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The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings

British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters

Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.


God Save the Queen…

There is an old joke well known to owners of British automobiles of a certain age. It goes something like this: Question – Why have the Brits never developed an industry based on manufacturing a personal computer? Answer – They couldn’t figure out how to make the PC’s leak oil.

It’s still funny even as I look at the oil spot in the garage.

I once had a British car collection, which is another way of saying I had two British cars. You can’t have a collection with just one. I have, not unlike Picasso dispersing his masterpieces, downsized the “collection” to a single automobile, if you can call a 55-year-old Triumph TR 3 an “automobile.”

Volvo makes automobiles. So does Mercedes, or Chrysler. The Brits make cars.

The 1960 TR3

The 1960 TR3

Quirky and Lovable…

The TR3 is one of the most iconic cars ever made and one of the quirkiest. It has no windows but rather something called a “side curtain.” For a car produced in a country where it rains about 364 days a year, a side curtain is about as useful as a gag order on Senator Ted Cruz. With the side curtains fully deployed you may just get completely soaked in a rainstorm rather than drowned. The side curtain is not a practical answer to moisture in any form.

The car is a two-seater. Really. There is a little shelf behind the two seats that might be comfortable for a Barbie Doll or a small dog, but not for anyone taller than one of those Munchkins from Oz. The rearview mirror on a TR is mounted on the dash at a level that requires the driver to duck and cover to see that eighteen-wheeler bearing down just behind the gas tank. There is a knob on the dash panel to regulate the heater, but it works about as well as the windscreen wipers. The wipers, about eight inches long, are less effective than taking your index finger and flicking it back and forth on the windscreen. You might think a country that is predominately wet and cold would get the wipers and heater thing worked out, but if you believe that you just don’t appreciate the charm of the British automobile, er, car.

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Much has been written about the electronics in British cars of a certain vintage. A company named Lucas did the wiring harness, the gauges, etc. Lucas is known among we owners as “the Prince of Darkness.” There is actually a website devoted to jokes about the Lucas “Prince of Darkness” problem. One of my favorites: “Alexander Graham Bell invented the Telephone. Thomas Edison invented the Light Bulb. Joseph Lucas invented the Short Circuit.”

A certain person I adore asked me recently what it was like to drive a car with “basically no electronics?” I declined to answer beyond saying that the TR has a gas gauge (mostly accurate, I think), a heat gauge (accurate), an oil pressure gauge (accurate) and an amp meter that must work because the battery stays charged. Oh, yes, there is a speedo that registers about ten miles per hour faster than the car is actually moving (probably a good thing) and a tach that seems to be reliable. Any or all could fail in the next few minutes.

Ah, that smell…

British cars of a certain age also have a definite aroma. They smell to me like equal parts oil, gasoline, age and burning $100 bills. When I had two British cars I had a mechanic on retainer. A gambling addiction might have been cheaper.

All the quirkiness aside, the TR is a conversation starter. Young males, cute girls and older guys – think PBR or Bud drinkers – tend to “get” the Triumph. They are smart enough to appreciate the craziness involved with owning a car without windows, that smells constantly of oil and that has the most unreliable electronics this side of Apollo 13.

Megan's Austin Healey

Megan’s Austin Healey

No one is likely to confuse a TR with a great car like, say, a Jaguar XK-150 or the sexy Austin Healy roadster slinky Megan was driving when she picked up Don Draper at the LA Airport in Mad Men. Draper was a Cadillac Coupe de Ville-type guy. Probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a workman-like sports car like a TR. Not many frills, these cars, just top down and a tight gearbox. The smiles and thumbs up you get while driving one are pleasant extras.

BMW now owns the Triumph “mark,” as they say and there have been rumors of the car making a return; rumors denied by BMW. Would that be a triumphant return if it were to happen? Maybe it’s the nostalgia or the quirks or that I’m a sucker for most everything British, but should there ever be a revival, I’ll still like the old smelly TR3 best. There was a long series of TR’s – all the way up to a TR7, but the old 3’s remain the classics. (The TR6 would be next best in my view.) After the TR3, the company went into a long, slow decline and produced some truly hideous cars before going out of business in 1981.

The Triumph Wikipedia page says it well: “It is alleged that many Triumphs of this era were unreliable, especially the 2.5 PI (petrol injection) with its fuel injection problems. In Australia, the summer heat caused petrol in the electric fuel pump to vaporize, resulting in frequent malfunctions.” Maybe that is what you deserve when you take a British car to a hot summer climate.

My own ‘special relationship’…

My TR3 nameplate - well worn

My TR3 nameplate – well worn

The nameplate mounted on the firewall says the car was built in Coventry, while Harold MacMillan was prime minister. How British. That combination confirms my own “special relationship” to the TR3 and to Britain.

Coventry, an industrial and manufacturing city north and west of London, got some of the worst of The Blitz in World War II. MacMillan, a conservative and contemporary of Churchill’s, was a great friend of the young liberal American President John Kennedy. Mostly forgotten in the United States sadly, MacMillan was brave, funny and politically talented. Wounded five times in the Great War, MacMillan nearly died in a plane crash in North Africa in the second, while serving as the top British official there. Unlike so many politicians today, MacMillan was also blessed with a marvelous sense of humor, once saying, “I have never found, in a long experience in politics, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.”

