US election memories 2: 1988

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You might want to skip this blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The wit and wisdom of Dan Quayle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It was the most stunning TV debate defeat ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President George H. W. Bush

The best of Dan Quayle…

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

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

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

On Hawaii:

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

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

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

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

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

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

On TV show Murphy Brown:

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

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

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

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

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

The future will be better tomorrow.

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

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Carter Vs Bush

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Two presidents. One Democrat, one Republican. Both turn ninety this year. Neither man ever directly ran against the other. But how do Jimmy “Peanut farmer” Carter or George “Read my lips” Bush square up in a direct face off?

THE FACTS

Carter: The younger of the two, James Earle (“Jimmy”) Carter was the 39th president between 1977 and 1981. He has been a former president for thirty three years, longer than any one else in US history.

Bush:  George Herbert Walker Bush was the 41st president from 1989 until 1993. Only the second man to be both president and father to a US president (the other was John Adams) he was always referred to as simply “George Bush” before 2000 but is now usually referred to as George HW Bush to distinguish him from his son George W Bush (43, 2001-2009).

BACKGROUND

Carter: Famously a Georgia peanut farmer, Carter also has a first class degree in nuclear physics and served in the navy in World War II.

Bush: Scion of a super rich Texas oil family, Bush was the youngest ever US pilot in World War II. His father was a Republican senator.

RISE TO POWER

Carter: Carter served as a Senator and as Governor of Georgia.

Bush: Bush took a different route becoming a congressman and twice standing unsuccessfully for the Senate in the Sixties, only really coming to the fore as Ambassador to the UN and head of the CIA under Nixon and Ford. He was sacked by the new president, Carter in 1976 but sought the presidency himself in 1980. He was beaten for the nomination by Ronald Reagan who picked him as his running mate. Bush served two terms as Vice President between 1981 and 1989.

PRIMARY COLOURS

Carter: Carter triumphed over California Governor Jerry Brown and his eventual running mate Walter Mondale.

Bush: As Veep, Bush was always the favourite for the 1988 Republican nomination beating eccentric evangelist Pat Robertson (Rupert Murdoch’s preferred candidate) and Senator Bob Dole who came to be seen as a sore loser after he angrily called on Bush to “quit lying about my record”.

ELECTION

Carter: In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly beat President Gerald Ford. Weakened by Watergate, recession, the Nixon pardon and a gaffe in which he denied Eastern Europe was dominated by the USSR in the TV debate, Ford was only the third president to be beaten in a November election in the 20th century (after President William Taft lost to challenger Woodrow Wilson  in 1912 and incumbent Herbert Hoover who lost to FDR in 1932).

Bush: Initially perceived as a “wimp” from a privileged background, Bush trailed his opponent Governor Michael Dukakis during the summer of 1988. Fighting a dirty campaign and lambasting Dukakis as a “tax and spend liberal,” Bush reversed the situation, helped by Dukakis’s refusal to respond to Bush’s attacks, Dukakis’s unpopular opposition to the death penalty, Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and Dukakis’s short physical stature. Bush ultimately won a forty state landslide and ultimately beat “Duke” by around an 8% margin in the share of the vote.

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VICE PRESIDENT

Carter: Walter Mondale served as Carter’s Vice President. He performed less well as Reagan’s presidential opponent in 1984 winning only one out of the fifty states contested (Minnesota).

Bush: Bush’s choice Dan Quayle was a gaffe-prone disaster who quickly became a national joke. Quayle was exposed as a Vietnam draft dodger (using his family connections to secure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard), misspelled the word “potatoes” in public, botched a tribute to the Holocaust (claiming it was a sad chapter “in our nation’s history”) and attacked TV sitcom Murphy Brown after the main character had a child out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Bush retained him as running mate even in 1992.

FINEST HOUR

Carter: Although he was never hugely popular, carter achieved a major breakthrough in the quest for Middle East peace with the signing of the Camp David Agreement in 1978. The SALT 2 Treaty was also a huge success in Détente though it was never ratified by the US Senate.

