Thursday, 19 September 2013

American voices: seeking opinions on key questions

I wrote last week that I'm looking for some Americans with opinions to take part in preparing the content for a course I'm teaching at the University of Reading  this year (it's pronounced 'Redding' - it's not a pretentious book-based learning establishment!). As I plough on preparing my lectures and seminars for the American Government course , the issues I'd like some American Voice comments on are emerging. At a high level, the immediate ones are:


  • How do you regard Congress?
  •  Does it represent your aims?
  •  How effective is it in delivering on its power of oversight?
  •  Is the balance right between Congress and the President?

The Presidency

  • Are you comfortable with the way the President uses his powers?
  • How would you score the current presidency out of 10 - and why?
  • Who is/was the USA's greatest president - and why?
  • Who's at the bottom of the Presidential poll for you - and why|
  • Do you believe presidential power is in decline? Why/why not?
  • Who will be the white House's next incumbent and why?
The Supreme Court

  • Do you believe Americans understand the role that the Supreme Court plays in government today?
  • Is the Court doing a good job? Why/why not?
  • Inverting Alexander Hamilton, some commentators regard the Supreme Court as the most dangerous and least democratic aspect of US government today. Is that a fair assessment? Why/why not?
Political Parties and elections

  • How effective do you feel the two party system is in US politics?
  • In your opinion, what unites and what divides each of the US' two main parties?
  • What do the Republicans need to do to regain the White House?
  • What do the Democrats need to do to retain the White House?
  • Why is there so often a disconnect between voting patterns at local/State/Congressional and presidential levels?
  • Can one party ever dominate across the US political spectrum?

  • What effect has sequestration had on your views on the current US political situation?
  • Do you believe the wrangling over healthcare reform has enhanced or damaged both the President and Congressional opponents?
  • What impact is Syria having on the standing of the President and Congress?
  • Have recent debates around gay marriage and also voting rights affected your view of the Supreme Court?

  • Why are so many Americans often so critical of 'big government'?
  • What role does the media play in US politics today?
  • Do you feel the media is a power for good in US politics? Why/why not?
  • Is social media affecting today's political scene - and if so, how?
Capital punishment

  • What's your view on the death penalty - is it right that the US retains the right to execute wrongdoers?
Gun control

  • What's your view on gun control?
  • Why is it such a contentious issue in US politics?
  • Will events such as Aurora, Newtown or the Navy Yard shootings have any effect politically?

  • Which interest groups have the greatest impact on US politics, and why?
  • Do interest groups enhance or detract from the US political scene - why and how?
Civil rights
  • Do you believe the US is now a fair and equitable society for all? Why/why not?
  • How much power and influence does religion have in US politics?
  • Is that power on the rise or decline?
  • Does its rise or decline matter?
America and the World
  • What effect, if any, do you feel that current US politics has on the standing of the nation in the world?
  • Does the rest of the world's view of the US actually matter? Why/why not?
Would you be willing to answer these questions and share your views with a bunch of Reading University second year undergrads?

No responses need to be attributed fully - I'm looking at something like 'Fred, a store owner from Florida said...' - just enough to give the students a sense of whose opinion they're hearing.

I'm very happy to take written responses to all or any of the questions - or, for the more daring, sound or even movie files.

Interested? If you'd like to find out more or are even tentatively interested in taking part, email me at and I can fill you in on the details

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

In search of American Voices

It is, perhaps, fitting that on this 9/11 anniversary I've been planning content for my up-coming American Government course. I'll be teaching the L2 undergrad course at Reading University from next month, covering the usual bases - the separation of powers; who does what and how; the Constitution; parties and elections; 'big government'; States' Rights; interest groups; the media; capital punishment; civil rights; social policy and religion.

I have 66 eager undergrads signed up for the course. Most are British; the rest Continental European and very few have spent any time at all in the US.

My experience of teaching US politics over the last few years with similar groups is that they're generally quite liberal and find it easy to be antagonistic towards the US - while admiring its business ethics, much of its culture and many of its individuals. It's an odd mix that's often based on kittle understanding that US culture is quite different from ours in Europe.

