American presidents (2): Richard M Nixon

July 24th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

This summer, the City Lit in central London is running a series of evening courses with a session on most of the various post-war US presidents. I missed the one on Kennedy but have joined the course this week with the session on Lyndon B Johnson, about whom which I have done a blog posting.

Last night, I attended the session on Richard M Nixon who served as 37th president from 1969-1974. this time, the lecturer was Mark Shanahan. Like the lecturer on Johnson, essentially he spoke non-stop for over two a half hours (there was a ten-minute break), but again the speaker was very knowledgeable and very fluent. Also this time, we had visual aids – a succession of text-heavy slides and four film clips – and he gave us handouts (a total of five).

As with the Johnson session, the lecturer took us through a chronology of the politician and we were an hour and half into the session before we reached the election that took Nixon to the White House. What this chronology made clear was that the personal characteristics that ultimately doomed Nixon as president were there from the start.

Although he was very bright and hardworking, he was a man who wanted to be part of the team but was actually a loner, he was insecure and paranoid, he fought dirty, and he kept a list of his enemies. So his first election campaign – for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946 – was a negative and dirty campaign; in the House, his exposure of Alger Hiss (who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy) was ruthless; and his defeat of the Democrat for the Senate seat in California in 1950 was a brutal exercise.

Yet it was never certain, or even likely, that he would become president. After eight years as Vice-President under Eisenehower – who did not like him and did not give him responsibility – he lost both a presidential election (to John Kennedy) and a Governorship election (in his home state of California) and had six wilderness years before he finally became president in 1969.

His foreign achievements are well known: he opened up relations with Communist China and signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT)  and he ‘ended’ the Vietnam war but it was far from the ‘peace with honour’ that he proclaimed.

Our lecturer was keen that we should also appreciate Nixon’s domestic record: he promoted affirmative action and an Equal Opportunities Act, he established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act, and he even published a Family Assistance Plan, although this was rejected by Congress. On the other hand, his tenure saw a decline in manufacturing, rising inflation, rising unemployment and the US heading for recession.

Ultimately, of course, he was guilty of the Watergate cover up exposed by ‘Deep Throat’ (now know n to be Mark Felt) and he became the only president in US history who has had to resign.

You can read more about Richard Nixon here.

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How many countries are in the United Kingdom?

July 23rd, 2014 by Roger Darlington

As far as the Olympics Games is concerned,  the UK is one contestant although for some reason we call it Team GB. As far as football’s World Cup is concerned, we have four teams – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but we still do terribly.

Now, when it comes to the Commonwealth Games which opened in Glasgow today, the UK has seven entrants: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man.  Is this crazy or what?

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Are we there yet? Christmas, I mean.

July 23rd, 2014 by Roger Darlington

If you ever travel with little children, you’ll know that their most common refrain is: “Are we there yet?” Little ones struggle to understand time and distance.

Well, it seems that they’re not the only ones. Today I received my first Christmas brochure. It was online and from Jessops.

I wish those guys would look out of the window. It’s summer!

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American presidents (1): Lyndon B Johnson

July 23rd, 2014 by Roger Darlington

As a portfolio worker, I have reached the point in the year when many of the organisations with which I work stop having meetings for a month or two because of the summer period. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be reading books, seeing films, and going on short courses.

This summer, the City Lit in central London is running a series of evening courses with a session on each of the various post-war US presidents. I’ve missed the first few (actually those on Truman and Eisenhower were cancelled throught lack of interest), but have joined the course this week with the session on Lyndon B Johnson who served as 36th president from 1965-1969.

Our lecturer was Mark Malcolmson. The good news is that he was incredibly knowledgeable and very fluent. The bad news is that he spoke almost non-stop (we had a five-minute break) for two and a half hours, there were only a small number of electoral college maps and photographs, and there was no handout. We were an hour and a half into the session – a chronological account of Johnson’s life – before we reached the White House.

What came out of the session was how often Johnson’s career advanced because of luck or chance, how complex was the man’s character (a mean and vindictive bully with a strong sense of social justice), and how spoilt was his legacy (a wonderful domestic programme overshadowed by failure in Vietnam).