Bush: Bush achieved successes in the Middle East too but his biggest success was the 1991 “Desert Storm” victory over Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Bush became the most popular president in thirty years. Some on the Right later regretted not extending the war into Iraq itself as Bush’s son would later do with disastrous consequences.

DECLINE AND FALL

Carter: Never popular, Carter failed to get to grips with the economy, eventually attempted a disastrous move to the Right and a Reagan-like defence build up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His presidency was ultimately poisoned by the Iranian hostage crisis after 1979. The hostages were released on the day Carter left office in January 1981.

Bush: Bush witnessed a spectacular collapse in popularity between 1991 and 1992, due to the recession, his apparent preoccupation with foreign affairs and his introduction of the second biggest tax increase in US history after his “no new taxes” pledge in 1988. In reality, with Reagan having left him a spiralling national debt, Bush was foolish to have ever made the pledge in the first place.

PRIMARY CHALLENGE

Carter: In 1980, the president faced a serious internal challenge from senior Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy (brother of the assassinated Jack and Bobby). Memories of Kennedy’s role in the 1969 Chappaquiddick Incident wrecked his chances though.

Bush: in 1992, Bush was distracted by a major primary challenge from ex-Nixon speechwriter Senator Pat Buchanan, a pugnacious right winger.

RIVALS

Carter: Carter was beaten soundly by Republican Ronald Reagan in November 1980. In the run-up to the election, the contest appeared much closer than it ultimately proved.

Bush: Bush faced an independent challenge from Texan billionaire H. Ross Perot, but it was ultimately Democrat Governor Bill Clinton who beat Bush, overcoming rumours of infidelity and draft dodging to become one of the most accomplished campaigners in US history.

AFTERWARD

Carter: Although not a hugely successful president, Carter has been a hugely successful ex-president winning the Nobel Peace Prize, writing an acclaimed novel and appearing in Ben Affleck’s film Argo.

Bush: Bush‘s legacy has perhaps been tarnished by the poor record of his son as president.

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The most conservative candidate in US history

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“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.

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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.

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Too many books?: Stephen King and other ultra-prolific authors

CA: Premiere Of Paramounts' Remake Of "The Manchurian Candidate" - Arrivals

I’ve read 13 Stephen King books I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I thought this was a good total. It’s certainly more than I’ve read by almost any other grown up author who I have read.
I feel I can also hold my own fairly well in any Stephen King themed conversation. I’ve read most of the “early scary ones” (Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift, Christine, Different Seasons) which are often amongst his best along with the likes of The Dark Half and Misery. I’ve also read a few stupidly long ones such as The Stand: Uncut Edition and It. Less isn’t necessarily more in Stephen King’s case. In fact, his short stories are often considered his best work (It is pretty good throughout but the second half of The Stand is something of a megabore).

Like many people, I read Stephen King the most when I was a teenager. I am now in my thirties so haven’t really kept up. The most “recent” Stephen Kings I’ve read have been The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and his excellent book On Writing. I abandoned Dreamcatcher when I realised it was terrible.

Despite this, I felt I must have read most of Stephen King’s novels. Thirteen books by most authors would undoubtedly constitute at least half of their work.

But no. I have not. Stephen King’s latest novel Mr Mercedes is his 54th!

I am, in fact, way way behind if I ever want to be a Stephen King completIst.

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It gets worse. Some of the books I HAVE read by Stephen King (Different Seasons, Night Shift and On Writing) are, of course, not even novels!  It turns out I have barely read a FIFTH of Stephen King’s actual novels. I don’t really know him at all. And many of the books I haven’t read are massive.

Stephen King seems to have the opposite problem to Harper Lee. She has only had one book published in over fifty years. In forty years, Stephen King has produced well over one a year (in fact, over eighty books if you cheat slightly and include collections etc).

Stephen King is a hugely popular author I know there must be quite a few people who have read all of his books out there and some of you are probably reading this now. Indeed, I do tend to read an average about sixty books a year anyway so could quite easily read all of his remaining works in that time.

The trouble is, I don’t really want to. I liked the Stephen Kings I read (mostly) and still dip into them occasionally. But there are so many other authors out there and so many other books. It would seem a waste to restrict myself to one author for so long. Especially as, like anyone, his work can be a bit variable in quality.

