November 22nd 1963 was a terrible day for many people. For John McCormack, the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, it was an even more shocking time than for most. For McCormack was initially told not only that President John F. Kennedy, but also that his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had both been assassinated during their trip to Dallas. According to the line of succession this meant that he himself, as Speaker was now the US president. As the news sunk in, McCormack was overcome by a wave of vertigo and found himself momentarily unable to stand. When McCormack learnt the truth moments later: the Vice President was in fact completely unharmed and so he and not McCormack would become the next US president, a wave of relief spread across the old man’s face. Mel Ayton’s book about the protection afforded to both presidents and candidates since the Kennedy era is full of such fascinating titbits. Both JFK and his brother, Bobby who was also shot and killed while seeking the presidency in 1968, both shared a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of assassination. As it turns out, Bobby’s tragic killing could have been very easily prevented. The racist presidential candidate, George Wallace, in contrast was generally very wary of the prospect of attack but was shot and paralysed during a brief moment of recklessness while on the campaign trail in 1972. Perhaps understandably, Ted Kennedy’s political career was haunted by constant fears that he might become the third successive Kennedy to fall foul of an assassin’s bullet. Richard Nixon used Ted Kennedy’s secret service detail as a means to spy on the senator who was a potential rival. Others have abused the secret service supplied, to them. JFK and Gary Hart both used them as a means to help facilitate their own womanising. Others have been resistant or unhelpful to their detail: Nixon’s tendency to plunge enthusiastically into large crowds without earning reportedly led him to be dubbed “a sniper’s dream.” Other candidates have treated their detail with much more respect and even something approaching friendship. Ultimately, this is a full and revealing account of a fascinating subject. It is a shame that in the later chapters, Ayton’s political prejudices. notably his clear hostility to the Clinton family, get in the way of an otherwise compelling and readable factual account.
Protecting the Presidential Candidates: From JFK To Biden, by Mel Ayton. Published by: Frontline Books.
This ten-episode drama from 2021 makes up the third instalment in the American Crime Story series. All three have been based on real life high profile criminal cases from the recent history of the U.S.
The first of these, The People Vs OJ Simpson (2016) was thoroughly absorbing and had me completely gripped throughout. I must admit I have not seen the second story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018). This one centres on the 1998 White House sex scandal which culminated in the impeachment of U.S President Bill Clinton, a scandal often rather unfairly labelled ‘the Monica Lewinsky Affair.’
And it must be said, the choice of subject matter is something of a problem from the outset. While undeniably a huge scandal, the Lewinsky Affair always rather suffered from not really having any real central crime at its core. While I would not condone Clinton’s behaviour at the time, it was not criminal in the way Nixon’s behaviour during Watergate was, or in the way the Iran-Contra affair was during the Reagan administration. It is a poor choice for an anthology titled ‘American Crime Story’: it is not entirely clear even now if any serious crimes were ever committed. This was certainly not true in the cases of either Simpson or Versace. Viewers today might find it amazing that in age before the War on Terror or the current COVID-19 pandemic, so much time, effort, money and attention was wasted on establishing the exact nature of the sexual relationship between a president and his intern. The scandal only continued because of the determination of Clinton’s enemies to blacken his name and discredit his administration. To some extent, they succeeded. But the scandal often felt needlessly voyeuristic and pointless. And seeing it all played out again here, often feels the same way.
Nobody did well out of the scandal. It is a story of victims.
Monica Lewinsky was one victim. Today, unmarried and at 48, even now still younger than Bill Clinton was when he first encountered her, she not only suffered tremendous harassment and a media furore at the time, but seems destined forever to be associated with certain sex acts in a scandal which has always been named after her, rather than the chief instigator of it, i.e. Bill Clinton. Beanie Feldstein’s central performance as her is the strongest in the entire drama.
Then there is Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s former friend. With her dowdy, unfashionable middle-aged appearance and conservative political views, Tripp is an easy figure to demonise. And yes, she did behave very badly indeed, betraying her young ‘friend’ by tape recording their phone conversations, later publicly defending these reprehensible actions by claiming she did them out of a sense of patriotic duty, but, in practice, always with one eye on a potential lucrative book deal. But Tripp more than suffered for her sins. She saw herself impersonated by John Goodman in drag on Saturday Night Live. She died in 2020, before she would have had the chance to see herself portrayed by an unrecognisable Sarah Paulson in this. Although a good performance, Paulson has expressed regret about wearing a fat suit for the role.
