Riyadh: Thursday 4th October 2012
My alarm woke me with a hundred decibel, tinny version of the Can-Can, starting me out of a dream and back into reality. It was still dark 3:45 am. I didn’t have to work today, my only engagement was a trip to the Supermarket. Yet I struggled out of bed, made my way downstairs and made a cup of Lady Grey Tea. I was getting up when I don’t have to because of the first of the US Presidential debates which started at 4am, Riyadh time. And so I found myself sleepily watching live coverage of events from Denver, a place where the sun was only setting on yesterday.
My habit when watching a political event which is being broadcast is to flick between the stations showing it, assessing the particular interpretation of each network, but such was the structured nature of this debate, that this seemed pointless, and I rapidly settled on the MSNBC coverage because it was apparent from the first five minutes that Romney was winning and I was interested as to how the pro-democrat station would react afterwards.
After the debate wound up, they cut to the studio where Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and especially Chris Matthews were spitting feathers at Obama’s lacklustre performance and failure to pin down Romney on his proposals and suppositions. I enjoyed the debate which was serious and policy centred. I felt that both men managed to look presidential, in a way that modern election techniques prevent, normally.
I have a sneaking fondness for Romney who’s sad eyes and awkward persona clearly disguise a steely ruthlessness and who, I suspect, is considerably more adult than much of his party when it comes to social policy. He was much more in his element in this cerebral and formal environment than he is when delivering populist sound bytes on regional airport aprons. Obama, in contrast, has always seemed to me to be a wee bit empty, and I was not surprised that in a debate on domestic and economic policy, that he struggled, at least relative to his opponent. In fact, he was not that bad, and I was reassured with the overall quality of discussions.
Yet for the people of MSNBC, whose campaigning journalistic programming is relentlessly pro-Democrat, Obama needed to deliver and didn’t. I have the luxury of being politically independent. I am not even American. They had no such comfort and their man had been buried. They needed a hero and he had let them down. Suddenly, the excitement with which the debates had been greeted was no more. Next week, Joe Biden must appear next to the smoothly handsome Paul Ryan. Television rules dictate that the GOP stand a good chance of winning that, simply by not making mistakes and looking pretty. Then Obama must face a different debating format, before facing Romney over foreign policy, a field where he has often been overshadowed by Hillary Clinton. MSNBC, were suddenly worried. They needed a hero; an all American hero.
Last February, I visited my mother’s home and was delighted to see my nephew for an afternoon. He had just turned 7 and we played with Lego together for a short time. Or to be honest, he played Lego, while I uncomfortably fidgeted on the floor beside him, desperate to return to the comfortable sanctuary of a chair. I enjoy the opportunity to help him build Lego, but once built I no longer have the imagination to replicate human endeavour and drama through inch high plastic toys.
Yet, I had to be on the floor because we had built a Lego cargo ship and the stone step of the fireplace made the perfect dock for it. Gradually, I sensed, he was beginning to comprehend my limitations as a playing partner. He was keen that we should act out roles, he as the ship’s captain and I one of his crew, but was getting limited feedback as I was chunkily unable to inhabit the role.
“No, Uncle Crabbit. We are supposed to be Americans!” he said, his unbroken and still clear voice, reverting briefly to its English accent. It was only then that I realised that he had been imitating an American accent. He was, I realised, inhabiting a hero and in his world, hero’s are American. Or to be precise, hero’s are white, generic Americans, possibly more Californian than anything else. For his accent, was not lifted from the Boston of Good Will Hunting, the New England of The Cider House Rules, the black west coast voice of Bad Boy’s or the Southern Belle drawl of Sweet Home Alabama. He was not a New Yorker (though I would not have been surprised if he had located his hero in that city), or an Ohioan or a Texan cowboy. His American was classless, region-less and cheeky, with attitude and smart, fast talking, wise-cracking can do spirit. His voice was high-pitched Americana itself.
And this hit me like a bolt from the blue, because suddenly, I was transported to the time when I was his age, and when my hero’s were American also. In fact, I suspect, my hero’s even looked like his (with the miner exception that they would have had much more 1980’s hair. My hero’s, like his, where white, and beyond regional identity. They were clearly urban, in background, how else could you explain the fast pace of their imagined lives, the netherworld of their existence between good and evil. The hero’s of my childhood, were forever foyling some evil plot ranging from deranged megalomania to petty theft to violent assault and kidnap.
Their tools for foyling these crimes and restoring the natural order were equally varied; car chases, space ships, Spanish galleons. While the denouement of these complex, plot driven games could be epic in sweep and dramatic heft. My American hero’s engaged in castle bound sword fights, like Errol Flynn in some Douglas Fairbanks triumph. They crept through stinking sweaty tension filled swamp and jungles, closely resembling The Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket or the Burma of Bridge on the River Kwai. They relieved remote Pacific islands in the manner of John Wayne, from evil armies improbably consisting of Argentinians (With whom Britain had fought a recent, victorious conflict) and Germans (whose defeat during World War Two was still being commemorated in the Sunday matinée’s of my childhood).