In 1941, he lost a primary for a Senate seat in Texas which could have been the end of his ambitions for the upper house in Congress; in 1948, he managed to win another primary for a Senate seat in Texas but by a mere 87 votes; in 1955, he had a massive heart attack which could have killed him (later one did); in 1960, he lost the Democratic nomination for president to John F Kennedy; JFK’s offer to him of the Vice-Presidential slot was unexpected and controversial; as the No 2 to a young and charismatic JFK as president, Johnson could have expected to be in the shadows for eight years; and then a visit to his home state of Texas to build up support for JFK when the Texas Democratic Party was in turmoil was the occasion when Kennedy was assassinated and everything changed for Johnson.

As President, Johnson had three main themes: the advancement of civil rights and voting rights with a raft of legislation which changed things to this day, the Great Society, the introduction of Medicare & Medicaid, and the war on poverty which cut the proportion of Americans in poverty from 23% to 12%; and the Vietnam war which he inherited from Eisenhower and Kennedy but could not prevent from being a quagmire for the USA with a low point of the Tet offensive. So he succeeded in two out three of his great objectives and, in those two, our lecturer felt that Johnson’s record bore comparison with the achievements of Franklin D Roosevelt who was in  the White House much longer.

You can read more about Lyndon Johnson here.

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Speaker of the House of Commons tells me: “You are a digital equivalent of Che Guevara”

July 22nd, 2014 by Roger Darlington

Last night, I was at the House of Commons for a meeting organised by the snappily-named Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR). The title was “Parliament 2.0: How can the Internet revolutionise British democracy?”

The keynote address came from the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow MP who admitted “I am not the most agile user of digital technology”. He explained how the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy is operating. It started in January 2014 and plans to report in January  2015. So far, it has received about 50 submissions and had 10 roundtable discussions.

Ideas which the Commission is considering include electronic voting of MPs and by MPs. I support both ideas.

Some are afraid that electronic voting in elections will be prone to fraud, but current polling arrangements are much more vulnerable to fraud, there are technical safeguards against fraud as there is with e-commerce, and a country like Estonia has shown that it can be done.

The only objection that I have heard to electronic voting by MPs is that current arrangements give them a chance to talk to Ministers while they are passing through the division lobbies, but this marginal ‘benefit’ has to be set against the waste of time when divisions take around a quarter of an hour each and there can be several each evening.

I was the first to put a question to John Bercow and prefaced my remarks by supporting online voting of MPs and by MPs. This led the Speaker to suggest that, compared to many others, I was so cutting-edge in my attitudes that “You are a digital equivalent of Che Guevara” – a comparison that has never previously been made, even when I was in Cuba.

After John Bercow, we had a panel of speakers:

Jaan Priisalu, Director General of the Estonian Information System’s Authority, told us that in the last general election in his country 31% voted electronically. However, he admitted that there was no evidence that e-voting either increases turnout overall or encourages younger electors to vote (the largest group voting electronically is the over 55s who have a larger participation rate in all elections).

Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, argued that people have lost faith in the capacity of politicians to solve their problems. She pointed out that, among those who do vote, there is huge gap in participation by wealth and class with poorer electors even less likely to vote. She called for information on politics to be packaged to reflect that “We are living in a bite-sized world”.

Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, suggested that we must put the technology in the wider context of growing disillusionment with politics and politicians. The Society’s latest annual survey showed that only 38% said that they wanted to be involved in national decision-making. She pointed out that there is no clear point of leadership on Parliamentary reform and that one useful initiative, the provision of e-petitions, is run by Government but aimed at Parliament.

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How can digital technology help to bridge the gap between Parliamentarians and voters?

July 21st, 2014 by Roger Darlington

Earlier this year, a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy was established to investigate the opportunities digital technology can bring for parliamentary democracy in the UK. It will make recommendations in January 2015.

One of the Commission members is Helen Milner, the Chief Executive of the Tinder Foundation, and one of those recently giving evidence was Lord (Jim) Knight, who is Chair of the Tinder Foundation. As a Board member at Tinder, I know these colleagues well and have great respect for their knowledge and insights.

