Great mistakes in politics (No42) Rick Perry’s Oops moment

For all the talk of the 2012 US Presidential election being about ‘social media’, it actually demonstrated that live TV debates still mattered. Throughout the campaign the debates probably shaped the public’s perception of the candidates more than any amount of advertising or stump speeches could ever hope to achieve.

When Rick Perry entered the race he looked like a real threat to the other contenders. Partly because he was governor of Texas, the same position George W Bush had held, and partly because he simply looked presidential. Also President Perry had a nice ring to it. As a result, despite his late entry, he quickly began to gather funding and endorsements. Many people thought he simply couldn’t lose.

The first thing that set alarm bells ringing was the September the 7th primary debate in California. Perry just didn’t seem to engage. His answers were lacking in detail, and while his comments about social security being a Ponzi scheme might have played well with core voters, it was hardly likely to attract independents.

Obviously some of his staff picked up on this fairly quickly and tried to spin it as best they could, but he didn’t perform much more effectively in any of the subsequent debates where he rambled his way through most of the questions.

Disaster really stuck though during the November the 11th debate in Michigan. The rest of the candidates could have said pretty much anything they liked that night as the only thing the public remembered was Perry’s ‘Oops moment’. Perry stated that if he was elected President he would fulfil his promise of cutting down on government spending and bureaucracy by shutting down three departments. This would normally be exactly what a Republican audience wanted to hear, however when he tried to name them he could only remember the departments of Education and Commerce. The one he’d forgotten was the department of Energy. This was excruciating TV, and despite repeated prompting from the moderator he still couldn’t recall it.

While Perry’s campaign continued on and he appeared at several more debates, this one gaffe ended his run as a serious candidate. In less than a minute Perry had permanently derailed his presidential ambitions due to a temporary lapse in memory.

It’s important to stress at this point how important a skill debating is to potential Presidents. As I’ve argued in previous blog posts on political mistakes, the ability to engage with your opponent in a contest of ideas really does matter in terms of how voters view you.  A fact Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle discovered to their cost.  For a lot of people unfortunately, Perry could potentially go down in history as the guy who couldn’t remember the details of his own policy.

Here is Perry’s ‘Oops moment’ in all its glory:

For a full list of great political mistakes please click here

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Great political TV series (No11) The Caesars

If you asked the average British person to name a TV series about the Roman Empire full of sex, violence and political scheming, I’m fairly sure they’d pick I Claudius (or possibly Rome depending on how old they were). It’s highly unlikely they’d name The Caesars. This is a shame as while it’s not as epic as the first two it’s still a great production from the days when television was trying to be filmed theatre rather than the movies.

Made in 1968 it covers the lives of six men who were pivotal in the early days of the Roman Empire; Augustus, Germanicus, Tiberius, Sejanus, Caligula and Claudius. The first episode focuses on the last days of Augustus as he struggles with the tricky issue of the succession. Before he became Emperor Rome had been a highly successful Republic. While he still paid lip service to the laws of the Senate he had slowly gathered all power into his hands. He eventually comes to the decision to leave everything to his adopted son and heir Tiberius, and this is where the story really gets going.

Tiberius is often ignored in Roman history in favour of Augustus (because he fought lots of battles and was the first Emperor) and Caligula (because he was stark raving mad and pretty much set the benchmark in terms of doing crazy things; making his horse a Senator etc). In many ways Tiberius was the John Adams of his day; a man stuck between two giants.

It’s refreshing then that the bulk of the first four episodes of The Caesars are devoted to him and his rule. He’s portrayed here not as the sexually deviant dictator of I Claudius, but as a man trapped by history and events into a job he doesn’t want. Or does he? The series is extremely ambiguous on this point. At every turn Tiberius acts and speaks as if being Emperor is a burden he doesn’t want, yet holds on to it with increasing ruthlessness. His twin justifications are that handing the position on to anyone else while he’s still alive would be as good as cutting his own throat, while restoring power to the Senate would lead to civil war and chaos.

