If you are visiting (or hopefully following) this website, you will know that I have fond memories of the Clinton years, and am preparing to complete my first book on his adminstration. (Clinton’s Grand Strategy, available later in the year from Bloomsbury)
Back then, President Clinton routinely opened his annual address to Congress by intoning that ‘the State of our Union is Strong.’ Not a bad way to begin, both structurally and rhetorically. It set the tone and demonstrated mastery of the moment. (Even when the wrong speech was fed into his Teleprompter). In other words, Clinton did everything that was missing from the 2014 State of the Union address.
President Obama’s speech was fascinating for many reasons. It was, perhaps, his best (some would say final) opportunity to breathe new life into an administration that appears to be rapidly running out of road and to put the disaster that was 2013 behind him. With the world watching and the nation gathered around television screens, computer terminals and perhaps even the odd tablet, the stage was set for Obama’s big moment. So much so that talk emerged of State of the Union fatigue! This, however, was Obama’s big night for his big reveal; what would he do with the remainder of his presidency? What initiatives would be unveiled that would doubtless prove instrumental in any legacy?
The answer, apparently, was not very much. When even Gary Younge is forced to concede thatObama’s union is in a state, it’s time to start packing…
Obama promised a year of action for 2014 but this appeared to be lacking in his speech. Instead of sweeping ideas and potential legislative initiates, the speech was full of small postures and restated positions. It is remarkable that a year into his second term the president had so little new to offer and raises the question as to why he ran for re-election if he has no tangible agenda to initiate over the next three years. He has served but a quarter of his second term, and yet specific policy initiatives were thin on the ground.
Instead of moving forward, Obama backtracked, and called out his opponents over their opposition to his healthcare plans. The White House is desperate to get on the front foot on this issue and move beyond the technical issues that have haunted the administration since its roll out. Such efforts will probably succeed as the technical glitches get sorted, but the initiative has taken a pounding as a result.
50 years on from Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious War on Poverty, the president who initially appeared to offer so much to elements of American society that had previously gone un-noticed, did little to breathe life into the corpse that is the Great Society. Much has been made of Obama’s pledge to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, but this will have a limited impact since many federal workers already earn more than this. Neither will it be applied retrospectively and so will only have a limited impact at some point in the future. Republicans, naturally, have concerns that it could drive businesses to the wall.
Both sides are playing to their base in an election year. However, in the United States, every other year is an election year and every other year the country is anticipating an election. This, therefore, is a government far better suited for campaigning than for actual governing.
That being the case the president made a play for the female vote (traditionally Democrat) by highlighting the gender gap in pay and conditions and calling this an embarrassment. It should be highlighted, of course, that he has been president since January 2009, and so part of that embarrassment must be shouldered by his administration. This, remarkably enough, was not conceded.
Continuing in the election year mode, issues of immigration reform have become lost in the weeds and the president’s blustering efforts to address this issue are unlikely to help. A bi-partisan group was making interesting headway on this issue last year, until Obama stumbled in and insisted on stamping his own views on the process, which appears to have damned the initiative to failure.
There was little sign last night of a contrite chief executive, seeking the bi-partisan approach to policy that is necessary for success on Capitol Hill. Instead, Obama’s perceived presidential pomposity was exacerbated by his announcement of a willingness to act by Executive Authority in defiance of Congress, a stance that will do nothing to assist bi-partisanship for the remained of this time in office. It’s almost as though he wishes to fail in his legislative relations! For a former Constitutional lecturer, he appears to have a rather nuanced interpretation of the role of the president as defined by the Founders, who actively sought to avoid a leader capable of ruling by decree.
Three years from now the next President of the United States will be in office and Obama will presumably be home in Illinois. When he kicks back and watches the new president’s first address to Congress, he will be forced to concede (privately, of course) that his 2014 attempt to rescue his presidency failed to do so. With his opinion polls lower than many members of Congress, he remains a liability for Democrats heading into the midterms, an event that will effectively end the Obama presidency and fire the starting pistol for the 2016 presidential election to find his successor. They, presumably, will have rather more initiatives to promote than the incumbent and greater personal and political skills with which to try and implement them. One can but hope.