I'm hoping to aid the understanding of my students a little more this year by introducing some 'American Voices' into the lectures. Beyond the usual textbook and assigned scholarly reading, I'd love students to hear from 'real' Americans who live and breathe the impacts of US political decision making every day.

I would like them to hear views on the death penalty and gun control for instance from the kinds of articulate, erudite Americans I've spoken to over the years; the kinds who've shared their views with me on both sides of the debate. I'd like my students to understand why the Constitution matters so much, given that in the UK we have no written constitution and seem to have a much more malleable view of constitutionally-based issues politicking.

I would love to know how gay marriage and Obamacare are playing in Peoria. It would be great to find out what being 'libertarian' really means to Joe from LA or Jessie from Idaho and my students would gain a great insight from understanding why and how religion matters if you're growing up in the Heartland.

I'll be putting out some feelers to my own US contacts over the next few weeks - I'd love to collect some audio files, perhaps some very basic videos or even have someone Skype direct into my class. But I'm very open to speaking to new contacts and building a range of real American Voices into my classes.

In many ways there appears to be a widening gap between the US and Europe. It can be narrowed through mutual understanding - and the best people to do the narrowing are the next generation of leaders and influencers.

So, if you're an American willing to engage with some 19-20 year old British students about one or more aspects of US politics, please get in touch. You can email me at

Thanks in anticipation for your help

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

When writing, never stop reading

The thesis is hovering around 43,000 words at the moment. I write a bit, read it back, chop, pinch, style and rephrase. The intro, chapters three and four and part of chapter one are now there, with plans for all the other pieces of the jigsaw.

I've had good feedback on the two completed chapter drafts from the wise and exceedingly kind Dave Nichols, which will help strip out some of the chaff from the wheat (although the word count may well take a knock). In having a paper accepted for publication, I've also received good feedback from Andy Polsky at Hunter College, CUNY. Andy's editing the book I'll be published in, and sent back his comments with the advice: "Probably you will feel a little bruised and battered after you see the edits.  Ice helps, either applied directly or consumed in a stiff drink, American-style."

Actually, his editing was crisp, his cuts made sense - and other than the Americanization of some of my very British observation, we have very little to argue over. Compared to the evisceration I've seen applied to other colleagues' work by 'helpful editors', Andy's shaping of my work was relatively mild and positively beneficial.  

Anyway, while I write, I still read. At the moment, I'm working my way through Jeffrey Frank's 'Ike  and Dick' which is not bad on Nixon, but presents a rather hackneyed caricature of President Eisenhower. In fact, Frank might as well have called it 'Ike and Tina Turner' for all it contains that's new, interesting or particularly realistic about POTUS 34.

As I'm teaching an Eisenhower summer school at the moment, I'm also re-reading Dave Nichols' excellent 'A Matter of Justice'. In terms of Eisenhower, this is everything that Mr Frank's book isn't. While it's not as well known a title as Nichols' study on Ike and Suez, 'Eisenhower: 1956', it's a thoughtful, incisive and meticulously researched study that recognises that the 1950s were very different from the 1960s, and that Eisenhower's cautious steps forward towards ending racial inequality were very necessary in enabling the groundswell for change of the Kennedy/Johnson presidencies.

Having spoken at the Ike Reconsidered conference back in March, which was organised by Andy Polsky, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm also reading his 'Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War.' It's a work that those currently in the White House and Pentagon would do well to read on their holidays this summer.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The big push starts here

The good news is that last week, my PhD research was 'Confirmed'. In Brunel terms, that means it has cleared the last internal gate and the next steps are submission and my external viva. Being grilled for around 90 minutes last week by two internal examiners (plus my two supervisors chipping in on occasion) resulted in my hypothesis being seem as viable; my methodology sound, my timeline realistic and my writing to date (approaching 40,000 words) up to the expected standard.

I didn't by any means nail the internal viva - the feedback was that I was still, in part, too journalistic, while paradoxically, not being sufficiently sharp on how my work will make a significant contribution to Eisenhower/early space scholarship. I thought I was being both polite and measured, and was desperately attempting to avoid the accusation of 'showboating' that I've been subject to before. It seems like I'd dialled down my performance just a notch too far.

