The reason why some people like Obama and others don’t isn’t just about personality or philosophy. It’s a reflection of a voter’s attitude towards politics in general. Obama is a very good politician – a great speaker, a clever strategist, obsessed with winning. Anyone who loves politics will appreciate his skills and, in all probability, come to admire and respect him. Anyone who dislikes politics – who regards the process as corrupt or corrupting – will be inclined to distrust a master of the medium. That explains the media’s exuberant reaction to last week’s Democratic convention. If you’re looking to be swayed by good rhetoric, then you will be. As movie director Paul Schrader once said, it’s not hard to provoke an emotional reaction from an audience. Just shoot a puppy.
Personally, I don’t like politics. That statement might seem perverse coming from a political historian. It’s like reading about the slaughterhouse worker who never eats meat. But it’s true. Of course, there’s much about politics that is salacious and fun – eccentric, insane, amusing and dripping in sex. Politicians can also be very good company, although many develop a pattern of speech that has all the false enthusiasm and rehearsed spontaneity of a Stepford Wife (“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe…”)
But politics ultimately comes down to power. It is an addiction no different from the gambler or the alcoholic, both of which develop clever ways to deceive others into thinking they are perfectly normal and can be safely left alone with the money jar. The politician looks dispassionate, even Vulcan. But beneath the surface, their blood yearns for votes and power. The Left might insist that they went into politics to help other people, but that begs the question, “Why politics?” If you really want to change the world, become a missionary in Africa. It costs much less to do and the News of the World won't take photographs of you while you're doing it. No, you’ve got to be an unusual mix of masochist and egotist to run for office.
To get to where they are, the successful pol has to make sacrifices that no ordinary human being would make: move to a winnable district, become a lawyer, campaign at weekends, stay away from strip clubs, marry, have an enormous blonde family with names like Trig and Trucker, attend football games, spend time cadging money off rich bores, and pretend to like people who smell. Only power lovers, narcissists, and sociopaths would do all of this. Anyone who is very good at it is not to be trusted.
Why then do I obsess about politics? Because the system is what it is and its imperfection reflects our fallen nature. Just as a Roman Senator had to endure Caligula’s insanity in order to get fresh water pumped to his district, so a congressman has to do the rounds of TV shows and barbeques to raise the funds for a bridge to Nowheresville. If you care about anything at all, you usually find yourself drawn back to politics. If you want to talk and write about the way things are, it’s impossible to ignore the powerful. And if you must be political, why not try to enjoy it? Everyone likes to be seduced, which is why ugly romantics do unjustly well. The alternative is that the sociopaths rule without interruption, allowing them to bullcrap humanity into Armageddon. This is what they mean when they say, “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to vote Democrat.” (Joke.)
Politics is a sad duty. The best politicians are those who enter the profession reluctantly and leave it enthusiastically. Those men don’t have to deliver good speeches. They just have to do good … and then they go home. They don’t get big bounces in the polls or flattering reviews on television, and Chris Matthews will never say he loves them. But, thanks to the common sense of millions of voters who don’t like politics, they do occasionally win.
I’m finally leaving America. My visa has expired and they’re kicking me out. I’ve spent my last few days in Washington DC, drunk as a skunk. I was collected from the airport by The Contractor (my mysterious friend who supplies various military regimes with “things they need”), driven to the Capital Grill and pumped full of T-bone and red wine. We had a furious but friendly debate about whether or not slavery is immoral (I think it is). All of this was a welcome switch from Los Angeles, where I lived on a diet of liberalism, lentils, and a once-in-a-blue-moon Mojito. I’ve always found Washington to be a fun place. The average worker ant is boring and aggressive (all those Republican boys in their blazers and cargo pants pushing they way through the Metro), but the old lags who hang around the National Press Club and the bar at the Bombay are fantastic.In late July, however, Washington is physically unbearable. In past times, the city emptied at June and everyone went home for fourth months to cool their hands against buckets of ice. Nowadays they have to stay and endure this horrible wet heat. Los Angeles was scorching but dry, so the skin had room to breathe. Washington is humid and sticky, like eating a curry in the bath. People are dying of this weather. It accords with the apocalyptic mood that has descended over the capital. I’ve been away three months and it feels like three decades of revolution. The Murdoch Empire is on its knees, Amy Winehouse is dead, some lunatic killed scores of people in Norway, Michele Bachmann declared for the presidency, and San Francisco tried to ban goldfish. America’s budget default creeps closer. All we need now is a whore on a ten-headed dragon to ride into town and we know we’re finished (and that’s probably already happened on this season’s True Blood).Yet I leave America feeling strangely optimistic. If they count their blessings carefully enough, America and the world should feel happier than they do. Consider the following.1. The American economy is still fundamentally strong. Growth and profits are back up, although they haven’t been shared in jobs increases. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Like the production shock of the early 1980s, a lot of the recent recovery has been about resizing and stripping bad assets. No one actually wants the banks to return to their profligate ways, so it’s inevitable that capital is a little tighter than it once was. But that’s not a problem so long as we continue to innovate. I know that all TED seems to showcase right now is “Al Gore’s Electronic Flower Pots”, but the beauty of the free enterprise system is its ability to not only dig itself out of a hole but also invent a cybernetic shovel with which to do it. Something’s around the corner and I suspect it’s the energy market.2. China’s getting fatter. Almost mystical powers of economic productivity are projected onto China. But as she gets richer, she also develops many of the same social problems that the West has – smoothing down the competitive edge between our two markets. It’s estimated that somewhere in the region of 25 percent of the Middle Kingdom’s subjects are now porkers. Not only does that have a deleterious effect on the quality of their labor force, but it demonstrates that those hard-working devils are turning into lazy-ass consumers too. Ergo, MacDonalds now has now committed itself to opening a new store everyday within the next four years. That’s to compete with the Colonel’s tally of 3,200 stores across the country. The cost will be measured in increased demands for health and social services, forcing China to replicate the welfare states that are now bankrupting the West. In 50 years time, the Chinese will owe us money.3. In a revolution, no one’s safe. In the past, disorder tended to create new orders that would last a little while longer than the last. Nowadays, chaos follows chaos in quick succession. No sooner had the expenses scandal crippled Gordon Brown and helped elect David Cameron, the Murdoch scandal had knee-capped Cameron and possibly opened the door to Ed Miliband. Likewise, the Tea Party revolution is being eaten alive by its own radicalism at the moment – destroying the credibility of the congressional Republican leadership and catapulting the country towards bankruptcy. That might not seem like a reason to be happy, but it is nice to know that Western democracy is proving more sensitive to public tastes than it once did. In the past few months, the people are destroyed two venerable parties – the Canadian Liberals and Fianna Fail of Ireland. It’s likely that they will strike the deathblow of Gaullism in the next French presidential elections. All have been eclipsed by radical parties on the left and right (Irish Labor, Canadian New Democrats, French National Front). The center will not hold. For those of us driven by ideas, it’s an exciting time to be alive. We have finally emerged from the centrist abyss of the 1990s; ideology is back.I return to a UK in turmoil. What is unusual is that there is no obvious winner from all the political disaster. Labour theoretically leads the Conservatives, but Ed Miliband is widely seen as a bad leader. The Liberal Democrats have extinguished themselves as a party. There is some hope in the bizarre collection of libertarians, disgruntled socialists, Sedevanticists, and golfing fanatics who make up the United Kingdom Independence Party, but they are hamstrung by the First Past the Post voting system that makes it tough for minority parties to break through.In contrast, the American party system seems fairly stable and alive. What Britain did in the last ten years – consciously and systematically – was kill off all internal party opposition. That’s strangled new ideas and left large swathes of the country without representation. There are no young voices in Britain that are definitively liberal or conservative, whereas the Americans have charismatic lobbies working on both sides. It may seem odd to see the deficit crisis as anything but a crisis, but it does highlight the fact that the US still trades in ideas and philosophies of government. I regret having to leave that debate for the rather more tepid one in Britain, which, despite all its anxieties, still obsesses about emptying the bins and cleaning up dogs’ mess.
I was overjoyed to read that there is a baboon on the loose in New Jersey. A woman called the police to report a monkey sitting on her back-porch. Presumably, its little pink bottom gave away the species. Experts think that it escaped from the Six Flags Great Adventure’s Monkey Jungle. Park officials say they can’t be sure because they don’t keep count of how many baboons they own. How did it escape? Perhaps it carved a tunnel under the fence with a teaspoon; perhaps it stole a hat and walked out pretending to be a child. Either way, go monkey, go! The importation of exotic animals into the US is having a queer effect upon the wildlife. The Everglades are like a stretch of the Congo now. Released pet snakes have bred and grown to prehistoric size. Last year, police found the remains of a boa that had split in two attempting to consume an alligator. The worrying thing is that this is the first recorded case of a snake winning a fight against an animal of that size. Something in the water is making them grow beyond their natural dimensions. It is the stuff of countless horror movies, but it warms the heart in one regard. It proves that evolution hasn’t stopped, that man’s relationship with the wild is still being negotiated. And while nature is winning in one part of the world, it is losing in many others. Having made so many friends among liberal activists, I'm now on a lot of animals rights mailing lists. Recently, I was sent pictures of a bizarre coming-of-age ritual in Denmark whereby young men go out into shallow waters and - to prove their masculinity - stab dolphins to death.