Clearly the process of writing takes a lot longer than the process of reading. How the hell is Stephen King able to churn them out at such a rate? I would attribute his speed to some sort of renewed lease of life caused by the car accident which very nearly killed him in 1999. But, in fact, he was already very prolific before then anyway. And strangely, despite being hospitalised at the time, there is little indication from looking at a list of Stephen King’s books produced between 1999 and 2001 that the accident even slowed down his work rate much when it happened.

And Stephen King isn’t the only one…

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Terry Pratchett: I read loads of these when I was a teenager too. He was funny and easy to read. But forty six Discworld novels alone? Come on! I’ve read about twenty anyway (again, mostly when I was a teenager) easily beating my Stephen King total.

Alexander McCall Smith: Again, he is funny and light. I’ve read about ten of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency ones. But not only does McCall Smith write lots of books but he writes several different series (44 Scotland Street, The Sunday Philosophy Club, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Corduroy Mansions and the Professor Dr Von Igelfeld Experiments) and at the same time! Sometimes, he apparently starts writing for a bit and then realises he’s slipped accidentally into writing about characters from another saga and has to stop. It is mad.

McCall-Smith

Anthony Trollope: Victorian novelist Trollope had a strict schedule of working for several hours a morning before going to work at the post office. He produced forty seven novels (mostly biggies) this way. I have read three but intend to read more. Incredibly, if he finished writing one book during his allotted period, he would use the remainder of the scheduled time to start writing the next one! Even more incredibly, he also found time to invent the post-box (when he was doing the day job).

But why should I complain? All of these authors have lots of fans, most of whom will be pleased to have as many books to choose from as possible. A good writer should write after all and as long as the quality doesn’t suffer who cares?

It’s just personally I wonder if the quality does suffer with these ultra-prolific authors. Wouldn’t their work benefit from their slowing down just a little? Certainly, I, as a reader often find myself struggling to catch up.

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House of Cards Vs. House of Cards

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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”.

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The strange case of Eli Wallach, George Brown and the death of JFK

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Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people. This is often especially true in the case of our political leaders. Ronald Reagan, for example, demonstrated genuine eloquence in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. John Major had a rare fine moment as PM when he payed tribute to his Labour opponent John Smith following his sudden death in May 1994.

It does not always work out that way, however. Such eloquence entirely deserted Labour politician George Brown when he appeared on the TV programme ‘This Week’ on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

Brown and JFK

Brown was not a full blown leader: he had been beaten by Harold Wilson for the party leadership the previous February following the death of Hugh Gaitskell. But he was very senior party figure destined to be Foreign Secretary in the forthcoming Labour Government. He had also been closer to Kennedy than almost any other British Labour politician of the time. But his performance was to be hugely embarrassing “a compound of maudlin sentimentality, name dropping and aggression” according to author Peter Paterson.

Agreeing to be interviewed soon after attending a drinks reception, Brown (who had had a dispute with presenter Kenneth Harris in the past), took immediate offence at the perfectly reasonable opening question, “Now, you’re talking about a man who was a very great friend of mine…” he began and immediately began peppering his answers with over-familiar references to “Jack” and “Jackie” Kennedy. At one point tears welled up in his eyes: “Jack Kennedy, who I liked, who I was very near to…I remember it’s not many weeks ago I was over there with my daughter who lives in New York…and she was talking to Jackie across the garden. One is terribly hurt by this loss.”

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In Private Eye magazine parlance, the Deputy Labour leader was (not for the first or last time) “tired and emotional”. His speech was slurred, his arms moved too much. He was “unwell” in the Jeffery Bernard sense of the word.

In short: he was pissed on air.

Worse had actually occurred behind the scenes before filming had begun. Brown had very nearly provoked a physical fight with fellow guest US film actor Eli Wallach, the star of ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

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Having noisily asserted to everyone that the new president Lyndon Johnson (who he had also met) would be a great president, Brown began taunting the actor who was subdued and clearly upset by the day’s news, after he refused to be drawn into Brown’s increasingly tactless and insensitive conversation. Brown loudly asked why actors were so conceited and suggested Wallach was the sort who carried a newspaper around with him with his name in it. Wallach denied this, saying in fact no doubt accurately, that many people recognised him but could not place him or identify him by name.

