who played JFK in 1983.
Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.
Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the third longest continuously serving Senator in US history.
Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).
TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series, The Kennedys, thirty years before.
Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.
So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?
Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).
Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.
Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.
To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.
That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.
Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.
Richard M. Nixon (Rep).
Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.
January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.
But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?
In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.
Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.
Ronald Reagan (Rep).
Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.
Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.
The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.
The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.
Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.
Bill Clinton (Dem).
Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.
Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.
Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.
George W. Bush (Rep).
“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.
Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.
Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.a
So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:
Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).
Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.
Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.
Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).
Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.
Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.
Dwight David Eisenhower
Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.
Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.
Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.
Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.
Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.
Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.
Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.
Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.
Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.
Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,
Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.
George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.
Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.
Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.
The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.
JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.
Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).
Poor Hillary Clinton.
While it is tempting to think of her recent illness purely in terms of its likely impact on her presidential prospects, it should be remembered that the Secretary of State faces a very serious medical condition. We all wish her well.
However, Mrs Clinton’s agony will undoubtedly have been compounded by the possibility that the news of her blood clot may well prevent her becoming the first woman president of the USA. Even more annoyingly, she has already had two great opportunities to achieve this in the past…
It’s easy to see why Hillary didn’t run for the presidency in 2004. She had only been elected as a Senator in 2000, after all, and incumbent presidents – even terrible ones like Bush – are rarely defeated when they run for re-election. It made much more sense to hold out until 2008, when the field would be clear. Had I been writing this blog in 2004, I’d probably have urged her to hold out until 2008 too.
Yet in retrospect, 2004 might well have l have been the former First Lady’s best ever chance of winning the presidency for herself. Senator John Kerry who was not, after all, the most inspiring presidential candidate the Democrats have ever produced came within a hair’s breadth of dismounting Bush (Kerry is now, of course, Clinton’s most likely successor as Secretary of State). Bill Clinton too, it should be remembered, seemed to have little chance when he announced his candidacy against a post-Desert Storm President George HW Bush in 1991. A bolder attitude would perhaps have favoured her in 2004.
But then nobody knew about Barack Obama…
Hillary Clinton came tantalisingly close to securing the Democratic nomination in 2008. Yet in truth, this time, she didn’t deserve it. Her campaign shared many of the faults of David Miliband’s campaign for the Labour leadership in 2010: arrogance and assumption that the prize was owed to them by right as well as support for the unpopular Iraq War.
Admittedly, Hillary was not to know just how strong a candidate her opponent Obama was to prove. She stayed in the race long after she should have pulled out, feebly claiming she needed to be on hand in case Obama was assassinated. It was not her finest hour.
Age does not seem to be the deterrent to high office that it can be in the UK. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, elderly leaders were the norm in Britain. Jim Callaghan was 68 when he stood down as Labour leader in 1980. The resulting leadership contest was between Denis Healey (62) and Michael Foot (67).
All of these men would live into their nineties: Healey is still alive today. Yet Foot’s advanced age was widely seen as a major factor in Labour’s landslide 1983 defeat. Since then, Britain’s leaders have got younger and younger. John Major became the youngest PM of the 20th century in 1990. He was 47. His successor Tony Blair was 43. David Cameron in 2010 was younger still. Today all three party leaders are well under fifty.
In the US, Reagan seemed to set a different precedent. While Foot had long white hair, a walking stick and glasses, Reagan (who was in power at the same time as Foot was Labour leader) had somehow retained his dark hair despite being two years older than Foot. Reagan was the first ever presidential nominee to be over seventy. Since then Bob Dole and John McCain have followed his example. Although, of course, neither won. Mitt Romney was 65.
So Hillary being 69 in 2016 was not seen as a serious obstacle to her running in 2016. And the omens looked better than ever after a successful stint as Obama’s first Secretary Of State.
But the blood clot is more serious. Hopefully, both Mrs Clinton and her presidential prospects will make a speedy recovery.
Has there ever, in the history of the world, been a stupider political slogan than this?
Yet, in the United States, thousands of innocent people have died as a result of the slogan. Thousands more may die yet.