Another victim? Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) whose initial allegations triggered the whole scandal in the first place. With none of the financial security or familial support, Monica Lewinsky at least received, Paula came off worse than most.
Probably its stretching things to describe Bill Clinton as a victim here but both he and Hillary suffered terrible public humiliation.. British actor, Clive Owen does a fine impression of the 42nd president although as with Sarah Paulson, he has been rendered entirely unrecognisable by make-up. The always excellent Edie Falco (of The Sopranos) plays Hillary. In retrospect, the scandal may well have guaranteed her status as a future presidential candidate while simultaneously ensuring she would never actually win the presidency itself, something which continues to have disastrous consequences both for the USA and the wider world to this day.
Of course, it’s certainly going too far to suggest the assorted legion of cranks and right-wingers who kept the scandal alive could really claim ‘victim’ status either. In the short run, they failed in their objectives: had Bill Clinton been able and willing to seek a third term in the year 2000, he would probably have won it. But in the long run, his otherwise successful presidency was tarnished by an unnecessary and tawdry scandal.
Much of the casting is interesting. Colin Hanks is good as ever as agent Mike Emmick while sitcom star Cobie Smulders is suitably malevolent as conservative battle-axe Ann Coulter. Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, whose own promising film career in the 1990s was wrecked after she resisted the advances of the abusive producer, Harvey Weinstein plays Monica Lewinsky’s well-intentioned and well-to-do mother. Jim Rash, Margo Martindale and Blair Underwood also make welcome appearances throughout the drama.
But, overall, despite some excellent performances, a few dodgy wigs and outfits too often contribute to a sense that this is almost as sleazy and unnecessary as the original scandal itself.
And while ‘impeachment’ was a popular buzzword in 2021: disgraced former US President Donald Trump had after all just been impeached for a second time, thus making him responsible for half of all presidential impeachments in 232 years of US presidential history, it was a poor choice of title in this case. The processes of Bill Clinton’s actual impeachment barely feature in the narrative at all.
A politician will be asked many questions during the course of their life. “Are you going to resign, Minister?” and “Did you threaten to overrule him?” are two less friendly examples. But for anyone hoping to launch their own political career, this book asks all the critical questions anyone aspiring to political office will need to answer if they are going to overcome what should be the first major obstacle to achieving power: winning an election. Never mind, “What do I believe in?” or “why do I want to do this?” These are questions you will have to answer for yourself. Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield are seasoned veterans of a number of successful and unsuccessful campaigns. There is no agenda here, other than to educate the reader as to how best to win whatever campaign they are fighting, be it for election to parliament, parish council or to the PTA. It is full of practical advice. Now on it’s third edition, it is first and foremost an essential guidebook on how to get elected. It is not primarily intended as a source of interest for geeky political bystanders like myself. Although it does fulfil that role too, it must be said.
Let us give a few examples from the text. Have you given any thought to whose votes your trying to win? If your answer to this is “everyone’s” then think again. You need to be more targeted than that. The bad news is, you’re not going to win everyone’s votes. The good news is, you don’t have to.
Are you campaigning for continuity or change? Are you trying to win new supporters or consolidate your position with existing ones? And how do you come across to the electorate? Are you, as Steve van Riel has suggested, Darth Vader (ruthless, but effective) or Father Dougal from Father Ted (caring, consensual but ineffective)?
The book tackles everything from broad strokes to the nitty gritty. How do you recruit a loyal campaign team? How should you deal with internet trolls? How do you deal with the media and get your voice heard? How do you drum home a consistent message without sounding robotic or repetitive? How do you attack your opponents without insulting and alienating potential future supporters?
It’s all here in what remains the definitive election campaign handbook of our times.
Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election (Third Edition), by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.
In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.
Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.
Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.
White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.
The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.
White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.
The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.
Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.
Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.
“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.