British PM Harold MacMillan

British PM Harold MacMillan

There is no record of MacMillan’s views on cars like mine, but he might have had a TR3 and its owner in mind when he observed: “It has been said that there is no fool like an old fool, except a young fool. But the young fool has first to grow up to be an old fool to realize what a damn fool he was when he was a young fool.” How can you not love the Brits? Do you think he was talking about fanatics for cars from his homeland?

The TR’s boot – trunk to you colonials – is tidy, but will hold a weekend bag and you can (maybe) poke the golf clubs in behind the front seats. Your passenger will probably want to hold the picnic basket on her lap or risk the chicken salad tasting like high-test petrol. If it rains, just fasten on the tonneau cover (it won’t fit very well) and wait it out in a pub. Strangers will approach you with stories about how they “once had a car just like that. Damn, I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of it.”

Who needs windows or efficient windscreen wipers anyway and the oil spots on the garage floor seem a small price to pay for a love affair. God Save the Queen.


Downton Upper

David_Lloyd_GeorgeHad Britain not produced a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher Americans might know a lot more about another British Prime Minister David Lloyd George pictured here in the prime of his long life.

A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.


The Iron Lady

It was only during a trip to Argentina a few years ago that I came to fully realize the import, in both Argentina and Britain, of the 1982 mini-war over the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The war is still a raw and recent sore for Argentina and a (mostly) proud moment of triumph for what is left of a empire that once never saw the sun set.

The Argentine invasion of the sparely populated, wind-blown and British controlled islands came at a low point of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity. But, in the wake of the Argentine aggression, when Thatcher summoned her best Winston Churchill and vowed to retake one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire her stock began to rise and she truly became the Iron Lady of late 20th Century history.

Lady Thatcher’s death at age 87 will set off a wave of analysis about her role in world affairs, her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who she once called the “second most important man in my life,” and her political legacy. The final chapter on Thatcher – “steely resolve” is the favorite description today – will not be written for another decade or more as Great Britain, under the current Tory government, sorts out its place in Europe and the world, but this much can be said – she was, in the spirit of that great British term, a “one-off,” a tough, demanding, outspoken conservative woman who played politics with sharp elbows and a biting sense of humor. And she often played her role better than the men around her.

One can only speculate that the military junta who ruled Argentina in 1982 never in its wildest dreams believed that an economically troubled Britain so far removed from the islands they call the Malvinas and led, of all things, by a woman would actually resort to force to retake a little patch of rocky soil. Channeling Churchill and vowing not to let aggression stand, Thatcher assembled a War Cabinet, which she dominated, and deployed the British fleet and the Royal Marines. Thatcher’s Royal Navy, for good measure, sunk an Argentine battle cruiser after it had been well established that the generals in Buenos Aires where simply no match for the Lady at 10 Downing Street. The same could later be said for the old men trying to hang on to power in Moscow. Thatcher’s legacy certainly must also include a chapter on her role in defending democratic aspirations in eastern Europe, particularly Poland.

One of the best and most even handed assessments of Thatcher came today from Richard Carr a British political scientist and historian of British Conservative politics: “To supporters, she changed Britain from a nation in long-term industrial decline to an energetic, dynamic economy. To opponents, she entrenched inequalities between the regions and classes and placed the free market above all other concerns. Our politics, and many of our politicians, have been forged in her legacy.” That last sentence may best describe her real importance. Every British politician today has to reckon with Thatcher, just as every American politician must reckon with FDR, JFK and Reagan.

Like her friend Ronnie, the “B” movie actor from humble origins who became a transformative president, Thatcher, the daughter of a grocery shopkeeper who fought her way to the very top of British politics, helped define an era. As the Washington Post pointed out Thatcher modernized British politics to such a degree that future Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair adopted many of her policies and approaches.

“While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Mrs. Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing,” the Post wrote today.  “The Iron Lady, as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs.” Thatcher’s was the kind of re-invention of the British Conservative Party in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that some American Republicans only dream about for their party today.

Thatcher once said she never expected to see a woman as British Prime Minister, but it is a testament to her and her political party – mostly her – that she seized the chance when she got it and played her hand skillfully for 11 powerful years on the world stage. At her death there will be the inevitable comparisons with “the iron lady” of American politics Hillary Clinton, but in many ways the comparisons really don’t work. Sure, both women are tough and in many respects were tried by fire, but after those similarities the comparison breaks down.

Thatcher was old school. She beat the boys at their own game. She may have been carrying a handbag, but when she swung that bag she aimed for someone’s head. She was also unabashedly full of convictions and understood power. “Being powerful is like being a lady,” she once said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”‘

Is hard to envision The Iron Lady – she once famously told a Tory Party conference “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning” – making a YouTube video to announce a change in her position on same sex marriage. Thatcher was a true conviction politician, while Clinton seems to be falling into the same trap that ultimately doomed her presidential candidacy in 2008. She allows her handlers – Thatcher, by contrast, did the handling – to consistently portray her not as a leader of deep and important conviction, but as a woman of destiny, the first female American president who will get there as an inevitable fact of history.