The global reach of my hero’s was not merely dictated by Hollywood. James Bond, plot lines or props made appearances, as did other British hero’s. The suave imperturbability of David Niven’s character in the Guns of Navarone or the single-minded determination of Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare, formed staunchly British archetypes to follow.
But the golden age of British heroism had been a shot in Black and white, with the result that Trevor Howard, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, John Mills, Dirk Bogarde or Alex Guinness were lost to me until later in life.
In any case, these British heroes exerted qualities that were less obvious than those of American stars. Stoicism, single-mindedness and a ruthless ability to banish self-doubt or defeatism when all is against you, are all fundamental qualities for a 1940’s British matinée idol. But to a child of the 1980’s these qualities can seem somewhat brittle.
Compare their stiff upper lip with John Wayne bestriding Iwo Jima or Robert Redford single-handedly leading the assault on the Bridge At Nijmegen. It didn’t matter if it was Kirk Douglass or Clark Gable. An American hero injected Technicolor into a wet and grey Sunday afternoon in a way that a British hero did not.
Now, sitting uncomfortably on the same floor I had when I myself were creating American hero’s I was struck by the continuity of American influence on the world.
I may have been growing up during the late Cold War against a backdrop of nuclear arms reduction treaties, film footage of bread cue’s in Moscow and the yellow gold excess of American soap operas, but the image in my child mind was that America was heroism, leadership, and self-confidence. And not of the understated kind. The quiet certainties of the spaghetti western hero was not my bag. My American hero’s were all talk. Bruce Willis’s John McLean successfully multi tasks both working his way through a lift shaft, exposing himself to terrible personal risk, while still managing to successfully rile his high brow foe, through crass innuendo and sarcasm.
McLean is the everyman hero, the working guy, with marital problems, who rises to the occasion. He was a very American hero, so different from the traditional British hero’s, men immortalised in statues, wearing red tunics, sword aloft, mounted on a titanic steed. These hero’s the great Empire builders, are wholly unapproachable, as befits a character who intended to subjugate the races of the world. They stand in stark contrast to the approachability, accessibility and humanity of American heroism. Anyone could briefly imagine themselves being John Maclean. He is no cleverer and has not had better training than most Americans. On our best possible day, we could all be John Maclean. When a Baggage handler, at Glasgow airport, foiled a terrorist attack in 2007, he was hailed as a hero on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, if anything, John Smeaton’s particular brand of heroism was put Die Hard, as far away from the statues of hero’s commemorated in Glasgow’s George Square, as the lives of the men they commanded.
The American hero is not merely in the right place at the right time, however. He is born to be there by a wilful manifest destiny. We know this because he already comes to the party with a robust set of principles, which must be upheld. John McLean is no cowboy because he does not believe in the lawlessness of the wild west. He cares about his estranged daughter and even more estranged wife. He cares about his fellow Americans, their freedom. He may be vulgar and profane but then, that is part of his charm. You trust this man with his course attitude and simple morality. He has flaws but will not let you down when it counts.
And this is America at its fundament.
A nation of simple morality, whose people stand up and are counted when it matters. Moreover, this simple morality allows America to be pragmatic and versatile whilst simultaneously appearing to be uncompromising.
The American hero, like America herself, is flawed and rough around the edges, but, that pragmatism, realism and refusal to be too ideological is what drives America’s great skill; the ability to be accommodating and compromising while retaining the self-image of a nation forge by the steel will of frontiersmen.
Of course, this great American genius for compromise and following a pragmatic road is supposed to have failed America today. Politicians are said to be too ideological, to bent on personal or partisan gain to think of the good of the nation. Many of Romney’s criticisms last night, centred around Obama’s failure to achieve cross-party support for his policies, a risible critique, based as it is on his party’s policy to systematically oppose Obama led measures in Congress.
This is a particular form of cowardice, one which puts party interest ahead of the nation and then seeks to avoid the blame for the results. It is the antithesis of the straight talking, uncompromising image of American manhood, and yet also subvert’s America’s great talent for compromise.
If Romney is elected, he, like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, will have made it to the White House having avoided the military draft in his youth.
A political junkie, I enjoyed the debate last night and, despite the ideological differences, between the two, I left it feeling reassured that both candidates possessed the policy grasp to perform adequately in office. If either demonstrated over the coming month, an equivalent grasp of strategy, I will be even more reassured.
But, an American president matters to all the world. No other country (perhaps not even Britain), speaks to a seven-year old British child’s, play as America does and no other countries leaders stand for their nation as America’s leaders do. As he grow’s up, my nephew will begin to form his own identity and self-image. As he enters the world of adulthood and masculinity, he will gradually become less flexible in his notions of heroism; less able to inhabit an imagined American personality. And yet, by then, his notions of good and evil, freedom and servitude, masculinity, humanity, heroism and success will have been fully explored through the world of play. And the mediator of his childhood ideas of heroism are conveyed in American tones.
For this reason, while the next President requires to demonstrate a firm grasp of ideology, strategy, policy and style, bravery matters too, in a way that it cannot really matter for any other political leader on earth. America influences the world tomorrow.