It made me determined to boycott everything Danish, which amounts to ... Lurpak butter and Seventies child pornography. So the thought of nature getting its revenge and goosing mankind pleases me greatly. And who can resist the potential for hilarity that a baboon swinging free in The Garden State presents? I hope it steals things from washing-lines and gets up to all sorts of shenanigans. This has been a week of thinking about animals. On Friday, I interviewed the Sheinbaum family for my project on Hollywood politics. Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum are the king and queen of Hollywood liberalism; ageing maybe, still capable of throwing a fundraiser that can bring down a president. They have counted among their friends George McGovern, Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, and Yasser Arafat (what a party!). At 91, Betty is incredibly full of vim but Stanley is confined to a chair and very deaf. They plied me with cookies as we discussed the state of the country. I sat between them, asking Betty a question on my left and then shouting it again at Stanley on my right. I was amazed to discover that Stanley still goes to the cinema twice a week. I agreed with Betty that there was little point. The advent of superheroes has rendered a trip to the flicks an unmitigated bore. “Do you think the superheroes with all their powers are a metaphor for Obama?” Betty asked innocently. “We certainly need someone to rescue us.” The Sheinbaums are disillusioned with the administration, but then so is everyone else here in Los Angeles. It is odd, considering how Obama is often portrayed as the candidate of the liberal elite, just how much the liberal elite now dislike him. They hate him all the more for the fact that they once loved him; they feel cheated, conned – like a lover who married a stunning blonde heiress only to discover that her hair comes from a bottle and the only thing she’s inheriting is the trailer. The liberal elite suspended their usually high critical faculties (these people are not easily pleased) and got behind Obama in 2008, only to be appalled when he turned out to be as human and corrupt as all the rest. “I cried when Obama was elected,” said Betty sadly. For them, the election of a black man fulfilled the promise of all their years of activism in the Civil Rights movement – only for it to be dashed when they discovered he was the wrong black man. But the Sheinbaums have the comfort of nostalgia. Jane Fonda showed up at Stanley’s birthday last month and kissed him on the cheek. The Sheinbaums must be exceptional people because they own a beautiful brown standard poodle. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, so too did Richard Nixon – and you have to be rather special to tame one of these brilliant creatures (they are so guilefully intelligent that the French used to teach them to play poker). When I was a child, my family tried to break a poodle and failed: he bullied his way to top of our pack and made my life a living Hell. Every night he would stroll into my bedroom, leap up onto the bed, push me out, and fall asleep. If I tried to get back in, he would growl without opening his eyes until I backed away. I named him Dino after the pet dinosaur in The Flintstones. The name turned out to suit him in a way that none of us predicted, for it’s also the moniker of many a small-time Italian crook. Dino was like one of those unstable psychopaths you see in gangster movies – the life and soul of the party one scene, a switchblade wielding lunatic the next. The Sheinbaum’s poodle is a finer class of pooch and introduced herself to me in the manner of a lady – with outstretched paw and fluttering brown eyes. As I ran my fingers through her cotton wool hair I was thrown back to my youth. Just as Proust would go wild at the smell of an orchid for the memory that it invoked, the hair of a poodle transports me back (rather more prosaically) twenty years to when we drove Dino home for the first time: a terrified puppy in a cardboard box. We were taking him away from his mother. I remember sitting on the backseat of the car trying to reassure him, feeding his thick ears between my fingers and waggling a tennis ball before his eyes. Poor Dino wept and wailed all three hours home. When we arrived, he vomited on my trousers and then passed out beneath an apple tree. Perhaps the memory of being snatched from his mother is why he hated us. I wonder if all dogs can remember that moment in the same way that humans remember a divorce or a parental slap – a scar on the memory that never heals. Now many hours later and lying awake on my bed sweating in the interminable Los Angeles heat, I am hankering for the attentions of a dog. Meeting the Sheinbaum’s poodle reminded me of all the pleasures of canine company: the loopy, pointless grin of a Labrador, the mischievous yap of a sausage dog, the feminine wiles of a weimaraner with its silky grey skin. I would be old enough now to cultivate Dino’s respect if he were still alive. Dogs instantly defer to an adult man, if only for a pause before devouring him. They elevate their master, when contact with other humans so often lowers him. Just one month left in the US before my visa expires and all I can think about is those giant boas crawling through the Everglades. I wonder, what if one is split open and they find a half-consumed Sasquatch inside? Then we will know that nature really is winning and those bastard Danes on the beach will be next.