Ask any child and they will tell you: of course, guns alone don’t kill people. People with guns do. And they are far more likely to be killed by people if guns are in plentiful supply. As they are in the United States, which is why FAR FAR more Americans are killed this way, than in nations with gun control.
38,000 Americans are killed by guns every year.
0.25 people in the UK out of every 100,000 people in the population are killed in firearm related deaths every year.
9.20 people in the US out of every 100,000 people in the population are killed in firearm related deaths every year.
This is nearly 37 times as high.
I do not wish to make light of the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut last week which was genuinely appalling. The one silver lining seems to be that it has provided a new appetite for new gun control legislation not seen in the US since the Clinton years.
Bill Clinton, is in fact, the only recent US president to emerge with any credit on this issue. Before the powerful gun control lobby got its pernicious claws into public opinion, most Americans favoured gun control legislation. Even before the recent massacre, public opinion still favoured the introduction of tougher restrictions on gun ownership than are currently in place.
Obama did nothing about this in his first term and remained silent when the Aurora massacre occurred during the election campaign. In his defence, starting a row on the subject in the summer would have been unlikely to have productive. It would not have resulted in any legislation at that stage of the electoral cycle. Indeed, it may well have handed the White House to Governor Mitt Romney (remember him?) and thus pushed gun control off the agenda until at least 2017.
In the meantime, we must consider the validity of the anti-gun control arguments. If there is a good argument against gun control, I’ve yet to hear it:
a) The “gun control doesn’t work” argument: Er… yes, it does! Look at Britain. The figures are not explicable either by the US’s higher population or by any other social difference.
b) The historic right to bear arms” argument: Please be serious. Anyone with a facet of common sense can see this was meant to apply to armed militias in the 18th century War of Independence before Americans even had a standing army. It wasn’t intended to be used to justify massacres in schools. If a law is stupid as in the case of Britain’s fox hunting laws or as in the case of slavery in the UK and the US: change the law. Who cares how historic it is if the law is wrong now?
c) The “government takeover” argument: Usually phrased as: would you rather the government and military had all the guns then? As in, would I rather trained professionals with no history at all of turning their guns on the population had the guns or some high school kid?
d) The “gun control is socialist” argument: Is it? I’m not sure it is actually. Does it really matter is it? Would you rather more innocent children were massacred in the meantime? If so, perhaps you should consider re-evaluating your priorities.
e) The “kill all be killed” argument: Popular after the cinema massacre: if everyone is armed, everyone can defend themselves! Brilliant. Leaving aside, this envisages a horrendous nightmare scenario in which nobody can even go for a quiet trip to the cinema without the prospect of becoming involved in gunplay it hardly applies to Newtown. Unless you really believe nine year old children should be trained to defend themselves?
To his credit, President Obama has now made a solid pledge to ban assault weapons. The US political jungle is a tricky one to navigate. We must all hope he succeeds. If he does so, he may yet prove a great president.
The dust may have only just settled on the 2012 race but already thoughts are turning to 2016. Obama can’t run again due to the two term limit, Romney is unlikely to stand again either. So who’s in contention at this early stage?
Hilary Clinton (Dem)
Secretary of State, former First Lady and near winner of the party nomination in 2008.
For: Certainly, the most famous of any of the possible contenders, she has been a success as secretary of state and any wounds left by the bitter 2008 primary race against Obama now seem to have (largely) healed.
Against: She is getting on in years (she will be 69 in 2016) although seems good for her age. There are also a lot of Clinton-haters still in the US (although most are more obsessed with Obama now) and, oh yes!: the US has still never nominated a woman as presidential candidate for any major party, let alone elected them president. Then again, until 2008, they had never elected a black president either…
Joe Biden (Dem)
For: With the exception of the corrupt (Spiro Agnew), the evil (Dick Cheney), the mortally ill (Nelson Rockefeller) and the stupid (Dan Quayle) every Vice President in the last sixty years has gone on to eventually win the presidential nomination for themselves. Four out of the last ten Veeps have gone onto the presidency too (Nixon, Ford, Johnson, Bush I). Biden performed well in this year’s TV debates.