Still, the whole point of the confirmation hearing is to get practice for the external event. I've learned quite a lot, and hope I'll be able to apply it when the time comes - some time in 2014.

The bad news is there's no time to rest on my laurels. On the way up, Confirmation feels like a big thing. Once through it, one realises it qualifies the Confirmed candidate for nothing. I have one core section out of three written and revised. I've started on the major context piece. The consequences are still some way off. I have anything from 40,000-60,000 words still to craft, polish and set.

It seemed that all my hard work was leading up to last Friday's event. The reality is: the really hard work starts now.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Walter Cronkite, Patrick Moore and James Burke can rest easy

I had an interview filmed at the recent Ike Reconsidered Conference. Somehow, I think my days as a TV pundit will be brief - though kudos to the editors for actually getting some sense out of my musings. You can see me here.

Friday, 15 March 2013

US Diary - reflections

It's a week now since the 'Ike Reconsidered' Conference in New York, and I've actually been back in the UK since Monday. It worked out cheaper to stay in the US 'til Sunday, so I enjoyed the great pleasure at the end of the trip of a free day in New York City. The feedback from the conference has been great - my presentation went down well and my work seems to have picked up an appreciative audience. To an extent, I was preaching to the Choir, but it's a reall buzz to get a positive response to my thoughts on Ike from a very knowledgeable crowd.

As is my great pleasure, I set out relatively early on Saturday morning and just walked: miles and miles, stopping to browse in a Barnes and Noble; taking a look in the wonderful Art Deco lobby of the Chrysler Building and skirting the rather ghastly Times Square.

Given my history leanings, I'd always wanted to visit the USS Intrepid, nudged up to the edge of Hell's Kitchen on the Hudson River. I spent a good couple of hours looking round the WW2 carrier and its aircraft displays.

After that, it was back to Times Square to try and get hold of a ticket for one of the major Broadway Shows. The queues were a killer, so I headed direct to the Richard Rogers Theatre and bought a ticket for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The theatre, which feels just a bit run down, wasn't quite full, and the play has had mixed reviews. But, aside from Ciaran Hinds' Big Daddy starting with a significantly more Belfast than Southern USA accent, and Scarlett Johansson gabbling a few too many of her early lines upstage, I thought the performance was mesmerising. Back at the hotel about 15 hours after setting out for the day, I still couldn't get to sleep.

Sunday morning, I breakfasted with the estimable Dave Nichols before we shared a cab to Penn Station and I started my trip home - via DC. My journey back was ridiculously expensive, thanks to getting a cab from Washington's Union station out to Dulles (when's the subway finally due to reach the airport?), but it would be churlish to complain about a terrific week including great research, a superb conference - and the chance to see Scarlett Johansson looking deliciously sultry.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Reconsidering Ike

Sometimes you just get a sense that everything that you've done in your research is leading to one day; to one event; to one moment. On Thursday, I reached that moment. The morning was tough. The Ike Reconsidered Conference didn't start until 2pm and I wasn't needed there until 1.30 (I was on the first panel). As has been the habit of the week, I was awake really early and watched the sleet drift between the high rises of Lexington Avenue. I walked to find where I needed to be later in the day, catching myself thinking of the slight unreality of being on Park Avenue when my research life resides in Uxbridge. I breakfasted at a diner, smirking wryly at its name : 'Heaven' and taking note that the hard-working New Yorkers whisking coffee, pancakes, eggs, toast and the rest between, around and to the tables had their roots in South Asia, not in the waves of original immigrants that have made NYC so unique. It was good to see: this city evolves.

The rest of the morning is spent pacing my room. Checking and rechecking my notes. Everything about me is nervous. All I can do properly is pace.  