1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since. The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.
White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.
But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.
By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:
“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”
No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.
Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.
This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.
In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.
Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.
At the time of writing, Joe Biden is around forty days into his tenure as 46th president of the USA. Anyone who becomes US president is interesting simply on account of the fact that they have managed to achieve that position. Biden is less charismatic than Obama and not as dynamic as Kennedy was but is certainly much less stupid and unpleasant than Trump. This quick, readable biography offers the perfect opportunity for curious readers to brush up and gain some basic knowledge of the new guy.
He has been around for a while. He is seventy-eight years old, older than any of predecessors in that office and older today than four of the five living former US presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and the defeated Trump. It is widely suspected that he only plans to serve one term, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the strong favourite to win the Democratic nomination in 2024. If he does manage to serve two terms, Biden will be eighty-seven by the time he leaves office in January 2029.
He is undeniably a member of the political establishment. He was elected as the sixth youngest senator in US history as far back as 1972. He was thus a senator at the time of the Watergate scandal. His first bid for the presidency was launched as long ago as 1987. His rivals for the Democratic nomination then included such long ago vanished political figures as Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. Biden’s own ambitions were undermined by claims he allegedly plagarised a speech by British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, never a well-known figure in the United States.
The upside of all this is that Biden is very experienced, an attribute his now disgraced immediate predecessor so clearly lacked. Biden has had a long and successful career as senator and two terms as Barack Obama’s Vice President.
Tragedy has been a recurrent feature of his life. His first wife and one-year-old daughter were both killed in a car accident only weeks before he was first sworn in as a senator. His son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015, aged 46. Biden himself was almost felled by aneurysm when he was in his forties.
He is the only the second Roman Catholic to become president and the first former vice president to rise to the top job since George H.W. Bush in 1989. Even a year ago, Biden’s chances of winning the presidency looked doubtful. However, in November, he won, achieving more votes than any other candidate in US history and crucially comfortably beating Trump in the electoral college.
This is not a hagiography. Biden’s occasional lapses – his gaffes and occasional failure to support progressive causes – are not glossed over. But with American politics potentially entering a more compassionate and progressive phase after the unhappy turmoil of the previous four years, this offers a concise and readable insight into the newest resident in the White House.
Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos. Published by Bloomsbury.
This is essentially the gist of the question answered in this excellent book by experienced BBC journalist and author, Nick Bryant.
For in 2016, billionaire reality TV star, Donald Trump was elected US president having promised to “make America great again.” It was not an original slogan, but it clearly resonated with the US electorate. We now know, of course, that the outcome was the exact opposite of what Trump promised. His presidency was an unmitigated disaster for both the US and the world. Compared to where it stood in the middle of the last decade, America’s standing both at home and abroad has been dramatically diminished.
Trump never said, of course, when exactly in history he considered the US to have been great in the first place.
As the starting point of his narrative, Bryant takes us back to 1984, the time of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Ronald Reagan’s re-election and his own first youthful trip to the USA, “the summertime of American resurgence.” Bryant doesn’t gloss over Reagan’s weaknesses at all. He was essentially a film star in the White House just as Trump was a TV star and let his Hollywood-inspired concerns about ‘little green men’ and belief in astrology influence the content of potentially vital US-Soviet summits.
But 1984 was certainly a period when the USA seemed to stand tall. Bryant’s book is essentially the story of how conditions gradually shifted over the next 32 years resulting in the disaster of Trumpism, the unhappy period which dominates the last third of the book.
Reagan was partly to blame. Bryant argues “Reagan created a flawed blueprint, and showed that a president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering some of the basics of the job.” The Clintons were not blameless either. Bill’s behaviour set a new lower standard for the basic minimum morality requirement expected of a chief executive. Hillary didn’t help either by seemingly behaving as if she was almost insulted at the idea of having to assert her leadership credentials before such an unworthy foe in 2016. Her arrogant dismissal of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” also did her immeasurable damage. George W. Bush was also at fault, setting a new low for the standard of presidential crisis response after Hurricane Katrina after 2006 which foreshadowed Trump’s own woeful response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bush’s absurdly premature “mission accomplished” celebration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 also set a new standard for ‘fake news’. The war in Iraq still had a very long way to run.
