April 11, 2008

George Romney: the fall of a friendless man

George Romney was briefly like his son, Mitt, (the two are pictured together above) a leading contender to be US President. In 1966 the Governor of Michigan rose to be the leading light of the Republican party, supported by the last Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and with the support of large majorities in the opinion polls. By 1967 though Romney had fallen back to third and he too, like his son, withdrew from the Republican contest before it really got going, falling on his sword like his son before the Spring in late February. He burnt out quite spectacularly, accusing state department officials of brain washing him on a trip to Vietnam and eventually losing even the support of Dwight Eisenhower. His campaign is an interesting specimen though, as Chris Bachelder suggests, Romney fell apart in part because what worked in Michigan would not work nationally and because he underestimated the virtues of being a party man.

Romney became governor in Michigan after a successful career as a self made businessman. He became governor on the back of attacking established interests. Michigan was a state trending democrat over the period that Romney was governor, when he was elected in 1962 he was the first Republican governor since 1946 and the state voted strongly for Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election. Romney ran against his own party in Michigan, he argued that he was the more practical 'Democrat' and suggested that the Republican establishment were in part to blame for the state's problems. Consequently Romney ran on his electability and against both a Republican party establishment he saw as extreme and corrupt and a Democrat party establishment he saw as incompetent and corrupt. He ran against politics and for competence. In some sense he reminds one of a figure like Mike Bloomberg in New York today: he was the man you could trust. Romney ran on his strong ethical principles- he spent hours praying before he ran for governor and on his practical experience.

Coming to national politics, he followed the same lines. He made a point of a rather quixotic stance against Senator Barry Goldwater, arguing against Goldwater publically only after Goldwater had beaten Nelson Rockefeller in the crucial California primary earlier in the year. Furthermore after Goldwater acheived the nomination Romney failed to support his party's candidate, Goldwater was furious writing to Romney after the election and reminding him that he (Goldwater) had supported Nixon in 1960 and expected every Republican to do the like when the party had chosen a candidate. But as Bachelder suggests Romney enjoyed prickly relations with some of the leading members of his own faction within the party. He didn't like Nelson Rockefeller because Rockefeller had been divorced, he annoyed fellow governors and never really fitted in with the press core. Unlike Goldwater who made friends across the isle with ease, Romney's assurance and prickliness irritated. Like his son he was unable to get on with even those who agreed with him. His attempts to run against the establishment worked in Michigan but did not work nationally, where the party mattered more than the candidate.

Bachelder convincingly dismisses the two other possible reasons why Romney didn't succeed. His intervention on Vietnam was maladroit- but occured after the decline in his popularity and after his main supporters had abandoned him. A more adroit or popular politician might have even survived it. Perhaps more significantly his Mormonism didn't seem to really feature in the campaign- to be honest Romney unlike his son didn't seem to survive for long enough for his religion to matter.

Romney's failure ultimately was down to success in the Republican party. He couldn't get enough politicians to actually like him enough to support him- he couldn't do what politicians as diverse as Rockefeller, Nixon, Goldwater and Reagen could, ie build a constituency of friends and followers who would follow him in a national setting. As a Michigan governor he ran on his principles and against the establishment: but the Republican Presidential campaign required compromise and comradeship. It required him to support people who he naturally found antipathetic: he was from the beggining weakened by the fact that he had not supported and had publically slighted Goldwater in 1964, if others had not supported the Arizona senator, then they had not allowed their staff to openly solicit split votes (Johnson, Romney) as Romney had in Michigan. That kind of arrogance sometimes can come across as independence- but even the most independent member of a political party who has political sense knows to curry favour with other politicians- to campaign for them and furthermore to avoid irritating them too much (John McCain the current nominee from the GOP stumped for George Bush in 2004 and for other Republicans in 2006). Romney failed that basic test- and even at the height of his popularity that earned him rebukes from significant Republican figures like Ronald Reagen. His arrogance also led him to insult and thus alienate even longterm supporters like Dwight Eisenhower, in the autumn of 1967 Romney got a strongly worded letter from Eisenhower when he implied in a speech that the President hadn't controlled foreign policy in the 1950s, he ignored the warning and Eisenhower ended up in opposition to his candidacy.