Finally, suited and booted, I headed for The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Roosevelt House - yes, where FDR and Eleanor lived along with his mother Sara, a matching pair of townhouses now owned by Hunter College and restored as a teaching and conference venue. The great and the good trooped in: academics; a few students; a lot of grey hair and the odd Eisenhower, a Brownell and even a guru or two. As I took my place in the front row, a small man moving slowly with a wheeled frame and a carer arrived and sat behind me: Fred Greenstein: guru.

So, that first panel. Faced by more Eisenhower talent in one room than I've encountered in the past four years (that's not true: it's more Ike interest and knowledge than I've encountered in my life). Faced by more undistilled Eisenhower expertise than I'm ever likely to see again. Faced by TV cameras, a stills man and a see of expectant faces. I wasn't too worried. Ben Greene was going first. I could sit back for a little while, gather my thoughts and learn. So Mike Desch, chair of Political Science at Notre Dame, takes the podium and introduces us...and switches the order. Now I'm first. The Conference's first speaker. The token Brit. The warm up act before the serious business takes over.

I grab my notes and bottle of water and head for the podium. There's a little added tension as the organisers fail at first to load my slides. Then I'm off. 12 minutes. I'll be counted down at five and two. Once I'm running, I'm fine. Professional habits take over. There are a couple of half-jokes, well received. It's boo Kennedy and hurrah Ike. I conclude. There's applause and smiling faces in the front row. I sit down. Have I passed the test? Am I now in the Eisenhower club?

My next moments of fear: the discussants stand to forensically chew over our papers. I've been the first of three and the first discussant is Yanek Mieczkowski who has just published a book seemingly at the heart of my area. He's going to slaughter me. He'll expose my thin veneer of knowledge; my charlatan status as interloper in the academic world. But he's kind. He's insightful. He's generous - he 'gets' what I'm trying to do. And then Mike Desch. He has criticisms and they're justified, but he picks out lines of the writing for comment. After years of being warned to curb my 'purple prose' (and God knows, I tell my students the same), here's a political scientist rolling a phrase in his mouth like a fine wine. And it's my phrase and it's deepest ruby red.

The questions come - and they come to me. And I know the answers. This is working. I'm actually in my element and I can deal with this. I'm not out on a limb. My paper dovetails with those of Ben and Zuoyue. Clever organisers. I'm less good in the sum-up, undercutting my own point. But I still leave the stage on a high. Was it any good? I haven't checked back yet. Apparently it'll be preserved for posterity here.

At the break, people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the paper. Even guru Fred. I can't help grinning. The event continues and the calibre of speaker and quality of presentation keeps on climbing. This is my great opportunity to sit at the feet of real Eisenhower knowledge and absorb.

We're well fed with the great and the good of Hunter and the - it has to be said - dwindling Eisenhower community. The night is about straight backed men and women who fought Washington's good fight - alongside or opposed to the General. There aren't too many left. I cherish their experience.

Yesterday was more of the same - but this time I could just sit back and enjoy. David Eisenhower is both genial and wise (and looks scarily like his grandfather). Ann Brownell adds colour and context. I record a short video piece at lunchtime - I hope the editing is kind.

Dave Nichols, perhaps the foremost Eisenhower scholar currently in the field introduces me to people as his protégée. I could not have a wiser, kinder mentor.

We finish with a reception. More handshakes, more fantastic contacts, more kind words. The pub is mooted, but I collapse onto the bed as soon as I get back to the hotel. 12 hours on, I'm still buzzing.           

Thursday, 7 March 2013

USA diary day 3 - post-Sequestration Washington

Another early start - more due to my body clock than anything else. I headed into town breakfasting at Pret - one of the few reverse-trade invasions I've seen in the US. While MaccyDees, Gap, and just about every major US brand seem to have made it on to the UK's high streets, it's rare to see the phenomenon happening the other way round. But, at leas in DC and NYC, Pret a Manger seems to definitely be a growing brand.

On the stroke of 9am I was admitted into the National Archives - my first visit to this Pennsylvania Avenue monolith - though I was nearly mown down in the crush as a cottage industry of archive researchers scuttled for prime position in the reading room. The reading room's not all that bit, but was very busy - and on just the second day of post-sequestration DC, that was causing a problem.