The film actor attempted then to walk away, before the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party followed him and asked him if he had ever been in a play by Ted Willis (a Labour-supporting British playwright unknown outside the UK). “You’ve never heard of Ted Willis? “ Brown exclaimed before launching into more about the conceit of US actors.

Wallach snapped: “I didn’t come here to be insulted. Is this bastard interviewing me on this programme? If so, I’m leaving now!” Brown said more and Wallach took off his jacket. “Come outside and I’ll knock you off your can!” Brown told him to sit down and shut up.

Wallach ultimately had to be restrained by the other American guests. “I don’t care who he is, I’ll still knock the shit out of him!”

Later, Brown apparently made amends. But he still insisted on having the last word. “And now you’ll know who Ted Willis is!” he shouted at Wallace later.

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Although his behind the scenes row with Wallach was not publicised at the time, ultimately, Brown’s very public drunken TV appearance humiliated him. The fact that he had a tendency to get drunk very quickly on very small amounts was already well known in Westminster circles. Now everyone outside Westminster knew about it as well.

Brown made things worse with a badly phrased apologetic letter written to the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy soon after. The assassination was “particularly harrowing for me” Brown wrote, “since it marked the end of a year which began with the death of my own colleague Hugh Gaitskell.” He seemed to be implying his own suffering was similar in scale to the former First Lady’s, a woman who had very nearly been killed herself when her husband was shot dead while sitting right next to her.

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Ironically, Harold Wilson who had beaten Brown in the February 1963 leadership contest and who would lead Labour both in power and opposition until 1976 was effectively an alcoholic too, drinking much more than Brown but functioning better (at least until the mid-Seventies).

Brown survived the scandal but later described the last week of November 1963 as the “most miserable” of his life.

Thanks to “Tired and Emotional: The Life of Lord George Brown” by Peter Paterson (1993).

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From battlefields to ballot boxes

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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.

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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.

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Underrated: Rob Reiner

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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. Jesusdoes anyone?”

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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”.

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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.”

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Misery (1990)

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”.

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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!

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North (1994)

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. 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.

Buggers can’t be choosers: Book review: Enders’s Game by Orson Scott Card

 

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“Give us a child until he is seven and we will give you the man”.

This attitude behind this Jesuit mantra prevails throughout this science fiction novel by the Mormon author Orson Scott Card. Set in a far future in an environment where humanity is under threat from a Starship Troopers-style alien menace named Buggers (yes, really), the novel sees the child Ender Wiggin recruited as a cadet at the Battle  School

We then see him go through the dehumanising effects of military training. Each chapter begins with a dialogue between two of Ender’s recruiters through whom we become aware that Ender is, in fact, something akin to a military genius.

It is an odd book, not least because so many of the main characters seem to be incredibly advanced young children.  Enders’s brother and sister, for example, rather bizarrely achieve a position of political dominance back on Earth through the internet despite still being in early childhood.

First written in 1985 (and updated substantially by Card since then to take into account the collapse of the USSR) and should make a good film when it is released in the UK late in October 2013, perhaps ranking alongside other decent sci-fi movies of 2013 such as Oblivion, Elysium and Gravity.

Sadly, Card – unlike his fellow Mormon author Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer – may have harmed the film’s prospects by revealing his homophobic views to the world. Mitt Romney woudl presumably give Card the thumbs up for this but few others will.

This is a shame. Perhaps it is unsurprising Orson Scott Card decided to name his villains “Buggers”.

But there is little to offend anyone in this novel.

How President Kennedy’s assassination changed the world forever

 

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…

1963

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.

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1964

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.

1965

Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.

President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.

1967

Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.

1968

Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.

Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.

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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.

1969

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.

1972

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.

1973

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.

1974

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.

1975

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.

1976

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.

1979

Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.

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The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.

1980

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.

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1981

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).

1983

Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.

1984

David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.

1986

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.

1987

Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.

1988

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.

1991

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.

1992

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.

1993

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.

1994

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.

1995

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.

1997

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.