Bachelder suggests that Romney's failure demonstrates the power of the party machine- but I'd go further and suggest that both his and his son's fall demonstrates the importance to any politician of friendship amongst politicians and between politicians and journalists. Clubbability matters in the social world of politics: Romneys, pere et fils, have not attained the heights of US political power partly because they lack that ability to make their own kind feel happy in their company. Its a talent that is underrated in our democratic age, because we do not like the realisation that politics is often a sport played for a few people's minds and hearts- but the failure of George Romney to get anywhere in US national politics demonstrates the importance of personal tact and party loyalty. Ideology played a part in both their falls but the personal angle was also significant- especially as Bachelder suggests in the case of the father.

April 10, 2008

Women with good memories

Yesterday, walking home from London to my home, I was listening on my Ipod to a lecture given by an academic at Bath University about Russian literature and in particular about the Village novelists- people like Valentin Rasputin. The lecturer, Professor Gillespie of Bath University, argued that running through the Russian village novelists like Rasputin who acquired their fame in the 1970s was the motif of the surviving family- the family that survives trauma through the endurance of their women folk. Its an interesting theme, and of course was a reality for many Soviet citizens, as Orlando Figes has recently documented in his book the Whisperers, families under Stalin were broken up and destroyed by the effects of the terror and the Gulag. These ideas came to my mind when watching the Hungarian film, Szelerem (Love), which is I think the most interesting cinematic reimagining of the enduring women and the enduring family that I have ever seen.

The issue at the heart of Szelerem and of the period was the arrest and deportation of political prisoners- whether in Russia, Hungary or anywhere else subject to the horrors of the long lived Marxist tyrannies. Men often were carted away for years, taken from their womenfolk and their children for an unspecified period of time, a period in which noone knew whether their husbands, fathers or sons were alive or dead. Its a film about that removal. Alone in a room at the top of a house, is an old woman waiting for her son to return from wherever he has gone. She has been informed by her daughter in law that her son is making a film in New York, but we the audience are swiftly made aware of the fact that her son is a political prisoner and that the daughter is hiding this information from the mother in order to spare her the confrontation with the harsh reality of life.

The old woman sleeps up in an elegant white night gown, reminiscing about her earlier life as a Hungarian aristocrat. The director, Karol Makk, intercuts the sequence of the film with single shots- instant moments of long dead memory, preserved like photos in the mind and stimulated by a moment's reflection. The old woman is sustained by the work of her daughter in law- who pretends that her gifts proceed from the fantasy of the son in America- but who like a duck scrambles under water whilst maintaining a perfect aristocratic facade above the surface. More than that though, the daughter does this despite losing her own job for political reasons and despite the fact that she now has rented out her own house, living in the maid's quarters.

There is something haunting and beautiful about this movie and the performances from a superb Hungarian caste, something gently melancholic about its reflections on the loss of beauty and capacity that come with age- the old woman feebly bemoans the fact that she will never go to another concert- but it is also about the nature of affection and love. Love cannot sustain us through tragedy but it can smooth the downsides and help us shape our circumstances. This intimate film is about all that and more- at its heart it shows how the personal and political interract and gives the lie to cynicism, the greatest casualties of communism were the wives and husbands, children and parents, friends and comrades that it split apart- Szelerem is the monument to those (particularly women) who kept remembering and sustained civilisation through the dark times.

April 08, 2008

Politicians and their private lives

I promised a response to Matt Sinclair and Tim Montgomerie- here it is...

The relationship between politicians and the public is an interesting one: one of the reasons often cited that more talented people do not enter politics is the threat posed by an intrusive press to their families and friends and yet there is a suspicion that politicians live privileged lives and use their high positions in order to misbehave. Elliot Spitzer in New York has just proved the suspicion by using prostitutes whilst in another context prosecuting those who use them vigorously. Hypocrisy has never been more aptly called. Is that the reason though that we should be interested in the private lives of politicians, and how far should our interest go?