Senator Marco Rubio spoke at Chatham House on December 3, firmly establishing the think tank as the destination of choice for visiting American politicians eager to establish an international reputation ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Following hot on the heels of former Secretary of State, former senator, former First Lady of the United States (and Arkansas for that matter) Hillary (sometimes Rodham) Clinton, the visit of Senator Rubio marks London as the new epicentre of an emerging International Primary, designed to raise their profiles ahead of Ohio and New Hampshire.
In a 30-minute address, Senator Rubio provided a wide-ranging vision of the future direction that US foreign policy should take, addressing the Special Relationship and Washington’s dealings with a variety of nations, leaders and locations. In a solid, workman like address, Rubio discussed Iran, Russia, China, the UK and the development of EU-US trade ties. The defence and advocacy of Liberty was at the heart of the talk and was returned to time and again as Rubio threaded a narrative of US commitments and responsibilities through a series of locals, events, and personalities.
Rubio was steadfast in his positions in regard to Iran and Russia. As a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he forecast that bi-partisan legislation would be presented as early as next week that would increase pressure on Iran, at the same time that the Obama administration is seeking a rapprochement with Tehran. Rubio remains convinced that Iran is merely using the discussions as a delaying tactic to enable it to achieve an enrichment capacity and that a nuclear empowered Iran would begin a regional arms race. Putin’s Russia also came in for heavy, repeated criticism, as the senator took issue with the manner in which it was seeking to use energy supplies to exert influence over Central and Eastern Europe, and the manner in which Ukraine was being weakened as a result.
In response to a series of questions, coordinated with the usual grace by Chatham House Director Robin Niblett, Senator Rubio was adamant that while he believes in the concept of Medicare and Medicaid, the mandated spending programs as presently constructed are financially unsustainable. Addressing these issues, however, will require more than charm and youthful vigour, for they remain the third rail in American domestic politics. Rubio advocated the reductions in trade tariffs that would accompany the potential TTIP framework, while acknowledging that the US would struggle to accept much of the EU regulatory frameworks on international trade and commerce. Rubio declared that the United States needs a strong European Union but that it must respect the UK’s decision with regard to its continued membership.
Returning to foreign policy, Rubio was quick to dismiss talk of ‘hawks and doves’ as being an outdated division in the 21st century. He advocated the use of diplomacy, foreign aid and soft power in US foreign activities and stressed that for Americans, foreign policy was domestic policy. While stressing that he did not believe that the president was required to seek Congressional approval for a course of action, Rubio presented a concise explanation for his lack of support for Obama over Syria. As he had mentioned previously Rubio had sought US involvement for 2 years, during which he had advocated allying with moderate opposition forces that now appear to have dissipated; he opposed the limited engagement that the president had called for; and he found the plans lacking in direction. Worryingly, however, he made reference to ‘the forces of darkness and evil’, language that is all too reminiscent of a recent president whose lack of nuance was portrayed as mere naivety. This is one area where progress needs to be made in the coming months.
This was then was a sold delivery, though not without the occasional misstep; a speech that was read, rather than delivered. It was a shopping list of ideas and aspirations, designed in part to tell an audience what they wanted to hear; a speech that quoted both Reagan and Thatcher and even made reference to One Direction.
Rubio was adamant that in a season of doubt, the United States remained vigilant and ready to lead. He noted the 6 decades of declinist talk and of the various world powers that had been predicted to assume the mantle of global leadership, all of whom had failed to rise to the occasion. With the revolution in US energy production and forecasts of its future as an energy exporter, Rubio was certain that the future was indeed a bright one.
As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has a fascinating narrative and is well positioned to take full advantage of his heritage, youth, and position as senator for the key state of Florida heading into 2016. Accordingly, this visit was all about establishing international credibility and elevating the senator in the eyes of potential kingmakers in the GOP. Senior parliamentarians with whom he met were understood to have been impressed, although those who had not met with him were heard to mutter in the corridors of power ‘Isn’t he a bit of a nutter?’ Well, the simple answer is, no, he isn’t, and it is concerning that such a view was being aired so openly. Whilst the depth of the senator’s grasp of the issues was never tested, his breadth of knowledge and the span of the talk were more than sufficient.
