JDB addressing Salzburg Global Seminar

I am in glorious Salzburg this week for the annual Global Seminar on American Studies. I will be one of a small number of keynote speakers at this year’s event, which is headlined by William Leuchtenburg.

The Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) was founded in 2003 to build upon the positive momentum stemming from thirty-two sessions organized by the American Studies Center between 1994 and 2002. The purpose of SSASA is to provide a forum for anyone working in the field of American Studies to interact with experts in the field by meeting annually at Schloss Leopoldskron to attend symposia devoted to broad American Studies themes. The annual symposia are attended by distinguished professionals from a wide number of countries around the world. Through such American Studies symposia, the Salzburg Global Seminar continues to make a vital contribution to the promotion of open, international dialogue.

The 2011 symposium is entitled “Continuity and Change in US Presidential Foreign Policy; Plans, Policies and Doctrines” and will take place at Schloss Leopoldskron from October 6-10, 2011. The program will focus on comparative developments, continuity and changes in the international role and policies of the United States of post-war presidential administrations, with a special emphasis on the Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

Those of you familiar with my work will recognise how central these themes are to my ongoing research which is being showcased this autumn at a series of conferences in Europe and the United States.

The Presidential Moment

What distinguishes one presidency from another? What ensures that some presidents remain virtually anonymous, whilst others live on as household names? To some degree it is their ability to seize the Presidential Moment. History reveals that whilst presidents may take office they do not necessarily become embraced by the nation until later in their term since they struggle to cloak themselves in the aura of the presidency until an event forces them to do so.

Wondering what I mean by this?

The assassination attempt on Reagan brought the country behind Ronnie in a way that seems to have been unlikely had the event not occurred. The Gipperr’s survival, coming less than 20 years after the national tragedy in Dallas, transformed him into a national icon who had literally taken one for the team and come through, smiling, joking and promising a new dawn. Morning in America was very nearly America in mourning, but Reagan’s living presence become the embodiment of the 1980s and a touchstone for Republican leaders ever since. Granted, Reagan had little say in the matter, but his resilience and personality counted. What impressed the American people was the manner in which he faced the situation and his ability to deliver a few gags with his surgeons before being operated on.  (“I hope you’re all Republicans”)

Flash forward to 1995. Bill Clinton was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president. He had been elected with 43% of the popular vote, had failed to secure health care, had made a hash of the gays in the military row, had failed to get two candidates appointed Attorney General, had the White-water issue hanging over his head, was facing claims of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, claims of inappropriate behaviour by his former Arkansas state troopers and his party had just lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich even forced Clinton to explain his continued relevancy live on CNN thanks to the impertinence of Judy Woodruff. This was a president who had nowhere to go but back to Arkansas.

And then the Federal Building was attacked in Oklahoma City.

This one event galvanised Clinton and he found his Presidential Moment. In a time of national tragedy, the eyes of the nation and its collective media turned not to the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, but the President of the United States, and for the first time, Clinton proved equal to his office. His task was made somewhat easier by the ties the bombers had to right-wing militias, but his speech in Oklahoma spoke of compassion and the need to unify as a nation. It brought the nation together and in an instant transformed Bill Clinton into the living embodiment of the President of the UNITED States, not just an elected official. From that point on, his operation was smoother, his ratings improved, as he correctly assumed the mantle of the office. His capacity to do so and he benefit he would draw from it, even helped him overcome the impeachment crisis of his second term, though it would not be enough to guarantee the election of his vice president.

Gore’s defeat gave rise to another presidency that took time to assume the full powers of the office. George W. Bush took office in the aftermath of the protracted debacle in Florida and his inaugural parade was the first to be declared a National Security Event by the US Security Services. His motorcade was raced through Lafayette Park to avoid the crowds who were already protesting against Bush, arguably before his presidency had even begun. For the following eight months Bush managed to risk relations with Russia by withdrawing from the AMB Treaty, risk relations with China over a downed spy plane, and alienated much of the world by failing to endorse the Kyoto agreement.

And then came 9/11.

Interestingly, however, Bush’s initial reaction to the national tragedy was not perceived well. To ensure the safety of the office of the presidency, the Secret Service demanded that Air Force One fly from Florida to Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana and then on to the US Strategic Command centre in Offutt, Nebraska. Meanwhile, on the ground in lower Manhattan, the world’s media was focused on Ruddy Guiliani, the outgoing Mayor of New York, who was about to be christened Mayor of the World in a performance that would put the nation’s leader in the shade. Even when Bush was able to return to the White house, his performance in front of the cameras was not inspiring, as he virtually ran from the Oval Office in tears.

Yet Bush did find his Presidential Moment in the midst of the rubble of the Twin Towers when he spoke to rescue workers. Speaking through a megaphone (bullhorn) he famously told his audience (who were having trouble hearing him) “I hear you, the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will all of us soon.” In a single moment, he became THE president of the United States and brought together a grieving nation and a shocked world. Arguably, for a short time, President Bush could have done much to unify the world into a new era of peace and harmony. Beyond the individual tragedies of that day, this lost opportunity looms large as an historical blunder of epic proportions. Regardless, Bush’s ability to seize his presidential moment ensured his re-election in 2004 and allowed him to remain in office far longer than many had predicted in his initial months.

