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.