While the script is terrific, a lot of the praise has to go to André Morell for his performance as Tiberius. Looking like Spock’s father Sarek, he delivers his lines with weary sarcasm. As one of his colleagues notes early on, ‘If you asked him what two and two made he’d give you an evasive answer’.

When the Senators plead for him to become Emperor to replace Augustus he patiently explains to them that this is the worst system of government in the entire world, as ‘it hangs by a rotten thread’. While Emperors can bring strength and decisiveness, all it takes is to pick the wrong person and you’re stuck with a ruler you can’t remove.

With the exception of perhaps renaissance Italy, no one did intrigue like the Romans. There’s lots of plotting and scheming in dark corners of the palace and the catacombs. It’s a tribute to the writing that you don’t really notice that the entire thing is filmed in five, not terribly convincing, indoor sets in a London studio.

Once Tiberius dies and Caligula inherits the throne things become a bit dull. This is partly because Caligula’s story is fairly well-known, but also because megalomaniacs are rarely interesting. Once you’ve seen them rant and rave for five minutes it all gets a bit samey. Ralph Bates does his best with the role but there are only so many times you can go over the top in one episode. While some might find it a touch redundant if they’ve already seen I Claudius, I’d still recommend The Caesars as an alternative view of the same events. It features some wonderful acting and the dialogue is almost endlessly quotable.

Here is clip from The Caesars where Tiberius refuses to become Emperor:

For a full list of great political TV series please click here

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Great political movies (No59) Argo

F Scott Fitzgerald once said there were no second acts in American lives, but Ben Affleck seems determined to prove him wrong. Originally part of the indie scene in the 1990s he quickly became a Hollywood leading actor. Thanks to a string of flops and an ill-judged romance with Jennifer Lopez his career went into free-fall. Since then he’s re-invented himself as a director of critically acclaimed character driven movies of which Argo is the latest.

My first thought on watching Argo was its thematic similarities to Wag the Dog. Both films feature the US government using Hollywood producers and tinsel town trickery to fake events for their own benefit. However while Wag the Dog is entirely fictional, most of Argo actually happened.

The film starts with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Shah was overthrown and replaced by a religious autocracy. This disconcerted the United States because the Shah was one of their chief allies in the region; but pleased the vast majority of the Iranian people because he’d also been a murderous tyrant responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands. The US decided to give the Shah asylum and the Iranians responded by invading the American embassy and taking the staff hostage. Six managed to escape and took shelter at the Canadian ambassadors home. Argo tells the story of how they were spirited out of the country despite the best efforts of the Republican Guard to stop them.

At the risk of sounding clichéd sometimes life is stranger than fiction. Tony Mendez of the CIA, played by Affleck himself, decided to rescue the six members of staff by flying into the country and pretending that they were part of a film crew scouting for the science fiction film Argo. This involved creating an elaborate back-story utilising real Hollywood figures. What follows is probably the tensest movie of the last decade. I knew what the outcome was and still spent most of the film chewing my fingernails. What Affleck has managed to do brilliantly here is evoke the spirit of the intelligent political thriller from the 1970s. Examples include All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. This isn’t just a question of setting and date though, this feels like a film where information and personality matter more than things exploding.

Some have attacked the film for taking certain liberties with the truth; but criticising movies for their historical inaccuracies is always subjective as where do you draw the line? If every movie had to be 100% true to life we’d be left with some very dull works indeed. The fact that Argo begins with a disclaimer stating that its only loosely based on a true story gets round some of these problems. Equally people have argued that the movie should have covered the events of 1953 in more detail. Specifically how Iran’s democratically elected government was overthrown by British intelligence and the CIA. That’s a bit like saying that Path to War is a bad film because it doesn’t cover events before 1964. Like the previous years Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (also set in the 1970s), Argo shows that Hollywood can do clever if it tries.