Its a question that recently has been agitating the conservative blogosphere in the UK: two of its principle representatives, Tim Montgomerie and Matt Sinclair have argued that private lives do matter. Both of their posts are worth reading. Montgomerie's essential argument is that there are public ramifications to private decisions and politicians ought to acknowledge when they have made private decisions that harmed the public good: ie taking drugs for example. Matt adds to that by reminding us about the emmense power that politicians hold over us: as he says, "we can't judge politicians entirely on their policies because we are not just electing a manifesto but a set of oligarchs to rule for four to five years." Matt doesn't really develop that point, but I think that's the central reason that we ought to be interested in the private lives of politicians.

Many decisions in government are made in ways that cannot be predicted at the time of election: in 1982, 1990, 2001 and 2003 the United Kingdom went to war in places that could not have been predicted by the general public when the elections beforehand were held. Tony Blair's second term in 2001 turned from a domestic reforming term (as intended by Blair when elected) into a Premiership concerned with the battle against terrorism. Understanding how Blair responded to terrorism of course includes understanding his ideology: New Labour was always committed to democratisation in foreign policy from the Kosovan adventure of 1999 onwards and because of the events of the early and mid 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda, but there is more than that to it.

In order to understand Blair's decisions about Afghanistan and Iraq you have to understand his personality and way of working. Iraq, in particular, as Lord Butler's inquiry made clear, was the result in part of the way that Mr Blair and his inner circle worked: their methods meant that they divorced themselves from the reality that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, something I think Blair believed but something he was in error to believe. The problem is that often when we talk about private lives, we seem to be talking about sex lives but actually as I think you can infer from what I'm saying someone's sex life is actually not the crucial part of their private life.

In this case, US political culture, much more used to a system where one individual stands at the pinacle of power, is much more impressive than the UK's political culture. One of the reasons that some Democrats distrust Hillary Clinton is her inability to run her own campaign. Senators Clinton and Obama have not really run anything before today- but the way that they are running their campaigns indicates the way that they might run their White House staff, and the way that they respond to campaign crises, indicates something about the way that they might respond to crises during their Presidencies. The same approach ought to be made more use of in the UK: for example very few of us know anything about the way that Nick Clegg or David Cameron would govern- would they like John Major use their cabinets or would they like Tony Blair rely on a close coterie of advisors, what kind of Prime Ministers or ministers might they be (the question is relevant to Clegg as in the case of a coalition he would be running one of the great departments of state)- it is a question that we aren't looking at at the moment and that's not a great thing.

Looking at a politician's previous life can also tell us things about the way that they would behave within politics: Gordon Brown's time as a PhD student seems to have established his own patterns of behaviour, as both Peter Hennessy and Peter Mandelson have commented Brown behaves like a research student, locking himself away with the data before he comes out with a decision. Often though that means that we pay attention to the less sexy parts of a politicians' lives: a politician's affairs seem to me to demonstrate very little about their method of governing, neither does taking drugs as a teenager. As for Tim Montgomerie's arguments about externalities, I disagree, politics is not a contest about which politician has the most altruistic behaviour towards the public, its a contest about who is best able to run the commonwealth for the interest of all. Politics is of course about ideology and argument: but it is also about management, how the politician manages events and manages a large staff in Downing Street, in order to assess politicians, we need to assess their behaviour as managers of events and people. In order to assess that, often in the case of opposition leaders in particular, we have nothing else to turn to but their private lives. Such may not be perfect indicators: but with nothing else to go on and the certainty that at some point, a politician will be challenged by events that none of us could have predicted, we need to have an idea about how they might respond.

Ultimately its less the private lives of politicians, than their personalities that matter. For the key thing to think about is with what mentality they come to make decisions- are they angry, rash, thoughtful, hesitant, cautious or sensitive? Do they like detail or despise it, preferring the broad brush? How do they treat advice? The difference could be the difference between war and peace.

Crossposted at Liberal Conspiracy.

April 07, 2008

Mio fratello è figlio unico

Films about communism and fascism are not uncommon: in recent years we've seen Hitler's death, Stasi spies, British skinheads and operations aimed at counterfeiting alllied notes for Fascist uses. The Italian film, My brother is an only child, attempts to deal with these two movements as a way of exploring the growth of two youths near Rome in the 1960s and 1970s. But the film never really takes off to attain the heights of its subject matter- the film treats these professions as though they were youthful follies and to some extent they were, but that's all we get in terms of the analysis of the politics that we see on screen. There are some telling details- the writers and director know their fascist and communist propaganda of the day but incident crowds out ideology.

