Emperors of the Free World
Now that the decorous, tightly controlled process of deciding who should be Russia’s next President is getting under way, it is particularly interesting to read about the chaotically undecorous manner in which US Presidents are elected, and in which they often continue to govern.
Nigel Hamilton’s riveting new book tells the story of the twelve “imperial” presidents, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush. He calls them imperial because they presided over a country that had decided, after the destruction of British imperial strength during the Second World War, that it must unilaterally assume leadership of the Free World and re-make it in its own image.
Mr Hamilton’s book is modelled on The Twelve Caesars by the third-century Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote candid biographies of the men who ruled the Rome at the zenith of its power, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, including Augustus, Caligula, Nero and Vespasian, the man who left Jerusalem with “not one stone standing upon another”. All glory and filth is there, as it is in American Caesars, and Hamilton makes many telling comparisons.
There are parallels with Russia too, like this description of Jimmy Carter’s first taste of democratic politics, when he stood for the Georgia senate in the 1960s. “Electoral felony was still endemic. Ballot boxes were regularly stuffed, non-compliant white voters were intimidated, while black voters were simply excluded, on pain of death.”
Likewise, when Lyndon Johnson “threw his ten gallon hat” into the ring and stood in Texas for the US Senate in 1941, he discovered that winning the most votes was not of itself decisive. “On election night, Johnson unwisely made public the tiny margin of his victory, and went exhausted to bed, the door guarded by Rebekah, his proud mother. When he awoke it was to find his opponent had raided the ballot boxes kept in various judges’ homes. Johnson eventually lost by 1,311 ‘late’ votes.”
There are two serious examples of treason in pursuit of the presidency, the first by Richard Nixon, who sabotaged Johnson’s attempt to end the Vietnam war by secretly promising the South Vietnamese they would get better terms if they waited for him to be elected. Though peace was in sight in 1968, it did not come until 1973, by which time an additional 20,000 Americans had died, as well as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan undermined President Carter’s attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 by secretly telling Ayatollah Khomeini that if he waited for a change of president he could expect an “arms-for-hostages” deal.
Hamilton, the son of an editor of the London Times, was the prize-winning official biographer of Field Marshal Montgomery, and has also written books about Bill Clinton and the young J.F. Kennedy. He has the true biographer’s skill in seeing his subjects as people first and politicians second. The overwhelming impression that the reader carries away is of men who were larger than life, in the best and the worst senses of the term.
Though we all know of Kennedy’s and Clinton’s philandering, how many are aware that President Johnson, who claimed that he had “had more women by accident than Kennedy had on purpose”, was liable to take his penis out and ask startled visitors to admire its size, once saying, “I’ve got take ol’ Jumbo here and give him some exercise”?
This was the man who was prepared to stake his tenure in the White House on the passage of one of the most enlightened pieces of legislation of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Act, 1964, which arguably gave full meaning for the first time ever to the noble wording of the Declaration of Independence nearly two centuries earlier.
There are many comparable examples of wisdom, strength of mind and character and, from time to time, sheer, bloody intransigence in the face of what they saw as evil. Reagan’s determination to roll back the power of communist totalitarianism was one, informed as it was by awareness of the Soviet idea of proportionate response to threat. Khrushchev had justified aggressive diplomacy by writing in his memoirs: “We showed that anyone who slapped us on our cheek would get his head kicked off.”
Of the twelve American Ceasars, perhaps only Richard Nixon was capable of that sort of thuggish vindictiveness, and the reason, Hamilton says, was a sense of personal inferiority going back to childhood.
Perhaps the most interesting reflection provoked by this book is that of these twelve men, only the honest but naïve and ultimately unsuccessful Jimmy Carter was born into contented, affluent middle-class circumstances. Of the others, Roosevelt, Kennedy and the two Bushes grew up in the homes of multi-millionaires, while the remaining seven either could not afford a college education unaided because their fathers were absent or drunk, like Ford and Clinton, or they were so poor, like Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson, that they did not have indoor plumbing in their childhood homes. Richard Nixon had to walk barefoot to school carrying his shoes and socks in a paper bag to save wear and tear.
The only British Prime Minster to have experienced poverty of that sort was Ramsay Macdonald, who was in power during the quarter century between the achievement of full democracy and the end of Empire. But every Soviet leader after Lenin grew up like that, as did Vladimir Putin.