Here is the trailer for Argo:

For a full list of great political movies please click here

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Great political movies (No58) Holy Flying Circus

What are the limits of free speech? How tolerant should we be of unpopular ideas? To what extent should we be allowed to offend other people? These are some of the big questions that mankind has been wrestling with since the Greeks and Romans. In 1979 the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus found themselves facing these dilemmas in less than agreeable circumstances.

To follow up the worldwide success of Holy Grail, they’d made the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In the film the hapless Brian was born next door to Jesus at roughly the same time. He then goes through life being mistaken for the Messiah. However as his mother so famously states, ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’. If you haven’t seen Life of Brian yet you should go and watch it right now. Firstly because it’s a strong contender for the funniest film ever made, and secondly because this review won’t make much sense if you haven’t.

Today it’s difficult to see why people were so upset. Possibly it’s because Britain is a more secular country than it was in the 1970s, but also because we’ve seen the movie repeated so many times now it’s no longer shocking. The fact that Eric Idle was invited to perform the film’s final song ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ at the London Olympics closing ceremony underlines what a national institution it’s become.

Holy Flying Circus covers the public furore surrounding the release of the film in the UK. People were outraged because they thought Jesus and Christianity were being mocked. It led to demonstrations and several local councils banning the film on the grounds that it was blasphemous. Unfortunately most of them seemed to miss the point that the film was critiquing intolerance and religious extremism rather than Jesus. Eventually the Pythons were invited on to the talk show ‘Friday night, Sunday Morning’ (hosted rather surreally by Tim Rice), to debate the controversy with the Bishop of Southwark and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.

All of the Pythons are caricatured here using the public’s general view of them. As a result Gilliam is gleefully demented, Terry Jones has a lisp and is always going on about camera angles, Graham Chapman is laid back and smokes a pipe, and Eric Idle is obsessed with money.

Most of the focus though is on Michael Palin and John Cleese. Partly because they’re the two most successful and instantly recognisable of the Pythons, but also because they were the ones who took part in the debate. Darren Boyd plays Cleese using his Basil Fawlty persona, and later on there is a spoof party political broadcast on behalf of John Cleese pointing out that he isn’t like that in real like. Charles Edwards makes a spookily accurate Michael Palin, presenting him as the world’s nicest man. Just for good measure the actor playing Terry Jones also plays his wife.

In the film Palin struggles between wanting to defend free speech and the desire not to offend. Cleese takes the diametrically opposed position that offence is a good thing in and of itself as it challenges peoples’ beliefs and forces them to reconsider their views. In typical Python fashion this discussion is acted out in puppet form as a Star Wars spoof, with a sword welding Cleese screaming ‘Give in to the hate, hating things is funny’.

As well as the controversy around Life of Brian, the film also attacks the political establishment, the church, other comedians, Americans, and a whole host of other targets. There are plenty of jabs at BBC management thrown in for good measure.

In the end the Pythons won the debate, largely because they behaved like reasonable civilised men and the Bishop and Muggeridge mocked them at every turn. I’d like to say that we’ve moved on from this, but as Stephen Fry (playing God), notes at the end, Jerry Springer the Opera, the Danish Cartoons and half the content of the internet suggests that people are more eager to take offence than ever. Apparently some of the Pythons were offended by this film. As a great man once said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here are two clips from Holy Flying Circus where Cleese and Palin debate the merits of being offensive:

For a full list of great political movies please click here

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Great mistakes in politics (No41) The Australian Immigration Restriction Act of 1901

Lots of countries both past and present have struggled with the issue of immigration. While a few have taken a relatively laissez-faire attitude, others have tied themselves in knots attempting to keep people out. This has been justified for a range of reasons including economics, politics and even environmental concerns. More often than not though its been about race; the lunatic idea that people should be kept out of a country purely because of the colour of their skin.

Australia is an interesting example of this. For a country mostly populated by immigrants it hasn’t always been the most accepting of those with different ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds. For much of the early 20th century the ‘White Australia Policy’ held sway. This resulted in the ill-thought out Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. To say the act was racist is a bit of an understatement. It was clearly aimed at preventing ethnic minorities from being able to settle in Australia. It also was intended to exclude people with learning difficulties and dubious morals. The last two categories were left disturbingly vague.