1999

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.

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2000

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).

2004

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.

2006

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.

2008

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.

2009

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).

2011

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.

2018

Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.

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Second term blues

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

So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?

Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).

Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.

Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.

To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.

That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.

Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.

 Richard M. Nixon (Rep).

Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.

January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.

But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?

In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.

Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.

Ronald Reagan (Rep).

Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.

Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.

The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.

The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.

Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.

Bill Clinton (Dem).

Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.

Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.

Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.

George W. Bush (Rep).

“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.

Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.

Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.Imagea

Presidents on screen

Ronald Reagan

So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:

George Washington

Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).

Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.

Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.

 

Teddy Roosevelt

Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).

Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.

Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.

 

Dwight David Eisenhower

Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.

Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.

Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.

 

John Fitzgerald  Kennedy

Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.

Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.

Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.

 

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.

Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.

Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.

 

Ronald Reagan

Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.

Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.

Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,

 

Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.

George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.

Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.

Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.

The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.

JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.

Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).Image

100 years of Richard Nixon

A paranoid crook who should never have got close to power in the first place, a triumphant success and one of only two men to carry 49 out of 50 states in a US presidential election, Richard Millhouse Nixon was a mass of contradictions. On the centenary of the disgraced US president’s birth in January 1913, what lessons can we draw from his life?

US presidents never resign…except in his case.

Resignation mid-term is the norm as a way out for UK prime ministers: Thatcher, Blair, Wilson: all went this way. Not so in the US. Only three presidents have ever faced the humiliation of impeachment: Andrew Johnson (in the 1860s), Bill Clinton and Nixon. And only Nixon was driven from office as a result… had not his successor President GeraldFord pardoned him soon afterwards, he may well have become the first president to go to jail too.

He was genuinely born poor.

Abraham Lincoln was famously born in a log cabin but most other US presidents have been of far less humbler stock. Not Nixon: he was born into a genuinely impoverished Quaker lifestyle and two of his brothers died during childhood. This unfortunately gave him a huge chip on his shoulder about anyone he perceived to have had a cushy privileged upbringing (for example, the Kennedys).

He was an anti-Communist through and through.

Nixon’s rapid rise to power occurred only by dipping his hands in the murky waters of McCarthyism. It was the key issue of his times but by embroiling himself in the case of State Department official Alger Hiss who had been accused of being a Soviet spy, the young congressman shamelessly courted publicity which most young politicians would have shunned.

He was called “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…

The 1950 campaign for the US senate seat muddied Nixon’s reputation still further. His opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Hollywood actress married to the actor Melvyn Douglas and later the grandmother of Illeana Douglas, a character actress known today for roles in films such as Cape Fear, Grace Of My Heart and Ghost World. The campaign became notorious for Nixon’s dirty tactics. Although she was, in reality, no more left-wing than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon argued she was a fellow traveller for the Communist cause. He famously labelled her the “Pink Lady” claiming “she is pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed claiming just that.

The tactics worked. Nixon won by a landslide. He was famous and picked by General Dwight D. Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate less than two years later off the back of this success. Douglas’s political career was over. But the Tricky Dicky nickname would stay with Nixon forever.

Nixon lost the presidency in 1960 because of the TV debate…or did he?

We all know the story. Nixon was robbed of the presidency in 1960 by a slicker, handsomer opponent. Radio audiences thought Nixon had won the famous debate with the young John F. Kennedy but on TV, JFK nailed him. Voting irregularities in Chicago further ensured JFK’s narrow win.

But it is wrong to attribute Nixon’s defeat in 1960 wholly to a triumph of style over substance. Nixon was already widely distrusted. He had almost been dropped from the vice presidential ticket in 1952 over claims he had profited from campaign contributions. Only the famous “Checkers speech” on TV, the sentimental address in which he referred to his daughter’s dog Checkers, was his salvation. But TV would prove his undoing in 1960.

Yet this is not wholly true either. For one thing, as with Obama and Romney in 2012, while the vote between Kennedy and Nixon was very close, the Electoral College margin between the two candidates in the final vote was actually quite wide (303 for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon, although Nixon, oddly, carried more states). Whatever happened in Chicago, Nixon wasn’t even close to winning. Distrust had played its part too. In 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower’s opponent Adlai Stevenson had milked fears over the ageing Eisenhower’s health to exploit concerns that Nixon not the beloved Ike would end up being president. The president had had a heart attack in 1955. In 1960, a Democratic poster depicted a cartoon of a shifty looking Nixon and asked memorably: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”

If in doubt…blame the press.

