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 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 76, 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 foe Bob Dole as his running mate. Quayle’s speaking style was stilted and unconvincing and it soon emerged that twenty years before. He had used his family’s powerful business connections to ensure enrolment in the Indiana National Guard. The National Guard was usually seen as a sure way of avoiding the draft. It was in short an easy way to dodge involvement in the Vietnam War.
Quayle was not the last public figure to face such allegations. Four years later, the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton would be accused of draft dodging too, taking some of the heat off Quayle who was by then vice president. But Clinton had at least opposed the war unlike Quayle and Quayle’s opponent Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s running mate, had actually served in Vietnam. Worse was to come: Bush’s own son faced the same charge when he ran for president himself in 2000 and 2004 and even managed to go AWOL during his time on the Texan National Guard. His running mate Dick Cheney also avoided serving claiming simply that he had had “other priorities.” But Quayle had left the political arena by then.
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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, who in the Sixties had beaten George HW Bush in an election for the Senate himself.
Quayle attempted to defuse the issue, by unwisely comparing himself to the assassinated JFK:

Quayle: It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.)

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

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

It was the most stunning TV debate defeat ever.
Satire had a field day. An urban myth developed that Quayle had initially clumsily first raised his left hand when asked to take the oath of office, before hastily correcting himself and raising his right. 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/. Like its predecessor, both sides were 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 Vice President himself secretly fear the power of the vice president and so like Nixon picking Ford win 1973 want to protect himself from future impeachment by putting an 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 seem to have been voting for the main candidate not the running mate as usually seems to be the case.
Quayle continued to make real gaffes too, none, it must be said of real global importance (see below) notably launching a scathing attack on the fictional US TV character Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergman) for giving birth out of wedlock. 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 but 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 Number Two who ultimately resigned when it emerged he had evaded paying his taxes when he was Governor of Maryland, Quayle avoided scandal. But a stream of gaffes and unconvincing public performances ensured that he never gained the confidence of the American public.
Like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin since he was a rich source of gaffes. Here are some of his finest moments…

The best of Dan Quayle…

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

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

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

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 primetime TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes 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

George H. W. Bush;William J. Clinton;James E. Jr. Carter

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.

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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 thee case of our political leaders. Ronald Reagan, for example, was rarely more eloquent than in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. John Major rarely had a finer moment as PM than in paying tribute to his opponent John Smith on his death in May 1994.

Such eloquence deserted Labour politician George Brown when he appeared on the TV programme This Week on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in 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.

Brown (who had had a dispute with presenter Kenneth Harris in the past), took immediate offence at the opening question, “Now, you’re talking about a man who was a very great friend of mine…” 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.

He was pissed on air.

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

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, when he refused to be drawn into the 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, many people recognised him but could not place him or identify him by name.

The film actor attempted then to walk away, before Brown followed him and asked him if he had ever been in a play by Ted Willis (a Labour supporting British playwright). “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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Ultimately, Brown’s appearance humiliated him. His tendency to get drunk very quickly on very small amounts was well known about in Westminster circles already. Now everyone outside Westminster knew as well

Brown made things worse with a badly phrased letter 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.
Ironically, Harold Wilson 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.

Foot

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 the 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. But even these have tended not to be very similar to each other.

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).

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER star 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) improves on its source material in depicting four boys on a camping expedition into the woods to find the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes involving slugs and a rail track, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

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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 Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

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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.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

“You can’t handle the truth!” Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

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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 late 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 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 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.

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.