Even Obama is partly to blame. In retrospect, his public goading of Trump at various Washington Correspondents’ Dinners, though often very funny, may have unwittingly provoked Trump into running. Obama, Bryant argues, also too often backed away from confronting genuine foreign policy challenges in Libya and Syria. Obama was genuinely an economically successful president, but the fact is many American voters didn’t feel the effects. The US was in many ways much poorer in 2017 than it had been twenty-five years earlier. Many Americans polled in 2016, incorrectly believed that they were still in recession.
Now they really are. None of this is to excuse Trump himself of ultimate responsibility for the disaster of his presidency. All the chief executives named, after all, had redeeming features. Trump has none. This book merely explains how these and other factors such as a growing sense of partisan division, the rise of Twitter, the deeply flawed electoral college system and a complacent media keen to flatter Trump by endlessly suggesting he run for president and which infected by “good story bias” garnished Trump with an endless supply of free publicity enabling him to win and make the resulting nightmare possible.
The last two weeks have been a blissful period for America-watchers throughout the world. The new US President, Joe Biden has – believe it or not – spent the past fortnight busily getting on with things, tackling unglamorous but important issues like combatting the spread of COVID-19. Just like real grown-up politicians are supposed to do. There have been no absurdly narcissistic self-aggrandising public statements, no ludicrous proposals, no bullying of reporters or anyone else. When tweets have been sent out they have been of an official nature and presumably not actually written by the president himself, rather than spewed out by an overtired and inarticulate chief executive as he sits in front of Fox News. This is very welcome. It is easy to forget this is how things are supposed to be.
Most of us are very happy to forget about the last four years for a few days but in fairness, there are lessons to be learnt from the recent US presidential election and here ‘international businessman’ (millionaire tax exile), Lord Ashcroft uses polling evidence to see what they might be. Lord Ashcroft has been a major Tory donor and a leading figure in the Conservative Party and his prejudices do occasionally show through in this short book. He makes much of the fact that the high turnout in the November 2020 election ensured that even though he came a clear second, Donald Trump scored more votes than every other candidate except Biden in US history. He makes less of how generally unpopular Trump was throughout his entire presidency. He was never a popular leader at an one single point. He also performed poorly whenever he was presented with any even half-way decent alternative. Even the much maligned Hillary Clinton led him throughout the 2016 contest even besting him by three million votes in the final popular vote, while Joe Biden, perhaps not always the most inspiring candidate in the world, beat him hands down in 2020.
It is difficult to square Ashcroft’s assertion that Trump’s “positive view of American life and opportunities” was a key aspect of his appeal when Trump was so relentlessly negative about so many pillars of US society (the media, the military, the electoral system) himself. It’s also difficult not to believe many Trump supporters were not fundamentally deluded as evidenced by the fact so many, for example, seem to believe Europe is predominantly under socialist governments or the fact that so many of them seem to have been unable to accept Trump’s defeat after what should have been a fairly straightforward and uncontroversial result.
Ultimately, however, there is much of interest to be found in Lord Ashcroft’s poll findings. Whether it was his intention or not, they may prove helpful towards helping nothing like the Trump presidency ever happens again.
As it turns out, the title of this book now seems a little unfortunate.
In fairness, author Ann Bracken had no way of knowing that two weeks before her book was published, an overexcited horde of psyched-up Trump supporters unreconciled to their fallen leader’s defeat in the November 2020 US presidential elections two months’ before would overrun the US Capitol Building, resulting in five deaths.
Let us be clear: there is nothing in this slim volume which even remotely encourages anyone to physically break into any government buildings or indeed anywhere else. To be strictly accurate, it’s not even a guide on how to “break into” the White House by legitimate, democratic means either. It is merely a brief memoir of Ann Bracken’s life so far which includes a chapter on her years working as a secretary in the first Bush White House. Interesting as her life may have been, I can see why she opted for this title as it ‘s a good deal snappier than ‘My Years Working for Bush (no, not him! The okay one) and some Other Stuff’ by Ann Bracken. It’s just unfortunate that given the current climate, even working from Britain, I could not help feeling a little nervous as I typed the book’s name into a search engine.