Clinton may eventually find, as Maureen Dowd wrote recently in the New York Times, that she can learn new tricks and not merely be inevitable, but also necessary. “Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides,” Dowd wrote. “One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.”‘

There is, of course, nothing inevitable in history and acting on fear is never a winning strategy. Political leaders respond to events, as Thatcher did in the Falklands and to the Cold War in Europe, and either make their mark or are swept along by events they cannot figure out how to control. Thatcher left marks.

As Michael Hirsh points out in a piece at The Atlantic website, no one ever wondered – for good or bad – where Thatcher was coming down on an issue and, as a result, “she became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.” Put another way, Thatcher was a genuine transformational world figure by strength of conviction and by raw political skill. Nothing inevitable about that.

If Clinton does something similar she may some day have a chance to join the real Iron Lady in the history books. Today, however, there is only one female political leader – at least in the western political world – whose place in those history books is secure.


Romney in London

Today Mitt Romney got a nasty taste of what political life is like under a foreign media microscope. He must be wondering why he didn’t stay home.

By the measure of world-wide Twitter trending (#Romneyshambles), not to mention the Brit papers, Romney’s visit to London has gone over there about as well as the Norman conquest.

By one account Romney insulted all of England by wondering if the Brits are ready for prime time when it comes to hosting the Olympics; couldn’t seem to remember the name of the Ed Miliband the leader of Labour Party; disclosed (simply not done apparently) that he had met with the head of MI6, the super secret British intelligence service that prides itself on having almost no public profile, and misused some common English words that have considerably different meaning in the mother country.

Oh, yes, a Romney aide also told a London paper that the GOP candidate’s   “Anglo-Saxon heritage” made him a more dependable ally than President Obama. That discounts, of course, that Great Britain has been our most dependable ally since, oh, 1941. It must have also reminded some people of Obama’s “Kenyan roots” and undoubtedly reminded the British that Kenya was once theirs. The whole British Empire thing, don’t you know. In fairness to Romney he walked back the comment, but the fun was just beginning.

One tweet from Britain said it was clear Romney was “the American Borat.” Another said Romney had “retroactively cancelled” his European trip.

State the obvious: everyone can have a tough day. Obama will have his share between now and November. Still, when you are attempting to portray yourself as a person with a command presence, able to hold your own with world leaders, and you end up being publicly dissed by the Mayor of London, you’ve laid a large egg.

Perhaps the front pages of tomorrow’s London (and U.S.) papers will help put a stake into the nutty idea that a few days of visits to Europe or Israel by an aspiring American president – Obama did the same thing in 2008 – is in any way a demonstration of any kind of foreign policy knowledge or preparation. Romney would have done better to stay home and read about England.

His shambled visit may or may not signal something about Romney’s readiness for prime time. It certainly signals that there is no substitute for good judgment about one’s own limits. Safer, cheaper and more effective photo opportunities are available at American factories. The Romney photo op at 10 Downing Street just cost the GOP nominee a couple more days of completely negative press and plays to type that the guy is out of touch.

Of course, in the whole scheme of things, its just a lot of distraction and noise, but I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s take.


Keep Calm

And Carry On…

I just bought a nifty coffee mug emblazoned with the five words – Keep Calm and Carry On. (It seemed like the right kind of mantra at home and the office!)

After the second cup from the handsome mug, I got to wondering about the origins of that phrase. Turns out the British government during some of the toughest days of the Second World War commissioned a limited series of posters aimed at keeping the British upper lip adequately stiff.

The “Keep Calm” poster was the third of the trio and would have been rolled out only under the most dire circumstances, like the Nazis invading across the English Channel. While the other posters – Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory and Freedom is in Peril, Defend it With All Your Might – were widely used to buck up the hard pressed population of the Empire, the Keep Calm slogan was never used publicly.

The third poster disappeared for years until discovered, wouldn’t you know, by a used bookstore owner in a box of old books in his shop in the north of England.

Bookstore owner Stuart Manley told the Guardian that he originally thought the poster was, “a big piece of paper folded up at the bottom [of a box]. I opened it out, and I thought, wow. That’s quite something. I showed it to Mary, and she agreed. So we framed it and put it up on the bookshop wall. And that’s where it all started.”

The British version of the public television series Antiques Roadshow recently featured a woman who had been given 15 of the original posters by her father. It was estimated the posters – maybe the largest stash of originals – are worth several thousand pounds.

Now the slogan – approp in almost any circumstance and really great simple, positive messaging – has a whole new lease on life. In many ways, its the perfect melding of message, design, simplicity and elegance and you see the wording everywhere, on coffee mugs, tee shirts, wallpaper, posters, even in parody.

My favorite parody, complete with an image right out of the old Hitchcock film North by Northwest, is “Keep Calm and Cary Grant.”

Here is a link to a neat little video history of the posters. Keep Calm, an iconic image from the darkest days of the 20th Century and a testament to how something classic never goes out of style.