In an attempt to disguise their true intentions, the then Australian government didn’t specifically mention race. Instead they introduced something called the dictation test. This meant that immigration officials at ports had the ability to pick people out at random and make them sit it. The test involved the official dictating a passage of fifty words, and sneakily it could be in any European language. As a result, if you were Chinese but could speak English and French, they could make you take the test in German. If you couldn’t meet the set standard you were promptly deported. The Australian government had in effect created an almost perfect way of excluding racial groups they disliked while being able to claim that it was about standards of literacy. From 1932 onwards they made the test even more difficult by changing the law so it could be set as many times as the immigration official wanted. Therefore if you passed it in one language, they could make you take it again in another until you eventually failed.

The flaws in such a system became clear relatively quickly when several foreigners passed the test multiple times forcing those in charge to find more and more obscure European languages. The most famous case is probably Egon Kisch, a writer and communist of Czechoslovakian descent who’d come to Australia to warn about the rising danger of Hitler in Europe. The Australian government deemed him a politically subversive figure and started a host of legal measures to try to keep him out of the country. They attempted to use the dictation test, and Kisch, who was extremely well-educated, easily completed it. Eventually they resorted to using Scottish Gaelic. As very few people spoke it I suspect 99% of British and Australian citizens would have failed. Kisch refused to go along with this farce and was later vindicated in court. This charade helped bring the fundamentally unjust nature of the test and the Immigration Restriction Act to broader public notice. Unfortunately though it didn’t lead to it being abolished.

What’s astonishing in retrospect is the number of famous Australian politicians who supported this act. These included Prime Ministers like Billy Hughes and Stanley Bruce. While restrictions eventually began to be relaxed, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that it became significantly easier for non-whites to become Australian citizens. The Immigration Restriction Act itself though wasn’t removed from the books until 1958. What’s truly sad is how Australia, a country largely founded on immigration, could stick with such a misguided policy for so long.

Here is a short film summarising the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and its effects:

For a full list of great political mistakes please click here

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Great political movies (No57) Silent Waters (Khamosh Pani)

Here’s a question; how many female film directors can you name? I’m guessing about a dozen or so. Because the glass ceiling is still very much in place in Hollywood, most tend to work in the art house sector. Unfortunately opportunities for women film-makers outside of North America and Europe are even rarer. Sabiha Sumar has spent most of her career producing award-winning documentaries, and Silent Waters (Khamosh Pani) is her only foray into fiction. It examines the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan from a feminist perspective. While a lot of works have covered this area before, this is one of the first (as far as I’m aware), to specifically concentrate on how events impacted on women.

The film is set in 1979 in rural Pakistan. This was a tumultuous period in the young country’s history. The Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been deposed in a military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq a few years earlier (and later hung), and the new government began encouraging Islamic fundamentalism as a way of cementing their rule.

Ayesha is a widow living quietly with her son. The tranquil life of the community has largely been unaffected by political events until the arrival of two radicals from the city begins to cause disruption. They quickly gain influence amongst the town’s young men and Ayesha’s son Saleem is swept up in this.  Tensions are further heightened by a religious pilgrimage of Sikhs from India. Many of them used to live in the area before partition and their visit starts a chain reaction with unforeseen consequences.

Silent Waters was filmed in early 2001 so its exploration of the spread of fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan couldn’t have been more topical. It succinctly argues that however well-intentioned it might be, religion is often used as an excuse for nationalistic conflict, and also for men to oppress women in the name of God. It also questions why fundamentalism might be so appealing to young people despite its obvious drawbacks.

The central theme though is how social pressure can lead people to do the most appalling things to preserve their so-called ‘honour’. In this sense small town Pakistan doesn’t seem any different from anywhere else on the planet in terms of how conformity can quickly erode toleration and neighbourhood bonds. I highly recommend that if you watch the film you should also read some of the academic histories of partition, and in particular those that focus on the experiences of women. At the risk of getting into standpoint epistemology, I think far too often female voices are marginalised when recounting historical events.