My search didn’t bring up much anyway. I don’t think she is a well-known figure currently. Perhaps this book will change this? It is a pleasant, readable account of how Indiana-born Ann rose to work as an assistant to Senator Richard Lugar and then for the US’s second most recent one-term Republican, US President George Bush (now usually referred to as George HW Bush or POTUS41 to distinguish him from his less than distinguished son) before settling in the UK.
I should say, I am not on her political wavelength at all. She thinks the first Bush was a more historically important leader than Clinton, thinks the fact that the US has reduced emissions in recent years justifies withdrawing from the Paris environmental agreement and is clearly prepared to gloss over the fact that disgraced former President Trump was not only a horrendous human being but an almost total disaster in office. Her views do not seem generally abhorrent, however, and I will try not to hold them against her as I review her book.
It is readable enough but is short and can easily be finished in an hour or two. There are some anecdotes about her ongoing obsession with the musician Sting and about her friend precipitating a famous public relations disaster during which the Queen’s face was completely concealed behind a microphone during an address from the White House lawn.
There seems to be a self-promotional aspect as there are a surprisingly high number of pictures of Bracken herself in it (around twenty). Some are, as you might expect, old pictures of her meeting luminaries like the late President Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle, who like Bracken is also from Indiana. Other pictures seem to have been specially commissioned for the book and are quite glossy. One shows her in a swimsuit, another is labelled “pretending to be a Brit” dressed up like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The tone is a bit odd.
The comments on the back of the book would sit more appropriately on a CV than on the cover. “I am grateful to have you on our team,” (President Bush), “She brightened up the White House…you have been a real asset” (other Bush people).
As I say, I am not on Ann Bracken’s political wavelength at all. But even were she a former Clinton or Obama staffer, there’s just no real getting away from the fact: this is very thin stuff.
A fine, very slight read. Her name may be ‘Bracken’ but don’t expect this to set the world on fire.
Book review: How To Break Into The White House, by Ann Bracken. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
2020 was rubbish, for obvious reasons. But what other years in recent history have also been generally terrible?
For many people, 1914 became enshrined forever as the year the world took a permanent downward turn with the outbreak of the First World War shattering a golden age which would never return, initiating an era of global instability which would persist through a Great Depression, another world war and a new terrifying forty-year nuclear arms race confrontation after that.
Silver linings?: In truth, the world was very far from perfect in 1914 anyway and the outbreak of war undoubtedly accelerated the progress of necessary and welcome social change which would have probably occurred sooner or later anyway. Would this have been any comfort to the average young British Tommy as he stood anxiously, shivering in his trench in 1914, awaiting his turn to climb over the top into No Man’s Land though? Probably not.
The late 1920s and with America booming its merry way through the Jazz Age and even the defeated Germany finally developing into a relatively prosperous and politically moderate democracy off the back of American loans, people at last seemed to have put the horrors of the Great War behind them. Then boom…or rather bust: the collapse of the US stock market in October 1929, threw everything into chaos again. While the US eventually found a saviour in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt elected in 1932, the resulting Great Depression pushed Britain and France into turmoil while Germany lurched towards Hitler and imperial Japan and Mussolini’s Italy soon became increasingly aggressive on the international stage. With the impotent League of Nations powerless to stop things,within a few years the armies of the world were soon beating the drums of war once again.
Silver linings?: From a left-wing perspective, it might seem encouraging that the Depression did push American voters away from mediocre pro-laissez faire Republican isolationist presidents into the inspiring, highly interventionist New Deal which arguably pushed the US closer to socialism than ever before and led to five consecutive Democratic presidential victories in a row. But it did lead to the rise of Hitler. Even Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts started marching around the UK. So, generally, it wasn’t worth it.
Eighty years on, talk of the ‘darkest hour,’ Vera Lynn, the Battle of Britain and the plucky, cheerful defiance of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ have conspired to give 1940 a somewhat romantic air. The reality was surely deeply traumatic with the forces of the Third Reich overrunning western Europe, the devastating defeat at Dunkirk and the nightly terror experienced by large swathes of the population as they suffered sustained aerial bombardment as well as prolonged separation from loved ones with men fighting overseas and countless children evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside.