Nixon soon reached rock bottom losing in a landslide to Edmund G “Pat” Brown in the 1962 California Gubernatorial election. The father of the present Governor Jerry Brown, the Democrat was doubtless helped by President Kennedy’s deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. How Nixon would have handled it, we will never know. At any rate, Nixon appeared to quit politics. Like his future biographer Jonathan Aitken (and others), he was keen to blame the media for his own failings:

 ““For sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of fun. You’ve had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken. I leave you gentlemen now, and you will now write it, you will interpret it, that’s your right. But, as I leave you, I want you to know, just think how much you’re going to be missing — you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

But it was not to be. Nixon returned (in fact he had never had any real intention of quitting) and achieved the presidency ….

The Comeback Kid.

No presidential nominee has ever lost the presidency, returned to regain the nomination and then gone onto win the presidency. The sole exception is Richard M. Nixon.

Vanquishing the Kennedys.

JFK narrowly beat Nixon in 1960. Bobby Kennedy might well have beaten him again had he not been gunned down during the summer of the 1968 campaign. Nixon instead faced and narrowly beat the vice president, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 but feared the third brother Ted Kennedy would dethrone him in 1972. He even started a file on Ted Kennedy’s sex life. There was no need. The Chappaquiddick Incident in July 1969 (In which a young girl was found drowned in the Senator’s car from which Kennedy had mysteriously escaped) wrecked the youngest Kennedy brother’s presidential dreams forever, though not his career. Ironically, Kennedy had declined an invite by Nixon to attend an event celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landings that very weekend. Had he gone, the accident would never have happened and history might well have played out very differently.

Vietnam and China.

Nixon’s firm anti-Communist credentials were such that with the aid of Henry Kissinger, he was able to end the war in Vietnam (albeit still in a humiliating but unavoidable US defeat) and spectacularly re-open relations with Communist China in 1972. A president with a more liberal reputation could never have got away with this. A landslide re-election win was assured. Nixon won 49 states, his opponent Senator George McGovern, only one.

Dirty tricks.

Nixon had won narrowly in 1968 only by using a mole to sabotage Vietnam peace talks which threatened to deliver Humphrey a last minute victory. The Humphrey team was well aware of this but feared releasing the information on it as they had acquired it by wire-tapping. Their own polling suggested they would beat Nixon anyway. This turned out to be wrong.

In 1972, the Nixon team sabotaged their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie’s primary campaign partly through silly tricks (releasing mice in a press conference with the message “Muskie is a ratfink” on their tails) but also by spreading rumours Muskie’s wife was an alcoholic. Muskie cried on TV, effectively finishing the Nixon team’s work for them.

Watergate.

Nixon would doubtless be amused to see phone hacking in the news again. But in 1972, it was the journalists, notably the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were the heroic ones.


Nixon’s enemies list.

The “Enemies List” which Nixon drew up during his presidency gives a unique insight into just how paranoid he had become. In addition to politicians like Ed Muskie, Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy (more accurately described as legitimate political opponents. Nixon’s view of them as “enemies” was unhelpful) the list also included figures as diverse as John Lennon, Bill Cosby (!), Gregory Peck and Barbara Streisand.

The end.

Once it emerged Nixon had routinely recorded conversations in the White House a legal battle emerged to gain access to the tapes. Nixon refused on the grounds of “executive privilege”. The tapes when revealed had some mysterious gaps on them (Nixon’s secretary had apparently accidentally wiped one section), showed that Nixon swore a lot (the phrase “expletive deleted” was used a lot) and, worst of all, proved his role in covering up the investigation into the break-in. Impeachment proceedings began. Though “not a quitter”, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in August 1974. He spent his last twenty years attempting to restore his shattered reputation. He died, soon after his wife Pat, in 1994.

Nixon’s legacy?