Rather than being a film about fascism and communism, this is a film about growing up. The two brothers- Accio and Manrico- are united by their strong passions for politics and women and divided in the direction of their political passion. Accio the youngest feels isolated from the rest of his family- victimised by his mother and forced to study at the technical college whilst being an accomplished classicist. Manrico, the elder brother, is a factory worker and a leading communist. Both though as the film goes on seem incomplete and adolescent, veering around madly as the real story of life goes on where they are not looking. This is particularly evident in their politics: here neither fascism nor communism are seen as systems but as illusions. We see the illusion at its most visible when Accio learns about the greatness of Mussolini or when Manrico proletarianises the Ode to Joy. We see it pervade their lives and their thoughts about their lives.

Ultimately though, their lives go on in different and much more important ways. Accio beds the wife of his mentor, Mario, and because of that leaves the fascists. He also leaves the fascists because of his devotion to Manrico's girlfriend, Francesca (played by the incredibly beautiful Diane Fleri). Manrico's relationship with Francesca causes Accio a great deal of jealousy but also a great deal of sorrow. Eventually Manrico makes Francesca pregnant- and as the story goes on, we see that pregnancy and the child produced from it as a test of the two brothers. One brother passes it and one brother fails it. Significantly at the end of the film, the brother that passes the test takes the only meaningful political action of the entire film: not an act of terrorism or an act of violence, not making a speech or berating an enemy, but an actual political act that helps people in living their lives forwards.

In reality this is as much a critique of the whole notion of being political as it is a critique of these two specific ideologies. It is a critique of the idea that one has to be violently politically motivated, that one's time spent down a pub discussing political ideas is meaningful or useful. What the film points out is that it does not compare to the time spent with one's family and that politics is a trivial game compared to life itself. There is a great truth in there. But its a truth not so much about politics as about growing up- as we grow and change we cast off our youthful frivolity (of which politics is and can be a part) and anchor our convictions in our communities. My wife, my kids, my friend matter much more to me than the abstract nouns about freedom and revolution that used to inspire me. One brother reaches the stage where people are people, the other sees them in the end as the ultimate abstraction.

The film has a good tempo to it- there are longeurs and it could have been shorter- but its tempo is nice. There is a vivacity to the way that the filmmakers tell the story which appealed to me, a lightness of touch and the music is excellent. Not to mention the performances which are all good. The ideas about politics may not be that interesting- this presents no analysis of either fascism or communism- but it does present an analysis of the way that part of political maturity is the realisation that people matter more than 'the people'. Furthermore in some sense it does suggest something about extremism: that communism and fascism can arise not so much from a false logic, but from a failed empathetic capacity- they are diseases of the psychopath and the adolescent for that reason. One of these brothers manages to get past that, the other is trapped finally in a heroic and yet harmful moment. Like Achilles he will not come back from his youth an old man, like Achilles in a sense he intends it.


Apologies for being late with this, but as the Tin Drummer suggests Blogging is harder than it looks. Having said that, here goes with this latest series in the Britblog roundup- I hope you enjoy- there is everything from politics to a free film involved!

So lets get started. How about a glass of wine before we zoom into the distance, I mean afterall as Gene Expression notes that was Asterix's magic potion. You aren't so sure about drinking on a school night, well yes I agree, my behaviour changes over the week as well, as Vino points out that's hardly surprising, apparantly the polls in the US are different depending on what day of the week they are taken on. But at least we can trust polls, which is more than you can say, as Tim Ireland argues, about some of the visiting figures put out by bloggers. Tut, tut Tim obsessive I call you- obsession leads to all sorts of bad things, to what Thunderdragon shows is a really bad idea, banning samurai swords and it leads to multiple useless articles being published. Paulie wonders do you really for instance need to read a film's reviews before you go to it: as a reviewer of films I feel guilty and slink under my desk at this point, though I'd argue mine are best read after you've seen the film!

