Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Eric Waugh: How brash US politics are rooted in past

The Democrats in Denver were loud. The Republicans in Minneapolis are just as loud, even if they face a curtailed programme because of the hurricane.

September is Hurricane Month in America. Over swathes of the vast continent, motorists going long-distance on the freeways drive this time of year with their radios tuned to a local weather station. Not that they need to, for an imminent hurricane, each one's name beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, will automatically command top place in the news on any station.

Politics, society and weather tend to match in America. It is a loud and violent nation. Eighty people die from gunshots on an average day. In the 1880s and 1890s, when law enforcement still depended upon the muscle of the local sheriff, nearly 2,000 blacks were killed by lynch mobs in the southern states. Four Presidents have been assassinated in the last century.

Despite the impression given by John Prescott and Ken Livingstone, the English politician, by contrast, tends to be a repressed individual.

Blair was — and is — obsessed by America. (It is a rich land and he and his wife patently love money.) But Americans love to be folksy.

They love first names. So when he became Prime Minister, Blair gave the cheap injunction that all in Number Ten were to use only first names. I am a bit stuffy about this. Use of a first name is a sign of intimacy; it belongs, by right, to one's family, business colleagues and friends — who, through the esteem of acquaintance, have earned the right to use it. Used on the telephone by complete strangers from an insurance company's call centre, it is merely cheeky.

But now, no doubt influenced by the subtle tone set at the top, respect is a vanishing quantity in the United Kingdom. Teachers are assaulted in the classroom, doctors in the surgery and the elderly in their homes; and the police and firemen anywhere. The worried Prime Minister continues to wonder why. He could start with his own ministers, who in public insist upon referring to him, holder of the highest office of state in the land, only by his first name.

As we watch the high political theatre in Minneapolis, though, we should not just blame Americans for teaching us to be brash: we should ask ourselves why they themselves are so. The answers might surprise. Take the early English settlers. They and their successors, in their 18th-century defeat of the French, ordained that English, not French, would be the language of the continent. But that was about it. The real sinews of the modern state were laid in the 19th century on the backs of immigrants from Europe.

The two dominant immigrant strains were the Italians — and the Irish: taken together, they represent the two most ebullient European peoples.

It was the Irish who created the Democratic Party which Obama now leads and which was founded during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, one of the truly great figures among the mediocre in the clutch of Scots-Irish Presidents.

Later, through the agency of Tammany Hall, the New York Irish invented the idea of the political machine, using the violent gangs of roughnecks on the streets to enforce their will through a mixture of bribes and threats. Tammany Hall was the building where the executive of the new Democratic Party had its meetings. Its name has passed into the language as a synonym for corrupt politics.

The first political interview I attempted as a callow young reporter was with Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate whom the Republicans' war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, defeated twice for the Presidency in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson, a balding, donnish figure, was in many ways an agreeable man: a well read lawyer, eloquent on the platform, with cultivated tastes. He had been Governor of Illinois and I caught him just as he finished addressing a campaign meeting in a Chicago suburb.

I remember his button-down shirt and his immaculate suit. Then I looked at the precinct officials round him. They did not match the candidate. The Chicago machine in those days was run by the Irish. Its untouchable boss was Mayor Richard J Daley, he who telephoned John Kennedy's headquarters in the next contest in 1960, when Richard Nixon was within a hairsbreadth of taking the election. Daley wanted to know how many votes Kennedy needed to be safe. Kennedy's people said they must have Illinois. The Mayor despatched runners to the Chicago cemeteries to garner the necessary votes from the most recent gravestones. Illinois was delivered — and Kennedy won by a whisker.

As we look on from afar, we may speculate whether, in half a century, much has changed.

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