Republican party reptiles

I find myself unnaturally interested in American politics. I have been ever since Mad magazine introduced me, satirically, to President Carter in the 70s and I was forced to learn about his predecessors in order to understand the jokes. Clearly, around Presidential Election time, my interest swells. As a loyal and voracious subscriber to the New Yorker since 2005, I am fed information on a weekly basis about the comings and goings not just of the Democrats the left-leaning magazine explicitly supports, but also of the colourful Republicans and Tea Party luminaries who, since Obama’s election in 2008, have been jostling for position to take him down. (As you can see above, I attended the CNN Election Night party in November 2008, held in a church in London, and watched the early results come in with other political junkies – and some freeloaders – although we were, ironically I think, kicked out before the decisive states were called. They handed out partisan badges on the way in. )

I have been following the progress of this year’s Republican hopefuls with long-distance enthusiasm and bemusement, as they seem a particularly rum bunch. One of them will actually be challenging a frankly damaged Obama for his second term; it’s sometimes hard to believe that any of this shower could run a country, but then, look at George W. Bush, a man who wore his downhome ignorance on his sleeve and won two terms – or at least, got in twice.

We’ve lost Lutheran congresswoman and climate change denier Michelle Bachmann since the Iowa caucuses, which in terms of morbid entertainment value is a shame. (After all, she’s the Tea Party nutter of choice, post-Palin, accusing Obama of being “anti-American,” trying to get rid of energy-saving lightbulbs, gunning to get the minimum wage capped, and damning same-sex marriage from a pulpit where the Pope is considered the anti-Christ, if I’ve read the literature properly.)

Of the other column-inch-snaffling front runners, former restaurant tycoon, business lobbyist and Baptist talk radio show host Herman Cain also withdrew, before Christmas, after allegations of sexual misconduct, which is another blow for entertainment value, as he seemed not to have a clue what he would do if elected to office, other than cut tax to a basic 9% across the board. Doesn’t really matter, as he will never take office.

What’s frightening about these grinning, glad-handing, evangelical loons is that one of them could theoretically capitalise on the right-facing zeitgeist and beat Obama in November, taking office in 2013. After all, Republicans do get in. And the electorate does seem pretty disappointed with Obama, on both left and right, and especially in the middle, which is where elections are won and lost. Last week’s New Yorker provided profiles of both Ron Paul – the gurning 76-year-old Texan obstetrician and “white-haired, wide-eyed prophet” who seriously wants to ban Income Tax and end all foreign aid – and Newt Gingrich – “Mr Speaker”, political veteran, “swashbuckling geostrategist” and inveterate debate winner who shut down the federal government during the Cinton era over Medicare premiums, earned $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lender, and recently made reference to the “invented Palestinian people.” Of this loopy pair, it’s Gingrich who was seen as the biggest threat to Mitt Romney. (Good heavens, they have excellent names, the Republicans, you have to hand that to them.) But Rick Santorum almost caught up with Romney in Iowa. He’s the Fox News-friendly ex-senator and attorney with the goofy grin who was just eight votes behind Romeny in Iowa, and is an intelligent design fan, considers sodomy to be “antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family” and seems to think that liberal values are to blame for the Catholic child abuse scandal.

Mitt Romney is a Massachusetts Mormon and CEO of management buyout merchants Bain, who “kept a well-groomed appearance” at university during the campus upheavals of the 60s, according to a Boston Globe profile, seems to have built his reputation as a can-do kinda guy on his miraculous turnouaround of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 1988 and is not to the tastes of the more evangelical wing of his party because a) he’s a Mormom, and b) he used to be pro-choice, but switched to being pro-life in 2005. This reputation for u-turns dogs him; he certainly upped his far-right views during his 2008 run for Presidential nomination. He seems like a slick wheeler-dealer and kind of looks like a President.