Against: Age again. Biden will be 74 in 2016 and he has already proven gaffe-prone. His 1988 presidential bid was scuppered when he delivered a speech which turned out to have been plagiarised from one previously delivered by British Opposition leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).
Paul Ryan (Rep)
Wisconsin Rep. Mitt Romney’s running mate.
For: Romney’s confused introduction of Ryan as “the next president of the United States” may yet prove correct.
Against: He could be tainted by defeat. He lied in his convention speech and he and Romney both lost their home states in 2012.
Rick Santorum (Rep)
Former Senator for Pennsylvania.
For: Ran against Romney in 2012. A Catholic who will benefit if the party shifts to the Right. Anti-gay marriage and in denial over climate change.
Okay! So it’s becoming horrendously clear Mitt Romney is an unusually poor presidential candidate. But he’s not the first disaster area to be nominated by a major US political party. Here are a few others:
5. Richard M. Nixon (Rep. Lost 1960, won 1968, 1972). It might seem odd to choose a candidate who was victorious twice to go in a list of bad presidential candidates. But Nixon’s success if anything exposes the flaws in the system. In 1968, with Nixon’s poll lead narrowing, the Nixon team used an insider to actively sabotage Vietnam peace talks fearing a sudden breakthrough would give his opponent Hubert Humphrey a last minute boost. Interestingly, the Humphrey campaign learned of Nixon’s chicanery at the time but chose not to expose him as they expected to beat him anyway. They were wrong. Four years later, the Nixon team again used all manner of dirty tricks to crush their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie in the primaries releasing mice into a Muskie press conference and smearing Muskie’s wife as an alcoholic. Break-ins later in the campaign ultimately led to the Watergate scandal. Nixon would win heavily in 1972 but his victory would be short lived. He must rank amongst the most corrupt post-war presidential candidates.
4. Michael Dukakis (Dem. Lost 1988). What went wrong for Duke? In the summer of 1988, having beaten seven rivals to the nomination, his soaring Kennedy-esque rhetoric gave him a 15% lead over his Republican opponent Vice President George HW Bush. But in the last months of the campaign, Dukakis, who like Romney was a Governor of Massachusetts barely put a foot right. He unwisely refused to respond to any attacks the Bush campaign launched upon him and was soon irretrievably tainted as a tax and spend liberal (a bad thing in the US). Even his principled opposition to the death penalty in the TV debates went against him. Despite being quite a bland candidate himself, Bush ended up romping home to a forty state victory.
3. John McCain (Rep. Lost 2008) An ex-Vietnam POW, McCain may have been a fine candidate in, say, 1992, but by 2008, he was much too old and grumpy for the task. His repeated attempts to distract attention from his opponent’s superior campaign by repeated references to “Joe the plumber” proved a failure. His worst decision, however, was undeniably his poorly researched choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. Initially boosting the flagging McCain effort, the decision backfired horribly once Palin’s many shortcomings became all too apparent. McCain soon had his chips.
2. Barry Goldwater (Rep. Lost 1964). Although the GOP occasionally flirts with extremism, they rarely embrace it. The moderate Senator Bob Dole saw off Pat Buchanan in 1996 for example while Mitt Romney beat the even more odious and unprincipled Rick Santorum earlier this year. 1964 was different however. In the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, they rejected the moderate future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in favour of the alarmingly pro-nuclear Senator Goldwater. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater (sometimes nicknamed Au H2O by science geeks) would opine. He also advocated a form of racial apartheid. The result? The Johnson team produced one of the best campaign ads ever (showing a little girl being blown to smithereens by a nuclear attack). Ex-actor Ronald Reagan was moved to defect from the Democrats to the Republicans. Everyone else went the other way. President Johnson beat Goldwater by a record margin.
1. Mitt Romney (Rep. 2012). Okay! So it’s not over yet. Things may improve for the hapless Mr Romney. But as it stands, this looks like the only poll Romney’s going to come top of this autumn…