Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Elizabeth Who? by Erin O’Brien

Monday, September 6th, 2010

The Queen
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
2006

Her Majesty Helen Mirren aboard The Queen's Flight

Helen Mirren aboard The Queen’s Flight to London

The writer Martin Amis, whose father, the great comic novelist Kingsley Amis, was awarded a knighthood for services to literature, found the movie The Queen most unrealistic. “I’ve met the Queen, for about ten seconds, and she’s completely unreflecting. She’s a heifer. Don’t you think?” He said this in 2007 to the sitting Prime Minister and fictional co-star of the movie, Tony Blair. Blair, naturally, did not concede this point, but he did not argue with it strenuously either.* In recent days, as his memoirs appear, Blair has post-modernly taken up the plot-line of The Queen to talk about his duty to “save the monarchy from itself”.

The Queen is regularly depicted as a woman with very few interests and little intellectual curiosity. In fact, she puts in hours of every day reading and analyzing opaque government documents. Then the real fun begins with the investitures, the opening of government buildings and, depending on her location, the walkabouts. It is regularly said of senior members of the Royal Family that they are parasites who do nothing, which is the most bankrupt of all criticism of them.

If you renamed the Queen “Ambassador Plenipotentiary from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations”, she would be hailed immediately as a workaholic with spookily flawless judgment, who puts the diplomatic world to shame as she labours well into her 80s (with her victimized husband and family). I recently saw Elizabeth parade around in the scorching heat in Toronto as I wilted just waiting for her, while the Prime Minister and Governor General of Canada, only a short distance away, might as well have been a pair of dog-catchers for all their competing charisma. (I repeatedly forgot the Canadian figures while I was actually looking at them, such was the Queen’s rock star reception.)** This, during an era in which successive middle-aged Presidents of the United States cannot be lured into the Oval Office to do their jobs within two years of taking office.

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The Disarming Tony Blair by Erin O’Brien

Friday, August 6th, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Directed by Roman Polanski

Starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams

2010

The Ghost Writer

British Prime Minister Adam Lang

Modern political memoirs are a genre of hackwork unto themselves: they are meant to be seen and not heard.  They are doorstops, the literary equivalent of first editions with uncut pages, something to leave prominently located yet unread.  Issued for “historical” interest in immense quantities, they invariably end up remaindered, as a group of publishers discuss in an early, excellent scene in Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer”.  In fact, the statesman’s contentless, lying memoirs and the standard multimillion dollar advance fee are an accepted way of enriching a politician in his after-life.  They are actually retirement plans and corporate thank-yous.  That anyone would undertake to print a written document by George W. Bush (“Decision Points” is soon upon us) or Sarah Palin (“Going Rogue”), two figures so deeply hostile to language, is the proof in the pudding.  I myself have read a swath of books on Bill and Hillary Clinton, but wouldn’t dream of reading their memoirs, as there is surely nothing more there than a combination of elision and falsity.  Perhaps a political memoir should be approached as something no more than a long-winded alibi.

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A Sharp Learning Curve for President Jack Ryan

Friday, November 23rd, 2001

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Tom Clancy’s longtime hero, former CIA analyst Jack Ryan, has managed to assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford-style, without ever having been elected on a presidential ticket.

Unlike Ford, however, Ryan had never been elected to any public office at all.

Asked by President Durling to serve as Vice President, after the previous Vice President is forced to resign in the wake of a sex scandal, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take on a largely ceremonial office. The catch for the non-politician Ryan, however, is that the Vice-Presidency is only a heartbeat away from the most burdensome job in the world, and one which Ryan shivers at the thought of undertaking.

Then the incredible happens, when a grief-striken Japanese pilot who lost family in a brief Japanese-American shooting war, mans a jumbo jet during Ryan’s swearing-in ceremony and crash lands into the Capitol, thereby all but obliterating government. The President, First Lady, the entire Supreme Court, nearly all the Cabinet and most members of Congress are killed in a few calamitous moments.

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Diana and the Grey Men

Monday, October 16th, 2000

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Patrick Jephson’s account of his many-year tenure as Diana’s equerry and, later, Private Secretary, provides a detailed and informative view of the function of the high-level modern courtier. The heavy emphasis on the process aspect of arranging foreign tours and negotiating with charities will not be to every reader’s interest. (As Americans would have it, a private secretary is akin to a chief of staff.)

Naturally, media coverage of the book places heavy emphasis on Jephson’s revelations regarding a less savoury dimension of Diana’s character: her addiction to publicity. According to Jephson, Diana’s longstanding involvement with a range of charities was driven at least as much by the desire to see herself in the next day’s newspapers as it was by altruism, though he takes the Realpolitik view that good was nonetheless accomplished through her efforts.

As the loathing between Charles and Diana’s households grew, Jephson’s position became untenable. The turnover amongst Diana’s staff was notoriously high, and she involved many unhappy employees in her cloak and dagger meetings with high-profile journalists and lovers. In the aftermath of Diana’s “time and space” speech, when she dropped over a hundred charities, the scope of the private secretary’s traditional work narrowed and was supplemented with what Jephson regarded as Diana’s self-destructiveness.

Only a year before Diana’s death, Jephson resigned.

Wisely for him, Jephson scarcely mentions the young William and Harry, and he also takes no clear side in the marital fiasco of the Waleses. While he makes clear his loyalty to the Queen, it is easy to understand why the Royal Family would so loudly resist such a rehashing of the Diana story today. As he creates a (perhaps straw) princess to be knocked down, surely Diana’s defenders will restate their position once again, to the detriment of the Windsors. Thus, Jephson is at best naive if he believes himself to be performing any form of service to the Crown by “setting the record straight”.

Fascinating though the book is for contemporary readers, it is certain to become one of the canonical texts for future students of the twentieth-century monarchy, precisely for its intricate portrayal of the nexus at which the Palace meets foreign governments, the media, and a variety of charities. Jephson’s Cambridge education in political science is put to excellent use here. His account will assist future historians in determining where power was located in the palaces and how, despite consitutional restrictions, it could be deployed in the wider world.