I had just one box of materials to interrogate. I had very limited time, and had pinned down my search through pre-contact with the fabulous Ron Ross to the Congressional Records I really needed to see. I thought I was losing time going through the bureaucracy of getting a researcher's card and then having to meet up with a Congressional Records archivist to relay my request. However, by the time I was allowed into the reading room (after a false start when I was ejected for the sin of carrying a small camera case) my box of papers was ready - much to the evident surprise of the desk staff.

I'd somehow bypassed the file pulling system and was able to settle down and work my way through the record of the 85th Congress' Senate sub committee on astronautics and space. To be honest, I found the most useful materials in the first 30 minutes - but ploughed on for a further three hours.

More and more researchers arrived, and the desk spaces were soon full. I'm not sure why they weren't allowed to work in the adjacent rooms, but suspect it came down to supervisory staffing. While sequestration won't kick in at the National Archive for another six weeks, posts had been held unfilled in anticipation of the Capitol Hill stand-off. Coupled with a number of illnesses, there were just too few staff on the floor to cope with the voracious demand for files. Researchers are generally quite sanguine folk, but there were raised voices and exasperated sighs and files remained unpulled, and the queue to return materials stretched to the door.

It was quite a noisy room and I didn't find it conducive to good research - and was quite glad to leave before lunch. By 3pm I was on an Amtrak heading north east. Four and a half hours later, after passing through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, I was met from my train at Stamford, Connecticut and whisked to my concretely-functional hotel. I spent yesterday earning my keep to pay or this trip by delivering comms training at Diageo - a long day, but also very good fun.

My best memory of the last couple of days is an odd one. The train failed just before arriving at Stamford, leaving us in the dark without power. The driver came on the PA and said: "I don't really know what's wrong, but I'm going to turn everything off and on again and try and reboot the engine." It worked: it nearly always does...IT, trains...who knows what else.      

Monday, 4 March 2013

USA Diary - Day 2 - A great day in 'the bubble'

Today was one of those research days that I wish happened far more often. I knew what I wanted; had some fantastic help in finding it - and picked up a few bonuses along the way too.

Still being largely on UK time, I was wide awake at 5am this morning. In fact, I hadn't really slept well at all last night. The room was really cold, infused with orange light from the street - and there were lights on in the house too, shining through the glass pane above my door. Anyway I was up and out by 6.40am and breakfasting in town by 7am. It all meant I arrived at NASA as soon as the doors opened, and was able to get through three thick public affairs files before lunch. As on my previous visits, Liz Suckow and Colin Fries were fantastic. They just know so much - and what they don't know, they know how to find - and quickly.

I spent lunch in the National Air and Space Museum - my irregular homage to the ballistic engineering and frontier technology that I still find so fascinating.

The afternoon was spent sifting through Bob Sherrod's files on the astronaut's Life magazine contract. Depending on which source you prefer, it was either the best or worst thing NASA did in the early days of the manned space programme. Even after eight hours of reading it up, down and sideways, I'm still not sure. I'll need to re-read and reflect to get my thoughts in order.

I had a final half hour in the library where the team had pulled a really helpful list of secondary source material for me including a couple of theses I'd never even heard of. I wish I had more time, but a bit of frantic photocopying definitely helped - and the new sources are a real bonus.

It has been a beautiful day here. Really cold, but wonderfully clear and blue. As is my wont, I walked everywhere, so even though it's just gone 7pm, I'm totally cream crackered now.

Anyway, National Archives in the morning, before the train journey to Connecticut.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

USA diary - day 1

It feels as if it should be really late. But looking at my watch, it's just past 8.20pm I'm writing this while fighting tiredness. I've spent much of the day travelling, and don't really want to fall asleep now and then be wide awake at 4am.

I'm back in Washington DC, with a day at NASA and a few hours at the National Archives researching ahead of me before I head north. I'm staying in a guest house north of Logan Circus; comfortable, quiet and not too expensive.

The flight out from London was blissfully uneventful - a half empty plane meant I managed to get a double seat to myself, and passed the time watching Argo (very good) and The Silver Linings Playbook (which had its moments).