Silver linings?: It’s probably true that the sense of national unity and purpose forged in the heat of war had a lasting positive effect on the post-war national political landscape. Despite this, it is only really the fact that against all odds, Hitler didn’t actually invade Britain that redeems 1940 (as well as the arguably more horrific years of 1944 and 1945) at all. Were we looking back to 1940 from the perspective of a world after a Nazi victory, 1940 would undoubtedly now be seen as easily the most catastrophic year in human history.
The heady highs of the 1960s had well and truly worn off by 1973. In the US, the agonies of Watergate and the aftermath of Vietnam diminished the American image forever while in Britain, the confrontation between the Heath Government and the unions brought Britain to a shuddering strike-bound halt by the end of the year as the nation adopted the Three Day Week. Worse still, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East not only brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the dramatic increase in global oil prices which resulted effectively ensured the western world would spend the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s in the throes of economic recession.
As the 21st century dawned, the world could celebrate not just a new millennium but a state of relative peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement and a decade of international relations free of the East-West rivalry of the Cold War. Not everything was perfect in the world: it never is all of these summaries have necessarily been very selective. But even this couldn’t last as the terror attacks of Tuesday September 11th 2001 unleashed a new age of insecurity in western affairs which persists to this day.
People die every day and celebrities are, of course, no different. But there was something was new about the numbers and calibre of the famous people dying, often prematurely, in 2016. David Bowie. Victoria Wood. Alan Rickman. Terry Wogan. Caroline Aherne. George Michael. Prince. Carrie Fisher. So many of these names struck a nerve (often occurring before what seemed to be their time) that it was hard for anyone not to be moved.
And then there was the Brexit vote. And Donald Trump’s victory. As a bad news year, 2016 was pretty relentless. Whatever your politics, both these elections seemed to trigger a new age of ugliness and intolerance to debate which have poisoned political discourse ever since. Unbelievable as it would have seemed at the time, the David Cameron years of austerity and coalition now seem like a bygone era of simplicity and innocence in comparison.
Silver linings?: From a conservative viewpoint, I suppose, 2016 could be seen as a year of triumph with the petty complacency of the ‘left-wing elites’ confounded by the triumph of down-to-earth working class hero types like millionaire’s son Donald Trump, ex-public schoolboy and former city stockbroker, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. From the perspective of January 2021, this interpretation is starting to look like something of a stretch.
1919: Another global pandemic and a botched peace settlement at Versailles which made another war inevitable within twenty years.
1945: Victory. But also a terrible escalation in violence as the war neared its end and the launch of the atomic age.
1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis brings humanity closer to destruction than ever before. Had things turned out differently, this would easily be the worst year on this list. Although I wouldn’t have written it in the first place as I would never have been born as the human race would have died out.
As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.
Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.
The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.
But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.
Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.
And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.
Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.
Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.
In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.
Having licked his wounds after the bruising San Sebastian High School presidential battle, the ruthlessly ambitious Hobart (Ben Platt) now sets his sights on one of New York’s State senate seats for what will be his first real grownup political campaign. Incumbent State senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) initially seems secure, but her re-election campaign is soon threatened by rumours of the middle-aged veteran politician’s “throuple” polyamorous relationship with both her husband and boyfriend.
Hobart, now supported by most of his allies and a few rivals from his earlier campaign, soon appears to be making headway, despite the potential risk of exposure over his own three-way relationship with his girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his former rival, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton). Ruthlessly exploiting the environment issue in a bid to establish a foothold among younger voters, Hobart soon becomes engaged in a protracted dirty tricks campaign waged against and also by, his more experienced political opponent, Standish.
More sustained than the first season which began promising much, but imploded fairly quickly, The Politician – Season 2 is enlivened by an enjoyable turn by Bette Midler as Standish’s passionate campaign manager, Hadassah Gold. Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), one of the most memorable characters in the first season is back too (although doesn’t do a lot), while Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Hobart’s mother, herself engaged in a somewhat far-fetched campaign to become Governor of California driven by a plan to lead the state out of the USA entirely.