Cuba was mentioned just once, clearly signalling that Rubio is seeking to position himself not as the Cuban candidate, but simply as a candidate who happens to be of Cuban extraction. He will, doubtless, reap an electoral windfall from the huge influx of Latino voters who are expected to form a huge voting bloc in 2016. One wonders in what capacity London will next welcome Marco Rubio to these shores?
Following an article that I was widely quoted in that appeared in the Metro newspaper recently, I was invited to attend a screening of the movie, Parkland, at the American Embassy in London. The film addresses the immediate aftermath of the ambush that awaited President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and is named after the hospital that tended all too briefly to JFK.
The first hour of the film appears to proceed in virtual real time, with the action (if that is the appropriate word) focused on the events in Trauma Room One and the frantic efforts to resuscitate the stricken chief executive. For the remaining 35 minutes or so, the movie speeds through the events of the following 2 days culminating in the simultaneous funerals of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin.
Much like the 2006 movie Bobby, Parkland feels like a small, independent movie, packed to the rafters with A-C list Hollywood actors, eager to be associated with the Kennedy legacy. As with Bobby, Parkland suffers as a direct result since one is all too often thinking, ‘Oh look, it’s (fill in the blank) in a funny hat.’ The movie also suffers from a lack of direction or obvious intent: It is never clear what the message of the movie is meant to be or who it is aimed at. It is certainly moving in places but this a result of the storyline more than the actual movie itself. As always, Paul Giamatti is excellent in his work as Abraham Zapruder, less successful, however, is Billy Bob Thornton, who as always, plays Billy Bob Thornton, this time in a hat and suit that appear 2 sizes too small and seems to be in a little movie all by himself, never quite appearing to be part of the wider events portrayed on screen.
Parkland continues the recent attempt to move away from focusing upon the graphical content of the Zapruder film, despite this being at the centre of the film. This is a strange decision, but far from the only challenging aspect to the film: For a movie that seems to want to stress it’s grasp of detail it singularly fails to include an appearance by Abraham Zapruder on American television that destroyed weekend.
The role of the FBI is singularly unquestioned. No mention is mentioned of the memo that was sent to every FBI field office on the eve of the assassination, warning of a threat to the president. Even the destruction of evidence linking Oswald to the FBI, which began that weekend, is presented in a very matter of fact manner, and not as part of a far larger effort to destroy evidence.
Despite the vast about of achieve footage of the doomed motorcade, hardly any is utilised, presumably due to the cost involved. This however, removes what could have been an interesting way in which to present the interaction between the president and everyday Texans as he glided to his untimely end. Considering the effort of the film to address the murder through the eyes of average citizens, this would have been a logical and effective addition.
Missing also from the film’s use of archive footage is the scene at Love Field when secret service agents were ordered to stand down from the presidential limousine. Missing entirely is the figure of Clint Hill, the sole secret service agent who leapt to action as the bullets were fired.
Vitally, at no point is Oswald’s innocence raised in a serious fashion. Only Oswald’s mother holds out the possibility that there may be more behind the shooting than meets the eye, but she is routinely portrayed as being unstable. Indeed, the widely addressed conspiracy theories are only raised as straw men, to be demolished by Oswald’s brother Robert. No serious consideration is given to any debate or discussion surrounding the assassination.
Parkland singularly fails to develop upon the myriad tales of individual involvement in the aftermath of the shooting or how the events impacted the rest of their lives. Clearly, many involved never recovered and never moved on from the events portrayed in the movie. As with Bobby, there were many interesting stories that could have been told around the historic event, but this is not one of them. Indeed, there really is no story at the centre of the movie. The medical team in Trauma Room One in particular were haunted by the events and their actions and reactions questioned and investigated ever since. This would have been a tale to tell, but one that may have required greater acting capacity than provided by Zac Efron, whose doe eyed look is the extent of his emotional range.