All was plain sailing at Dulles and I was in a van ready to head to the city only 30 minutes after landing. Then it all went a little wrong - with a very surreal couple of hours ensuing. The van driver laboriously loaded all our zip codes into his sat nav and headed out of Dulles - only to stop on the hard shoulder a few minutes later to do it all over again. It was clear he didn't have a whole lot of English (it turned out he was from Cameroon) and became ever clearer that a) he had no idea where he was going and b) didn't know how to use the sat nav.

He came off the freeway very early and seemed to be heading on an aimless tour of the suburbs before pulling up at a bank way out west on Massachusetts Avenue....nowhere near where anyone was heading. My van-mates were an English woman, and guys from France, Spain and Israel respectively. Over the next hour and a half our  driver, who had been in the US for a month and had been given his sat nav (and job?) only the day before, managed to run several red lights, nearly run down at least one pedestrian and incur the ire of just about every other driver in DC. After a while he completely gave up on the sat nav and I directed him through the city (not hard, it's a grid) helped by two van mates whose French was better than mine. I was the last drop-off - and there were a lot of  á droite and á gauche before we finally reached the right(ish) road.

I'm flabbergasted this guy was let out on the road - seemingly untrained and definitely quite panicky as the journey started to go wrong. I don't blame him, but his employer - Supreme - are doing themselves no favours at all while putting travellers at real risk.

So my drive was an experience - but not one I care to repeat.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Reading around (and away from) the subject

One of my passions is reading. Another is 20th century history. So when the two come together, I'm hooked.

I've just finished reading HHhH, Laurent Binet's really rather excellent recounting of the plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the convener of the Wannsee Conference and a key player in the devising of the Final Solution. Last year I'd read Robert Gerwarth's scholarly account of the Acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia - Hitler's Hangman. It was a good solid read: lively for a scholarly work and strong on historical detail. But it had neither the edge not the cheek of Binet's work.

Binet gives us an historical narrative wrapped round with an intrusive first-person narrator (ostensibly the author) who tells the story of the plot while equally telling the story of how he is crafting his 'novel'. The energy is immense. His ability to pull the reader into the story shows a deft skill. And the fact that the work feels spontaneous is a testament to fine craftsmanship in what must have been a drawn-out and laboured process. HHhH is just very different from both historical accounts and novels covering well known events.

I really got on Binet's side in the book when he had a pop at Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. A few years ago this had been hailed as one of the most important first novels in the last 50 years. But, while it's clearly forensically researched, I never believed in Max Aue the novel's chief protagonist. There was something too modern; too clinical and too knowing about him. The accounts of the Einsatzgruppen activities of the first 200 pages are remorseless - and frankly, having got through four or five bedtimes with industrial killing perpetrated by a character I couldn't believe in, I laid the book to one side. Two years on, I still haven't picked it up again.

I'm a sucker for historical fiction that feels real but his an air of humanity. I grew up on John Le Carré. I still rush out and buy his new books as soon as they hit the shops - always in person, always hardback - but doubt anything will ever surpass the The Karla Trilogy: quite simply the British spy novel at its best. Le Carré surpasses the kind of genre fiction of the likes of David Downing with his Berlin Stations series, Tom Robb Smith's Child 44 books or even the early Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith (which rather lost its way in its latest manifestation). But in terms of both historic police procedurals and pre-war spies, I most definitely have my favourites.

Alan Furst's spy novels that revolve around Paris' fictional Brasserie Heininger Capture the spirit of the time: the menace just around the corner and the belief that things can't surely be as bad as they seem. He has woven a three dimensional map of European intrigue where characters cross each other's paths and interact with real events in a way that seems natural and unforced. Meanwhile, Philip Kerr's doing a pretty good job to humanise the Kripo with his Bernie Gunther police and gumshoe procedurals set across the Nazi era. Some work better than others - but he's never better than when he's dealing with the complex relationship between his 'anto hero' and Gunther's boss: one Reinhard Heydrich. And isn't that where I came in?