Post-Bachmann, they’re all men of a certain age, which is boring, and they all seem to conform to the image of an American politician, from the relatively youthful John Huntsman, 51, to the 76-year-old Paul. In other words, they either look like James Brolin or John Mahoney, and all points inbetween. Rick Perry is the most Bush-like of the current crop, the grinning Governor of Texas, former Eagle Scout, USAF pilot and “hyper-masculine cowboy” who sets out his stall in a YouTube video, saying “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, and your kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas”; Gingrich is the most experienced in the ways of Washington, and Romney still seems fresh from his failed attempt to run in 2008. They would all strip the financial industry of what little in the way of regulation remains and “shrink” government, which is the Republican creed. If any of these reptiles gets in, taxes will be lowered, or scrapped, and Iran will either be ignored (if Ron Paul gets in: “no more foreign wars; no more foreign aid; not even very much foreign policy”, according to Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker), or nuked (if any of the others get in).

I will continue to follow this dangerous soap opera closely. They’re in New Hampshire right now for tomorrow’s vote, with Huntsman – another Mormon, also a former Reagan staffer, Utah Governor and ambassador to China under Obama whose “moderate” views play well to more liberal-minded Republicans – endorsed by a number of key local publications. There’s still everything to play for.

For anyone not in the least bit interested in US politics – I fear we ignore these God-fearing, gun-toting, gay-bashing, healthcare-hating, people at our peril.

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The Right Horrible Lady

The producers of The Iron Lady need not have spent a penny on publicity for their biopic of Margaret Thatcher. I’m actually sick of reading about it, and her, in the newspapers, and seeing it, and her, on the TV. Whether it’s right-wing commentators wailing about the impropriety of showing Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, in her amnesiac dotage (“They should have waited until she’s dead!” they cry, which is surely just as disrespectful to the old dear), or left-wing commentators complaining that the film in some way deifies Thatcher (Michael White was on BBC Breakfast yesterday, saying, “It’s not a political film at all,” by which he meant it wasn’t left-wing.) I saw a preview of The Iron Lady a few weeks ago, and I’ve had time to ruminate. (The screening was delayed while we film critics waited for the BBC’s Nick Robinson to turn up – it was clearly a must-see for political journalists who don’t usually go and see films.)

I’m afraid think it’s a deeply underwhelming film, saved by the central performances. As I near the end of The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second memoir, I fancy myself as something of a Thatcher scholar – I’ve certainly been immersed in the fine detail of her, yes, path to power, and know something of the way her mind worked.

That we’re looking here at the work of talented writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame, Sex Traffic) makes it all the more disappointing. But she and director Phyllida Lloyd set themselves an impossible task: to tell a major political figure’s life story in 105 minutes. It simply cannot be done in any meaningful way. Dramatically, I applaud the conceit of presenting the story in flashback from the dementia-encroached dotage of the octogenarian Lady Thatcher, where she conducts conversations with her long-dead husband Denis, played by Jim Broadbent. I could have watched 105 minutes of these two fine actors bouncing off each other as a devoted old couple, one of whom just happened to once run, and ruin, the country. But alas, the dotage is merely a device to frame endless reconstructions of the dramatic bullet-points of Thatcher’s career, from Grantham schoolgirl to ousted PM.

So, we get the Miners’ Strike, and the Falklands, and the “Special Relationship” with Ronald Reagan, and the Poll Tax riots, and so on, and so on, each one neatly condensed into one or two scenes – although Reagan only appears, dancing with her, in a montage, and we get nine years condensed into about a minute of newspaper headlines and newsreel. The bullet points are mostly ably enough presented, and the all-star cast means you never get bored (“Look, it’s Richard E Grant/Anthony Head/Roger Allam/Iain Glen/John Sessions!” “He must be playing Jim Prior/Michael Hesletine/Gordon Reece/John Nott/Francis Pym!”), but it’s all a bit history-by-numbers. BBC4 has made this kind of biopic its stock in trade, and yet, its own stab at Thatcher, The Long Walk To Finchley, with Andrea Riseborough, wisely concentrated on just one period of her life and stayed focussed. This, though, is essentially a film aimed at the international market – after all, Thatcher is a global icon, like it or not – and it leaves nothing to chance or subtlety. Because it has Meryl Streep in the central role, it has instant Hollywood appeal, and may yet win her a handbagful of awards. She’s hugely entertaining, although as Peter Bradshaw notes in the Guardian, it is not much more than a brilliant impersonation. She’s worked hard to get the voice and the mannerisms right, but Thatcher was an impenetrably poised and self-made public figure, so when you do a good impression, it’s of a kind of media construct anyway.