The release of Parkland raises a serious issue surrounding the portrayal of the assassination on film. In the decade following the president’s murder, a series of movies emerged that directly challenged the official version of events. These included Executive Action, Winter Kills and The Parallax View. Then came JFK, Oliver Stone’s behemoth that brought the events to a new generation and which resulted in the release of a slew of previously unreleased documents. However, in the years that have followed, challenges to the official record have disappeared. Parkland is only the latest in a series of cinematic recreations that blindly accept the lone gunman theory despite the fact that this has been directly challenged by a House Committee investigation in the late 1970s.
The movie fits into a very strange and increasingly conservative interpretation of the assassination and indeed, Kennedy’s life and legacy. 25 years ago, in 1988, it was not only permissible, but encouraged to look for complexity and contradictions in the official verdict and several programs aired that claimed to name second gunmen. While these efforts clearly went too far and were revealed to be flawed, they did at least seek to present a series of dilemmas that are at the heart of the assassination to the wider public. This is no longer the case. 2013 has revealed a near total failure to challenge the Warren Commission and indeed, has served merely to reinforce some of the more bizarre and far-fetched findings of that troubled report. It is indeed a strange world when a president can be killed in suspicious circumstances and it is those who are asking the difficult questions that are portrayed as being nutcases….
On Tuesday December 3, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will be speaking at Chatham House, the leading international relations think tank in London and I am delighted to announce that I will be attending this very special event.
Coming hot on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s recent talk, this will be a fantastic opportunity to compare and contrast two very different politicians who are both leading candidates for the 2016 presidential election.
I will be offering my analysis of the talk following the address, which promises to be of great interest to those focused on the future direction of US foreign and domestic policy.
On November 22, 2013, I was deeply moved to participate in the BBC’s coverage of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I made a series of appearances on both BBC World News and on the BBC News Channel throughout the day, starting at 12:30 and ending at 20:30 as the station reflected on events from 1963 and the ensuing impact on US politics.
I was gratified to be able to work with the likes of Stephen Sackur, Nick Bryant and Tim Wilcox, as well as with the former White House correspondent for Time Magazine, Jef McAllister. Having watched Martin Sixmith’s report on the BBC news reflecting on the 25th anniversary in 1988 it was a poignant moment to be working with the BBC to mark this solemn occasion.
Whilst the BBC’s coverage of events was admirable, the ceremony designed to do so in Dallas was a travesty that appeared more to mourn the impact that the events had on the city than on the loss of the young president and the implications that this had for the nation and the world.
It was, in many ways, all too appropriate, for it reminded us of the manner in which Kennedy’s style, grace and charm was extinguished and replaced with Texan BBQ and crass antics 50 years ago.
Those chosen to speak clearly had no knowledge or interest in Kennedy; what he stood for, or what he sought to achieve. This was, along with move of the television coverage in general this week, an attempt to whitewash history and to deny certain truths. No mention was made, for example, of the Texan schoolchildren who cheered upon hearing the news of the shooting, having been raised in a climate of loathing toward the president in a city known then as The Hate Capital of Dixie. The clergy, tasked with reflecting on JFK, chose to use words initially spoken by George Bernard Shaw, adopted by RFK during his ill-fated campaign in 1968 and used so memorably in Ted Kennedy’s speech at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Great words, but singularly unconnected with JFK. Asking David McCullough to speak was also strange. A gifted author and orator, but again, where was the Kennedy connection?
The crass nature of the remarks, the glib attempt at a memorial service made a mockery of the events being observed. Hardly any surprise that no one intimately associated with the family was represented.
The death of President Kennedy was a dark day in the history of the United States and one whose impact is all too often forgotten. The ceremony in Dallas did little to improve the city’s standing and served only, perhaps, to remind us further of what was lost 50 years ago.
I was delighted to be interviewed by London’s Metro newspaper for an article that addressed the legacy of President John F. Kennedy. My remarks were included along with those of the eminent American historian and political scientist, Larry Sabato and Thurston Clarke.
You can read the piece HERE
I was delighted to be invited to discuss the on-going crisis regarding the National Security Agency’s European activities with the Voice of America this week. I sat down with Al Pessin and discussed a wide range of related issues and was very pleased with the ensuing package that was produced.