His place in the Oval Office would be taken by the first non-white president, Barack Obama, whose election was likened to a new start for America after the Bush years. Yet as Bush alienated the left, so too would Obama alienate the right, who saw him as elitist and too eager to introduced social policies that ran counter to the American can-do attitude. His right to govern was questioned by ‘birthers’ who claimed he was not an American citizen and by those who claimed he was a Muslim. With the losses incurred in the 2010 mid-term elections, many were predicting a one-term presidency for Obama.

Whilst that may still be a possibility, the assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Giffords and the president’s speech at the national memorial service appears to have been the moment that Obama seized the Presidential Moment. Even Glen Beck of Fox News, credited Obama with finding his voice and of rising to the occasion.

Not all presidencies are equal. Some presidents go their entire term in office without finding their presidential voice, or having a true presidential moment. But recent history has revealed a series of administrations were this has occurred, and in that moment, a nationally elected but still regional figure transforms. In that moment, his previous life is cast off and he becomes the President of the United States, a unifying figure capable of uniting the nation and guiding it towards a new dawn. The coming months will reveal the extent to which Obama is capable of emulating the likes of Clinton, Bush and Reagan. The rewards are there for he taking if he can do so, as is electoral oblivion if he does not… 

Political Violence and the United States

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this weekend has come as a terrible shock to the state of Arizona, to the United States and to the wider world. However, as I mentioned on Sky News this morning, perhaps the most dramatic element to this tragic event is the targeting of a young and relatively obscure female member of the lower house of congress. In the past, assassination attempts have focused on high-profile men, usually presidents or at least presidential candidates.

Barack Obama came to prominence claiming that there was no such think as red states or blue states, only the United States. Two years into his presidency, however, the U.S. is a deeply divided nation, and the divisions are only getting deeper and more pronounced. No longer is heartfelt political dialogue possible in some sections of society, as groups unite to wage political war on one another. Much has been made of the use of ‘targets’ on web sites to focus on certain districts for victory. This was not unique, not is the use of harsh rhetoric in politics. What is concerning, however, is the depth of disdain that has emerged. No longer can one merely disagree. Instead, opponents are savaged, tarred and feathered as being anti-American, and accused of dark plots, designed to radically alter the direction of the country and set it on the path to socialism.

In 2010 I was a visiting fellow at the University of North Dakota’s Centre for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. In October I received the keys to Grad Forks, the university’s hometown, having given a speech entitled The Perpetual War on Terrorism, in which I warned against the rise in political violence in the United States. What follows is an excerpt from that address:

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For the vast majority of its existence, the United States has benefited from its strategic geo-political position. With abundant natural resources, expansive land mass and weak neighbours to its north and south, the United States was able to thrive in relative and fluctuating isolation from the rest of the world. As the rest of the world suffered at the hands of one extremist group after another, the United States took great pride in having avoided any such attacks and the attending fear that such atrocities can strike into the heart of the populace. Indeed this was a primary boast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, who saw the lack of domestic political violence as a vindication of his methods and of his agency.

Just as the United States remained apparently unscathed, the European continent in particular was inundated with sporadic acts of extreme political violence. From the IRA in the UK, to the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany, from the Basque ETA group in Spain to the actions of Carlos the Jackal, few, if any, European nations were spared the horrors of terrorism in the Twentieth Century. Indeed political violence in the form of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria triggered the First World War, an event that formed part of a seven-year cycle in which anarchists assassinated President Carnot of France, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the prime minister of Spain and King Humbert of Italy. As the century progressed so the body count grew: The IRA attempted to assassinate two British Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher and John Major and succeeded in killing Lord Mountbatten and MPs Airey Neave and Ian Gow. In Italy, Premier Aldo Moro was kidnapped and shot to death in 1978 and an assassination attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II, as the nation came under the grip of ‘Red Brigade’ factions. Political violence also led to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and foreign minister Anna Lindh. Elsewhere, assassins claimed the lives of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin, Rajiv and Indira Ghandi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Anarchism aside, much of this could be explained in terms of religious or political struggles that predated the modern era. Time and again leaders were struck down by groups dedicated to the promotion of an ideology or religion that they felt were threatened by the political status quo. Indeed, what differentiated the events in Europe and the rest of the world from the United States was the manner in which such events were implemented. Political violence on the European continent was uniformly seen as the act of groups, conspiring to overthrow leaders in an attempt to implement a specific philosophy, even if that was mere anarchy, with motivations ranging from the religious to the ideological and covering both extremes of the political spectrum.