Nixon achieved much mostly in the field of foreign policy. But for all his talent, he was deeply flawed and perhaps unsuited to high office. He wasn’t the US’s worst president (that might be George W. Bush) but his remains an unhappy period for the US presidency.

Why the US needs gun control laws

Guns don’t kill people. People do.

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?

ImageTo 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 Class of 2016

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)

Vice President.

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.

Against: Just horrible.ImageImage

Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?

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The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot, Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade?: No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

coup

A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series: Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade?: In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne. Author Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

gbh

GBH

Year: 1991

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet, notably a traumatic childhood incident and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy, over-stressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who played Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, Walters is slightly younger than Lindsay.

Basis in reality?: Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think (wrongly) that Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

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House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance and his character’s tendency to speak directly to the camera as well as elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two slightly inferior sequels, To Play The King, in which Urquhart clashes with a Prince Charles-like monarch (Michael Kitchen) and The Final Cut.

Remade?: A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality?: The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine and being replaced by John Major almost exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four-part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase, “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” was soon being quoted in parliament. The last outing was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral, many years before she had actually died in reality.

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Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age over thirty years from the era of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston), a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), but becomes implicated in civic corruption, then later counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown), flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong), seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee, who is also in The Secret State), is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality?: Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real-life city developer T. Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.

Why it must be Obama

In March when I began this blog, I based my first entry on one prediction: President Barack Obama would be re-elected as president this year.

Despite everything, that still seems to be the most likely outcome of this week’s election. The fact that it has proven such a close content against Governor Mitt Romney, a man who would not normally get anywhere near to winning the White House is hardly to the president’s credit.

For the Obama Administration been slightly disappointing in some areas. The economy has not recovered fully from the mess the disastrous Bush team left it in. Perhaps no administration could have achieved a full recovery in one term. Even FDR’s New Deal didn’t end the Great Depression immediately: that took World War II. Obama has certainly behaved responsibly and put the US on the road to recovery but his failure to achieve this has undeniably been the key factor undermining his popularity. Liberals may also be disappointed by his failure to close the camp at Guantanamo Bay. Surprisingly, Obama, a great orator during the 2008 campaign has also been poor at conveying his message to the general public.

On the other hand, he has enjoyed real successes: healthcare reform was a key tenet of his 2008 campaign: he has now achieved it.

Bin Laden has been killed. The war in Iraq has ended. The car industry has been saved.

In recent days, Obama has also demonstrated his cool head in a crisis. The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy has seen “no drama” Obama at his best.

Compare him to Governor Mitt Romney:

A man who believes the federal government should not have been involved in the Hurricane Sandy relief effort, believing private donations would have been more ideological sound.

A man who flip flops: Governor Romney supported gay marriage in the 1990s and now opposes it, keen as he is to curry favour with Tea Party extremists.

Worse, Governor Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to understand public service. His supporters see his business credentials as his chief asset. In fact, they might be his Achilles Heel. Unlike Obama, Romney doesn’t understand he should be aiming to represent ALL Americans, not just those who can make a fast buck.

In this sense, Obama is both the better American and the better candidate. Americans should not let their disappointment with Obama or the economic situation lead them to a choose a wholly unsuitable candidate to replace him.

October Surprise!

A look at nine last minute stories which (if they happened) could swing the US presidential election…