What The Iron Lady doesn’t do is explain why Thatcher was Thatcher. It makes a lot of capital out of the glass ceiling, which she comprehensively smashed, and has fun with shots of her as the only woman in the Commons, the only pair of high heels, the only blue hat etc. There’s no doubting the self-belief it took to put up with all that shit, and Thatcher can be objectively admired for becoming the first Western leader who wasn’t a man. But if the rather simplistic film is to be believed, she turned the bullying she experienced as a young, female MP on its head and simply bullied the men around her once in power. The more of her book I read, the more convinced I become that she was a megalomaniac, but one driven not by vanity, or revenge, but by pure dogma. Her hatred of socialism – or “statism”, “collectivism”, “federalism”, any  number of “ism”s – is in her bone marrow, and if she despises the men around her, it’s because they do not share her extremism, or are not prepared to see it through to fruition. She has no time for moderates, whatever their gender. She adored Denis, after all, and he was a man.

But hey, as Michael White said, it’s not a film about politics. It’s about an old lady looking back over her life – a life that just happened to involve selling off council houses and going to war in the South Atlantic and destroying the unions. I was deeply offended by the bit where her close friend and ally Airey Neave is killed by an INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) car bomb in 1979. Thatcher was, if I remember rightly from the book, in her Finchley constituency when she heard the news. In The Iron Lady, she is in the same underground car park at the Commons, the last person to speak to him before he drives off, and she is seen running up the ramp to where his car sits in flames, Hollywood style, not quite in slo-mo, but it may as well have been. It’s a disgrace to play with real events in this way; far more offensive than making a film about an old, demented lady before she’s dead, it uses the actual death of a man to make her life seem just that little bit more dramatic than it was. I’m surprised Morgan and Lloyd didn’t have Thatcher personally pulling Norman Tebbit’s wife from the wreckage in Brighton.

I think I understand Margaret Thatcher much better now than I did at the time, thanks to her book. (I was certainly too naive and ill-educated to understand her in 1979, when The Path To Power ends and The Downing Street Years begins.) This film, if anything, subtracts from that understanding. It recasts her as a fearful battleaxe and a quasi-feminist warrior, neither of which helps to explain why, under her Premiership, this country was transformed over 11 years into the I’m-all-right-Jack, shop-your-neighbour, free-market, property-obsessed, credit-addicted, money-motivated, privatised, sold-off-to-the-highest-bidder, de-unionised nation of on-our-bikes, aspirational, apparently middle class “entrepreneurs” in a society that we were told doesn’t exist, and where if you use still the bus after the age of 26 you should consider yourself a failure (a sentiment that she shared, even if it’s from a quote she never said). Every Prime Minister who’s succeeded her has been in thrall to her in some way. (Good lord, it was Gordon Brown who put forward the idea of a state funeral for her.) That kind of impact goes beyond party politics.

There is a film to be made about Margaret Thatcher, but it would have to be longer than 105 minutes. It took Thatcher two big books to complete her life story up to the mid-90s. These can no more be distilled into a single film than Hubris and Nemeis by Ian Kershaw, which only cover the life of a man who died aged 56. (This is why Downfall was so successful: it took place over ten days.)  Not that I’m comparing her to Hitler.

For a concise review of the film, here’s my Radio Times review.

2012: TV highlights

Apologies. No time for long blog entry as I’m really up against a scriptwriting deadline (something I’ve started, so I’ll finish). But the nice people at Celebrity Mastermind sent me these pics and they give me the chance to tell you that the series begins on BBC1 on Tuesday December 27 and I make my appearance on Thursday January 5. That’s it really. Make a note in your 2012 diary, Mum and Dad!