So today I bring some ideas from Jim Knight as set out briefly in his evidence here.

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“Hard Choices” (3): a view of Russia

July 20th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

This week, we had the utterly appalling experience of a Malaysian Airlines aircraft being shot down over Eastern Ukraine with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew. Most observers – myself included – believe that the airliner was shot down by Russian-speaking Ukrainian rebels with equipment and probably expertise provided by Russia. Coincidentally I have just been reading the chapter on Russia in “Hard Choices”, the memoir of Hillary Clinton’s four years as US Secretary of State. She writes:

“Hard men present hard choices – none more so than Valdimir Putin, the President of Russia. Putin’s worldview is shaped by his admiration for the powerful czars of Russia’s history, Russia’s long-standing interest in controlling the nations on its borders, and his personal determination that his country never again appear weak or at the mercy of the West, as he believes it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He wants top reassert Russia’s power by dominating its neighbours and controlling their access to energy. He also wants to play a larger role in the Middle East to increase Moscow’s influence in that region and reduce the threat from the restive Muslims within and beyond Russia’s southern borders.

To achieve these gaols, he seeks to reduce the influence of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe and other areas that he considers part of Russia’s sphere, and to counter or at least mute our efforts in the countries roiled by the Arab Spring.”

President Obama and Secretary Clinton attempted to “reset” relations with Russia and Clinton even presented a mocked-up reset button to Russia’s Foreign Secretary Lavrov.  However, the button was labelled ‘peregruzka’ (overcharged) rather than ‘perezagruzka’ (reset). Either way, the reset scenario did not last long.

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Jack Bauer has just finished another bad day (this time in London)

July 20th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

I’ve just watched the last two episodes of the new series of “24″ entitled “Live Another Day”. I was tempted to return to the series, partly because there are only 12 episodes this time and partly because many of the scenes were shot in London locations well known to me as a resident of the city. Actually this series of “24″ is really just 11 and a bit hours with a coda added 12 hours later to make it add up to 24 hours. That’s cheating!

The narrative of the series is as improbable if not impossible as usual. The ease with which communications facilities are taken over and manipulated would surprise even Edward Snowden. But really what got me this time was Bauer’s callousness. On two occasions, he actually murders people. OK, they are baddies – but Jack’s supposed to be working for the USA.  And American agents would never kill in cold blood – would they?

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Conversations with Catrin (18)

July 19th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

My granddaughter Catrin is now three and a half years old.


I didn’t see her for a while.

Me: “I haven’t seen you for three weeks and you’ve grown up even more. Why do you keep growing up?”

C: “Because I want to be an adult – like you.”


I took her to Legoland which involved a train ride.

Me: “For our adventure today, we’re going on a train. You like going on trains, don’t you?”

C: “No. I’ve changed my mind.”

Me: “When did you change your mind?”

C: “Last night in a dream.”

Me: “Why did you change your mind?”

C: “Because when I’m on a train, I don’t know which stop to get off.”

Me: “But you will be with granddad on the train and he will tell you when to get off.”


While we were on the train:

C: “Is this our stop?     Is this our stop? …”


While we were waiting at Legoland for a train back to the station:

C: “Where is our bus? … Where is our bus? …”


She’s very assertive these days and wants to negotiate everything. She doesn’t always get her own way.

C: “You’ve broken my rules!”


She is so chatty and so fluent and often introduces a new subject with a standard question.

C: “You know what?’

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“Boyhood” – a remarkable film that most people will never see

July 19th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

Richard Linklater – who wrote and directed “Boyhood” over a period of 12 years – is a kind of genius but his films are the very antithesis of Hollywood blockbusters, Now, I love many blockbusters for their excitement, but Linklater offers something which I want as well: slow, thoughtful, domestic, dialogue-driven, convincing looks at life.

Very few people will go to the cinema to see “Boyhood” – the average theatre-goer will find it too long and too slow. Downstream, more – but not that many more – will rent it or view it on television. But that’s a pity because this is a minor masterpiece. See my review here.

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