The film is beautifully shot and acted, and it’s gratifying that in this day and age people are still willing to support artistic works like this, despite the fact that they lack obvious commercial potential. Thankfully its quality was recognised and it won a variety of awards in Europe and elsewhere. Since making Silent Waters Sabiha Sumar has concentrated on documentaries examining political and social issues in Pakistan and India. Considering the success of her debut it’s a real shame she’s not directed more feature films, as movies thrive on people with different backgrounds and experiences being able to tell their stories. This film is a great example of this and definitely worth watching.

For a full list of great political movies please click here

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Great political documentaries (No27) Chicago Ten

The 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago is notorious for a lot of reasons, all of them deserved. The war in Vietnam had spun out of control and an increasingly beleaguered Lyndon Baines Johnson had decided not to run again for President. Civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King had been assassinated earlier in the year, quickly followed by Robert Kennedy. The summer of love was long gone and a new cynicism about the US government and America’s place in the world was setting in.

It didn’t help matters that the Republicans had chosen ‘new’ Nixon as their candidate. He was running an incredibly divisive campaign where he claimed to represent ‘the silent majority’. In response the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey who was ‘old school’ and supported the war in Vietnam. To say that this went down badly with young voters is a bit of an understatement. Thousands gathered in Chicago to protest and Mayor Daley and the police force decided to clamp down on them hard. It led to some of the worst violence ever seen in a major US city and accusations that the establishment had turned Chicago into a police state. Chicago Ten covers the riots surrounding the convention and the subsequent trial of some of the anti-war movement leaders accused of inciting it.

A problem often faced by documentary film-makers is that sometimes its simply not possible to find footage of the subject you’re trying to cover. These days it’s less of an issue because everything broadcast is recorded and stored somewhere. Also the widespread profusion of camera-phones means that it’s much more likely that when something important happens it’s filmed. In fact it could be argued that there’s simply too much material available and it’s become more time-consuming for directors to sift through it all looking for what they need. However if you’re making a documentary about something pre-1990 things become a little trickier.

Brett Morgen the director of Chicago Ten has come up with a novel way round this difficulty. While some news footage of the riots and protesters is available, cameras weren’t allowed inside the courtroom itself. Instead Morgen has taken the trial transcript and recreated the events using cel-shaded animation and some well-known actors. By and large this attempt works with the cartoon versions of the defendants looking extremely similar to their real selves. It certainly doesn’t jar that much when the documentary switches between period footage and the cartoon.

Watching the trial being re-enacted beggars belief as witnesses are shouted down and the constitution is flouted. It’s almost like the US went out of its way to show that it wasn’t only the Soviet Union who could do show trials. A lot of this was driven by the judge Julius Hoffman. Purely going on his words and actions here he comes across as one of the most bigoted, unpleasant and biased old men you’re ever likely to meet. The fact that he was a judge for such a long period doesn’t do his profession any favours. One of the defendants attempts to claim his right to represent himself and Hoffman reacts by having him gagged and chained to his chair.

Chicago Ten is educational and entertaining in roughly equal measure. It does suffer from the problem of any documentary making use of re-enactments though. Even when the words are taken verbatim from the transcript, by using ‘actors’ the defendants are possibly presented more sympathetically, and come across as more eloquent, than they were in real life. The production style also runs the risks of making the prosecution and judge look worse (not that they need much help)

Another problem is that it might have benefited to have interviews with some of the figures representing the forces of law and order for their take on what happened. In this sense, like Hearts and Minds and Inside Job, it’s not a balanced piece of story-telling. It does however throw fresh light on a trial which demonstrated how far the US government was willing to go in terms of trampling on the rights of its citizens when it felt threatened. The animated re-enactments are more than just a gimmick, and I’d like to see this technique used more often in future.

Here is the trailer for Chicago Ten:

For a full list of great political documentaries please click here

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