  1. Governor Mitt Romney is revealed to have taken part in a recent ceremony in which thousands of dead non-Mormons were baptised posthumously as Mormons. Embarrassingly, many of those listed as baptised included many people who were not actually dead who Romney assumed were dead (such as actress Angela Lansbury and Senator John McCain), several people who were clearly already Mormons and several fictional characters who Romney apparently thought were real people (Sherlock Holmes, Roger Ramjet, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Skeletor).
  2. Romney also admits switching the past votes of many dead Democrats to Republican ones, this changing the outcome of every presidential election since 1920 into a Republican victory. Former president Bob Dole defends Romney’s actions.
  3. The Romney campaign receives another blow when an hour long programme is broadcast featuring actor Clint Eastwood interrogating an empty chair which he believes to be occupied by President Barack Obama. Surprisingly, the actor appears to be won over by the chair’s arguments during the course of the programme and ends the show by endorsing President Obama’s re-election campaign.
  4. Obama is revealed to be “following” Hugo Chavez on Twitter.
  5. Romney reveals he briefly hypnotised the President during the first presidential debate thus explaining Obama’s semi-comatose state throughout. Similar hypnosis largely explains the soporific effect Romney’s speeches have on many audiences.
  6. Secret plans reveal Romney intends to sell the state of Ohio to the People’s Republic of China if elected. “It makes sound business sense,” he argues. “There’s no money in Ohio. I’ve seen the projections.”
  7. In a speech, President Obama unwittingly reveals a major plot twist in the new Bond film Skyfall.
  8. Newly released wannabe Reagan assassin John Hinckley attempts to “impress” actress Ellen DeGeneres by assassinating Obama. Once again, he fails on both counts. Obama survives and like Jodie Foster before her, Ellen isn’t even slightly “impressed”. She is more “alarmed”. Women eh?
  9. In a surprise move, Great Britain is suddenly granted admission as the 51st state of the Union. With a firmly pro-Obama population and far more Electoral College votes than California, the change secures the re-election for the president.

The Mormon conquest?

“The history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

So sang Abba in their 1974 hit Waterloo. And they were right. 1907, for example, was virtually the same as 1894.

So what’s it to be then?

Which election of the past is this year’s presidential election most likely to echo?

Here are the main scenarios:

1948: The Truman Show: Shock result! Electoral upset!

The precedent: Every underdog in every election prays for a repeat of the 1948 result. President Truman was universally expected to lose to his Republican opponent, the ultra-bland moustached weirdo Governor Thomas Dewey throughout the campaign. One newspaper even reported “Dewey defeats Truman” on its front page. Yet the polls were staggeringly wrong. Truman was, in fact, returned comfortably. He even gleefully held up a copy of the inaccurate newspaper for the cameras.

Is it likely?: Actually with the election so close, neither a Romney or an Obama win would exactly constitute an electoral upset. So assuming neither candidate wins by a huge margin or something insane happens, this wouldn’t be possible. Especially as neither Truman nor Dewey are alive.

1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984: President re-elected in a landslide.

All of these elections saw the incumbents (Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon and Reagan) winning by huge margins. Nixon and Reagan both won 49 out of 50 states. Could Obama do the same?

Likely? This may have been possible when Romney was in a flap over his moronic 47% comments. But unless something dramatic happens between now and polling day (perhaps Romney will be revealed to have sold one of his elderly relatives to a powerful conglomerate) this now seems very unlikely.

1996: President re-elected comfortably but not by a landslide.

1996 saw President Clinton comfortably quashing Senator Bob Dole’s leadership bid by a 7% poll margin.

Likely?: Not too farfetched actually and probably the best result Obama can realistically hope for. Had the result gone the other way…Monica Lewinsky? And the 73 year old President Dole? Let’s not think about it.

2004: A narrow-ish win for the president.

Nobody likes being compared to George W Bush. But in 2004, he did beat Senator John Kerry by a three percent margin. And get this: he didn’t have to cheat this time!

Likely?: A narrow Obama win is currently the most likely result.

1976: A narrow win for the challenger.

After Watergate, the fuel crisis and the Nixon pardon, ex-peanut farmer Jimmy Carter achieved a very narrow win over the maladroit President Gerald Ford.

Likely: Horribly plausible. Romney could scrape home narrowly. And remember: Ford was also undone by a poor TV debate performance!

1980: A big win for the challenger.

The 1980 victory of Reagan over incumbent President Carter was decisive and seems inevitable in retrospect. In fact, it seemed much closer at the time. Carter’s diaries reveal he felt he had a good chance at winning almost to the end.

The result famously forced loon John Hinckley Junior to reconsider his plan to shoot President Carter and shoot the new president Reagan instead. All to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Who apparently wasn’t even very impressed anyway! Tsk! Women eh? Next time just try sending a bunch of flowers. Or stalking someone who isn’t a

Likely?:A Mitt Romney landslide? If you believe in a God, pray to him or her that this doesn’t happen.