While Season 1 was almost wrecked completely by the terrible sixth episode The Voter, the sixth episode here (The Voters) deploys similar tactics to look at a mother and daughter’s separate experiences of Election Day. Thankfully, this time, it works. While as its Season 1 equivalent was derailed by its determination to show the unusual vices of its drug, sex and violence-obsessed subject, this time the tensions between the two more rounded characters provide us with a more valuable insight into the generational battles surrounding the campaign.
Ben Platt is good as before as the charismatic, scheming Payton Hobart, a sort of younger, better looking Richard Nixon for the 21st century. No less self-serving and paranoid than the disgraced 37th US president, Pitch Perfect’s Platt’s potential president is certainly a better singer than Nixon ever was and slightly better on the piano.
A fine series then, if perhaps not a great one. Not quite a full Obama but better than a Ford, this is a welcome escape from the real life horrors of the Trump era.
Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.
The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.
Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.
Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.
The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.
Prime Minister, David Cameron today gave his strongest hint yet that he intends to step down as Prime Minister within two years of winning the forthcoming General Election. Speculation has been mounting that Mr. Cameron is close to announcing the date of the next election as May 22nd. This would coincide neatly with the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.
The last General Election in May 2015, resulted in a surprise overall majority of 12 for the Conservatives. This has since fallen as a result of recent by-elections although Mr. Cameron has resisted calls to strike any sort of deal with either Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats or the similarly-sized Democratic Unionist Party.
Having entered Downing Street in June 2010, Mr Cameron is now the third longest serving Prime Minister since 1945, after Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. At 52, he remains younger than Mrs Thatcher when she became Britain’s first (and to date, only) woman prime minister in 1979.
According to a report in the London Evening Standard, Mr Cameron’s cabinet colleagues, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Michael Gove are expected to join the race to succeed him.
Labour’s Jo Cox has been amongst those urging unity in her own party, ahead of the expected election announcement. UKIP has, meanwhile, renewed calls for a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union. Opinion polls currently indicate support for a UK exit from the EU, but also that it is low on the list of voter priorities at this time, ranking way below concerns over the NHS and education.
Opponents of a vote suggest it would be a colossal waste of time, money and energy, inviting economic uncertainty, political uncertainty and disunity at a time of growing prosperity.
Meanwhile, in New York, maverick billionaire and 2016 Republican Party nominee, Donald J. Trump has announced plans to challenge President Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2020. Trump, who will be 74 by the time of next year’s election has made repeated claims of foul play surrounding his 2016 defeat although no evidence has thus far emerged.
In 2017, Trump resumed his role on the US version of TV’s ‘The Apprentice’.
Book review: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Conspiracy Theories That Won’t Go Away.
By David Southwell and Graeme Donald
Published by: Carlton Books
Publication date: 12 July 2018
Conspiracy theories are odd things.
At one extreme we have the people who believe that the Earth is flat or that the world is ran by a sinister cabal of malevolent lizards. Eccentric? Yes. But in many ways, not much more unlikely than what billions of religious people accept unquestioningly on a daily basis.
Less eccentric perhaps, but certainly ill-informed are those who believe the moon landings were faked. There were, of course, reported to have been seven manned moon landings. Granted, the moon landings may have been faked once. But why would anyone go to the trouble of faking them seven times?
It is a sad fact that twenty years after that supposedly great easily accessible resource of information, the internet came into our lives, such easily refutable theories are today, if anything, more prevalent than they were before.
But let us not get carried away. After all, in 1972, if I had alleged the US president and his administration were implementing a full-scale cover-up to suppress legal investigation into illegal break-ins authorised to discredit their political opponents, I could have been accused of peddling baseless conspiracy theories. However, as we now know: the claims would have turned out to be true.
The Iran-Contra scandal is another example of a real-life conspiracy. We should not let President Trump or anyone else convince us that the existence of a few flat Earthers means that there are no real conspiracies at all. We should not let any such scepticism divert us from perusing perfectly legitimate lines of enquiry, such as establishing the truth behind Trump’s dubious Russian connections. Conspiracies do happen in real life, after all. Not always, but sometimes.
