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

What just happened?

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

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

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

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

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

Reagan was partly to blame. Bryant argues “Reagan created a flawed blueprint, and showed that a president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering some of the basics of the job.” The Clintons were not blameless either. Bill’s behaviour set a new lower standard for the basic minimum morality requirement expected of a chief executive. Hilary didn’t help either by seeming 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 him into running. Obama, Bryant argues, also too often backed away from confronting genuine foreign policy challenges in Libya and Syria. Obama was genuinely an economically successful president, but the fact is many American voters didn’t feel the effects. The US was in many ways much poorer in 2017 than it had been twenty-five years earlier. Many Americans polled in 2016, incorrectly believed that they were still in recession.

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

Book review: JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: Ardennes 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor

large ardennes

As 1944 neared its end, a spirit of optimism seized the Allied forces. Following the D-Day landings in June (detailed in Antony Beevor’s last book) the Allied advance towards Berlin looked unstoppable. Many predicted a repeat of 1918 and a second internal collapse within Germany ensuring Allied victory before Christmas 1944. This was not to be.

Hitler’s surprise counter-attack on the relatively undefended area of the Ardennes failed in its ultimate aim to split the Allies by driving them back to Antwerp. But it did succeed in prolonging the war, provoking a fit of squabbling among the Allied generals – notably Montgomery, Patton and Eisenhower and cost many lives. Among the US troops on the ground were the established author and adventure-seeker Ernest Hemingway and the future novelists JD Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut. Trapped in the notorious Hurtgen Forest, the future Catcher In The Rye author Salinger was present for one of the bloodiest engagements endured by US forces during the entire war.

Few topics have proven more an enduring a source of fascination than the Second World War and few have continued to chronicle it as masterfully as Antony Beevor.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor. Published by: Viking.