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American psychos

Tibor Fischer review’s Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump by Andrew Gimson

They seem to be a tougher species, or at least more ostentatiously robust than our prime ministers. Theodore Roosevelt regarded getting shot as a “trade risk”. Andrew Jackson went out of his way to get shot and to personally shoot people. Grover Cleveland sidelined as an executioner.

Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump by Andrew Gimson, Sqaure Peg, £10.99

Andrew Gimson has written one of the best primers (if not the best) on British premiers in Gimson’s Prime Ministers and has now applied the same witty and succinct treatment to American politicians in Gimson’s Presidents, again with some splendid caricatures by Martin Rowson.

Are there underlying patterns in American political history? Is there a formula for becoming president? One thing that leaps out from Gimson’s research is that almost nothing has changed over the centuries. Do you find the current array of presidential wannabes in the forthcoming elections lacklustre or depressing? So did de Tocqueville, visiting the US in 1831. He was perplexed that such an impressive country with so many talented individuals had such duds for politicians.

George Washington is perhaps the most American of American icons, ahead of Superman, Mickey Mouse and John Wayne. So it’s very easy to overlook, as Gimson observes, that he was essentially an English country gentleman, a stickler for etiquette with a disdain for politics, a more restrained version of Oliver Cromwell.

Gimson also demonstrates how the Founding Fathers were almost as busy fighting each other as the British. Loyalty and courtesy have always been in short supply in politics. It is also hilarious that so many of the individuals who were so fervent, so self-sacrificing in the fight for liberty and so eloquent in their paeans in praise of it, were slave-owners. Gimson also unearths amusing peculiarities such as James Monroe, the fifth president, being a Virginian like three of his predecessors, but the first not to marry a widow.

After the revolutionary era there’s a run of lesser-known and less colourful presidents such as John Tyler. He nevertheless received a good write-up from Charles Dickens (who also despaired at the venomous quality of American political life). Abraham Lincoln is the next president most British readers will be familiar with. I have always been slightly puzzled by Lincoln’s reputation for greatness. He didn’t want a war and he didn’t fight it to win freedom for the slaves. I’m probably on my own in this, but I’ve never found the Gettysburg Address so mesmerising. “Four score and seven years ago”? Do you mean 87?

Like a later assassinated president he was succeeded by a Johnson, and then by Ulysses S. Grant, who was a formidable battlefield commander but completely at sea in the oval office.

The lesson that every president has to learn is that you may be called the most powerful man in the world but, as Obama and many others have bemoaned, it’s very hard to actually do anything. While acknowledging that Donald Trump has sweated in an attempt to deliver on his campaign promises, Gimson gleefully highlights the absence of a wall financed by Mexico. Presidents are still in a similar position to that of kings of yore: you might be at the top but you need to keep most of the barons sweet.

The presidents of our era make for less illuminating or surprising reading. Gimson is a little hard on George Bush senior, I felt. A kind man, he only made one serious error of judgment, halting the successful Gulf War a week too early before Saddam Hussein was brought down.

Gimson has little to say about Obama (which in a way is telling) but does have a good personal anecdote about briefly meeting him. Does Trump need any elucidation? Gimson refers to Trump as a “bullshitter”, which, to me at least, suggests someone not serious, a lightweight. I’d propose instead “bulldozer”, because Trump is close to being an anarchist or a punk provocateur. Whatever his attention span or well-attested lack of culture and knowledge, he knows exactly what he’s doing as he smashes through convention or accepted wisdom. He’s the very personification of the Wildean notion that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Americans have a fondness for the new: Carter, Clinton, Obama, Trump all appeared suddenly on the big stage of presidential jousting. My guess is that the only candidate who can take on Trump is Pete Buttigieg, precisely because he is the perfect anti-Trump. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that he’d be a perfect or even competent president). The next, revised edition of Gimson’s Presidents will give us the answer. I look forward to it.

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