Yet the United States could not escape acts of political violence, irrespective of claims made by Director Hoover, for the history of the United States is littered with such acts. Indeed, the aforementioned anarchist movement claimed the life of President William McKinley in the first year of the Twentieth Century. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to commence the first international effort to eliminate terrorism, stating, “anarchy is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band together against the Anarchist. His crimes should be made a crime against the law of nations…declared by treaties among all civilized powers.”[i] TR’s motivations, of course, were a little cloudy, as he had ascended to the presidency as a direct result of the political violence that had claimed the life of President McKinley.

In the United States, however, political violence has almost always been explained as the deranged and misguided acts of lone madmen. From the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King or many other political leaders, such acts are rarely explained as being the result of conspiracies, but rather of disturbed, lonely young men, eager to make their mark on history, even if it is the last thing that they ever do. Little wonder, therefore, that few in Europe accept the official verdicts of such events, when they stand in stark contrast to the European experience. There are exceptions of course; the Klan and the Weather Underground amongst them, but the lone individual is the norm in America, with more recent examples including Ted Kazinski, Eric Rudolph, and John Hinckley.[ii] Also, the political origins of American political violence would appear to be from the extreme right, as opposed to the European experience of terror from the Marxist/Leninist left. American fanatics, it seems are concerned about too much government as opposed to too little!

These differences raise questions pertaining to the variances in the societal and political make-up of the two continents and their governmental structures, variances that require placement in the correct historical and political context. To do so, it is instructive to consider the actions and motivations of a successive number of administrations in order to ascertain the extent to which the United States has been waging a war against political violence and the degree to which this has succeeded to date. In so doing it is possible to ascertain patterns of behaviour and rhetoric and of repeated attempts by the United States to proffer apparently simple solutions to ancient hatreds only to be surprised when such platitudes provoke a backlash that perpetuates a new cycle of violence that has dragged the United States into an apparent nightmare of its own making.

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As American mourns its dead and continues its vigil for Congresswoman Giffords, it would do well to consider the lessons that have failed to be learnt from similar events in the past and how such lessons could be applied in the aftermath of this tragedy. To ignore history is to be condemned to relive it. Right now, America is continuing in a national nightmare due to its innate inability to learn the lessons of its own history. President Obama’s responsibility now is to follow President Clinton’s efforts in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, to unite the nation in grief, and in a shared vision of tomorrow.


[i] President Theodore Roosevelt, quoted by David C. Rapaport, ‘The Fours Waves of Modern Terrorism,’ in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004, 52

[ii] Respectfully, The Unabomber, the individual who sought to disrupt the Atlanta Olympics with a pipe bomb, and President Reagan’s would-be assassin.

How will D.C. be received in DC?

With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.

The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.

The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.

It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?

In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.

Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.

When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton.  This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.

When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.

With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.

The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…

Gored by the Supremes

So after 40 years together the Gores are to separate…. This is intriguing. Whatever one makes of the couple, to divorce at this stage in life appears to be somewhat unusual, especially if there are no other parties involved. One wonders if the Gore marriage is the final (hopefully) victim of the decision by the Supreme Court to hand the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. Had that not occurred, one doubts that this decision would have been announced today. Had that not occurred, Gore would have presided over at least four, if not eight, of the past ten years and have been a worthy occupant of the Oval Office…an Oval Office that he had discussed installing a web-cam in to allow Americans to see what was going on there in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s shenanigans, only for his wife to suggest that it may have to be turned off from time to time…. So with a response like that one wonders where everything has suddenly gone so very wrong?

The saltines of this remark spoke to the warmth of the relationship, captured perfectly (if not a little too vividly) in the embrace and kiss that she received from her husband at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Of course many leading politicians lead lives that would appear to be somewhat removed from reality and the former VP is a prime example of this. The former “next President of the United States,” has traveled the world presenting his Inconvenient Truth documentary, picking up an Oscar and a Nobel Prize along the way. Alas it seems to have cost him his marriage.

How odd that this once golden couple of Washington politics should part like this. The double irony is that for much of his vice-presidency, it was the marriage of his boss that came under most scrutiny, with many speculating that Hillary would leave Bill Clinton once they left the White House.

Such speculation of course, ignored the fact that they are stronger together and arguably need and understand one another more than most would give credit for.  With her career having now moved to the State Department, Hilary clearly has a path to follow, something that Tipper appears to have lost.

Her early advocacy of mental health issues had its origins in her own bouts of depression, though many are unaware that this fun-loving and at times irascible women was also the driving force behind the Parental Advisory labels that now adorn music products like a badge of honour.  Yep, no Republican twin-set and pearls at work, but a Democrat stay at home mum, appalled at the idea of her teenage daughter listening to Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ from Purple Rain. Check out the lyrics, they are worth it for they provide insight into the mindset of the individuals involved and the spirit of the mid-late ’80s.

So as the Gore marriage disappears over the horizon, one can only speculate as to what comes next. One can hardly image the multimillionaire Oscar winner staying home polishing his awards and lamenting his receding hairline. Time surely to bury the hatchet with his old boss and dig out Clinton’s Little Black Book. After all, Gore still has the best pick up line going; “You can call me, Al…..”