Its hard to type under this here table (thanks Paulie) but I can see the tv screen and even from here I share James Hamilton's view that Cristiano Ronaldo is really astonishing, its almost like watching Dixie Dean. And then I started wondering afterall plenty of people hide under tables, maybe its quite normal- yeah I'm behaving a bit like Letters on a Tory says David Milliband behaves. David and I need to realise that folly ain't so bad, like Lear (as the Wardman Wire suggests) we need fools to tell us the truth. Or else we might all go through that evil process Bob Piper has labelled Torification. Bob is right afterall, the private lives of politicians do matter to an extent. Tim Montgomerie provides the a list as to why they matter over at Centre Right, Matt Sinclair comments on it a bit (and I'm going to write a further addition later). Private lives, that's code for sex isn't it? Sex, sex and more sex. So what about sex then- as Dave Cole argues, our definitions of what constitutes a sex establishment varies- time to go campaigning against lapdancing.

Ah puritanism- that brings us to religion doesn't it. I can see it now the dangerous territory of religion where a blogger mustn't lose their footing, otherwise they are swept off the path to righteousness. Chris Dillow discusses the left's approach to religion. I mean even being secular, as Stephen Law points out, is a difficult enterprise- maintaining neutrality always is. Kate Smurthwaite is not interested in maintaining neutrality, her granddad died of Alzheimers and she doesn't think that religious scruple ought to stand in the way of curing people. Death is the final frontier and its a terrible one: Ellee suggests that there are correlations between people's deaths and the deaths of their partners. Talking of our grandparent's generation, on a brighter note, they would have thrilled to the film The Third Man and despite the fact that its not a British blog as this is a masterpiece of British cinema, I think its worth pausing over this tribute to Bernard Lee and the film in which he played a crucial part (not to mention the fact you can watch it embedded there). Talking of embedded videos, Ben Goldacre has a great one of Jeremy Paxman embarrassing a quack, well worth seeing.

There aren't any quacks on the Blogosphere though- as Francis Sedgemore suggests there is plenty of good leftwing writing out there, despite the fact that the new Burkeans are out to depress us all. And sometimes all that remains is for us bloggers to shake our heads in despair about the way the 'real' world works: I mean as Winchester Whisperer argues do we really need another layer of regulation on the already regulated financial services industry. Whatever our attitude to the present government, we can all marvel that there are people too fascist for the BNP with Mr Eugenides. Away from such depressing thoughts, away lets instead study not the crazy marginalia of society but the interesting marginalia of books. Comments left on the pages of books or tea spilt on the spine are all the topics for Mercurius Politicus's blog post about books and their marginalia. Or lets take a look with the Umpire at some of the cricketing stats- honest they are fascinating.

Alright so there are some of you who just want to be depressed, ok kids well head over to the Early Modern Whale and read this post on Hell! That sorts you out. What you mean there are still some people in the corner who persist in being happy, good luck to you Philobiblon isn't in the mood for bad news either and has some good news items. That seems to have got rid of everyone! Good night and good luck!

April 06, 2008

Politicians' Expense Claims

For those interested, Matt Sinclair did a rather good radio interview on Radio 4 recently about this subject (it is about 26 minutes in to the program). He lucidly explains the two main points, that MPs must live like ordinary citizens and therefore not be shielded from rising prices by an expenses system and furthermore that openness can only be a good thing when it comes to Parliamentary expenditure. Both are good points.

October 1969

This is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about how in October 1969, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided to feint a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. They believed that such an attack would terrify the Moscow government into helping them in Vietnam and taking disarmanent seriously. The risks were obviously vast as American planes crossed Canadian airspace into the Arctic ocean, the Russians had no reason not to beleive that they were under attack and consequently to respond appropriately. Nixon and Kissinger believed that only if Nixon were seen as a madman willing to do anything, would negotiations take place in ways that suited the United States. Obviously the calculation did not completely backfire- we are all still here- but on the other hand neither did it work fully. Vietnam did not see peace until 1973. Kissinger claims that the move was responsible for the gradual Soviet acceptance of disarmanent in the 70s, it would be interesting to hear from someone on the Russian side or even look at Russian documents to confirm what they thought of the crisis. As it is it remains one of those episodes when the cold war almost got very hot.