This book does a good job of summarising the key conspiracy theories. It details their key points while never (or at least, only occasionally) specifically endorsing them. It would be a good coffee table read which would have benefited from a more detailed list of contents. Admittedly, it’s not a huge book but the conspiracies here are listed under ten general headings and these aren’t much help if you’re generally flicking through. Does the JFK assassination come under Politics, Historical, Tragedies or Murdered Or Missing, for example? Clue: it is not the same category as his brother Bobby’s own assassination. A minor criticism, yes, but one which slightly counts against it.
There are a good number of conspiracy theories detailed here and as usual, the Kennedy killings stand out amongst the most compelling ones. This is largely because of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder two days after JFK’s assassination in 1963 but also because of Oswald’s Cuban links, the Kennedys’ mafia connections and Bobby and Jack’s anti-CIA stance.
Others seem much less credible. Bearing in mind their personalities, the official verdicts on Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Elvis and Kurt Cobain’s deaths all seen very believable. Yet rumours about their supposed murder or alleged survival continue to persist.
Some issues are more complex. Most of us would reject the most outlandish theories about the September 11th attacks in 2001. But some elements do remain unexplained.
Otherwise: do Freemasons run the world? Well, they may be involved in some localised corruption but, basically no, they do not. Do extra-terrestrials exist? Probably, somewhere, but not here. Was M15 spying on Harold Wilson? Some in M15 definitely were, but even so, the former Labour Prime Minister was undeniably overly paranoid about it.
Hardest to credit, are the enduring rumours about Princess Diana’s demise in 1997. As the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch highlighted, a car accident is surely one of the least assured ways of efficiently assassinating anyone even ignoring the fact that it’s hardly credible the Duke of Edinburgh had either the power or the motivation to arrange it anyway.
This is nevertheless a compelling compendium of contemporary conspiracies incorporating everything from the most credible to the completely crazy.
It’s often tempting to speculate what might have happened had Al Gore won the 2000 presidential elections instead of George W. Bush. Until we remember: he actually did.
Cheated out of the presidency by voting irregularities in Florida and a conservative supreme court, Gore (a politician with long standing environmental interests) then addressed the issue of climate change in the 2006 documentary hit An Inconvenient Truth.
Eleven years on, this follow-up perhaps inevitably has slightly less of the impact of the first film. But it’s still a good message to be getting out there, partly because the most convincing counter-argument the Right have thus far come up with seems to be little better than “how can global warming exist when it’s occasionally slightly cold in parts of my house?”
And partly because the Trump administration’s blinkered attitude to climate chain makes Bush look like Captain Planet in comparison.
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.
Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday
In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.
The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered in this sequel is rather more complex.
On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).
On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.
Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.
After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”
This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.
Few events have provoked a more seismic hostile reaction within the western world than the recent election of Donald Trump. One imagines his presidency will provoke a wealth of satirical novels based around his presidency. Well done then, to Booker Prize winning author Howard Jacobson then, for getting his version in first, less than a hundred days into his presidency. Unfortunately, as with Trump’s own administration thus far, the book can only be viewed as a failure.
This is the story of Prince Fracassus, heir presumptive to the Duke of Origen, a spoilt, semi-literate, sex-obsessed, boorish, Twitter-obsessed fathead. Sound familiar?
Exactly. Indeed, this is part of the problem. Fracassus is so obviously meant to be Trump (something Chris Riddell’s excellent cartoons throughout confirm) that any satirical impact is largely blunted.
The “heir presumptive” stuff seems somewhat misplaced too. Trump’s father was a millionaire property owner: Donald’s is not a rags to riches story but (as is often the case) a riches to even more riches story. But his dad was, at least, a self-made man. He was not, unlike Kennedy or Bush, part of a political dynasty. At least, not yet.
Donald J. Trump is probably the worst person to ever occupy the White House. He is an arrogant, bullying, egotistical, racist, misogynistic pig. Even the worst of his predecessors (Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush) had some redeeming features. He appears to have none. He is both a bad example to our children and a compelling argument for not having children.
He thus deserves a book which truly destroys him on the page. This isn’t that book.