Having been away at the weekend in a particularly beautiful corner of our green and pleasant land I didn't get a chance to write something about Friday night's extravaganza, and now that I do you're all sick of reading about it. But indulge me.
I can remember the moment when I first started to get excited about the opening ceremony. It was when Danny Boyle gave his first press conference on it, a couple of months ago. It wasn't so much the themes or ideas he presented - the meadow and so on - as what he said. He said (something to the effect of), "We hope it's going to an amazing show." Then, with a grin, "Though of course, it could be disastrous." Ah, I thought. This is going to be interesting.
The only way that anyone gets anything brilliant done is by being utterly prepared to fail utterly. Try too hard to eliminate the possibility of ignominy and you end up with - at best - the mediocre.
Seb Coe and LOCOG faced up to the possibility of grand failure when they hired Boyle, rather than appointing someone with lower status or less creative zeal. The safe option would have been a former Disney executive, content to be the tool of various political interests rather than actually imposing a creative vision on the event. LOCOG deserve great credit for their boldness.
As does Boyle, of course. But then, he is nothing if not bold. When you look at his career, what strikes you is its almost reckless bravery. Take Edinburgh's heroin subculture and turn it into comedy? Sure. Use Mumbai's poverty-stricken slums as the backdrop to sexy, splashy love story? Sure. Reinvent Frankenstein for the stage? Sure, why not? Where others qualify, quail and fudge, Boyle goes for it. His defining artistic virtue is that he is not afeard.
And as the quotation he chose to open proceedings implies, what Boyle produced on Friday night was not just the result of fearlessness, it was also a tribute to it.
Four years ago, after Beijing staged the opening ceremony to end all opening ceremonies, there was, in Britain, a collective sucking-in of breath and shaking of heads. "We'll never match that," people said. Of course, they were right in a way. Beijing was the culmination and zenith of a particular approach to opening ceremonies, in which nations attempt to present tightly controlled, official versions of their identity and history, and to impress - even intimidate - with quasi-military displays of regimentation. If London had tried to match Beijing's astonishing feats of coordinated human endeavour, it would have come off badly. But that was never going to be our forte anyway; it wouldn't have been true to who we are.
Instead, London did something different, which exposed the weaknesses of the Beijing approach, and - ultimately - the drawbacks of autocracy. It introduced humour, irreverence, and self-deprecation. It celebrated physical inadequacy as well as athletic endeavour. It allowed the Sex Pistols and the Queen to co-exist. It presented a nation made up of lots of (often competing) stories, rather than just one (the BBC's brilliant camera work, under Boyle's direction, emphasised this, giving us an individual, on-the-ground perspective, and keeping the bird's eye macro-shots to a minimum). It said, it's OK to be disabled or eccentric or angry or slightly nuts. You won't be excluded from polite society.
Ultimately, Friday night was about what it's like to live in a country that has maintained freedom of expression for a thousand years or so. It's unpredictable, messy, and somewhat confusing. It can be scary if you're in charge, because you never quite know what's going to happen next or who is going to be upset by it or whether your authority will be undermined. But the point is to be confident that it will work out - to not be afraid.
One of my favourite moments (among many) was The Arctic Monkeys doing "Come Together". Like John Lennon (the ghost of whom was summoned by Alex Turner) the subject of the song is irredeemably individual. He's long-haired and shoeshineless, and perhaps, being bereft of religion or official ideology, somewhat confused. He doesn't really know anything except this: one thing I can tell you is you got to be free.
It could have been disastrous, and that's what made it a success. I expect it did all look a little mad to the eyes of the world. But then, to adapt the words of another of the night's stars, Dizzee Rascal: "People say we're bonkers, but we just think we're free."
Douchebag. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty
Mitt Romney just isn't cut out for politics. I can only think that when he gave that interview to Brian Williams he had totally forgotten he was a candidate for president and imagined he was just a guy who ran an Olympic event once (though as David Cameron pointed out rather tartly yesterday, that one was in the middle of nowhere, and thus something of a doddle compared to ours). Still, the sheer, tin-eared, granite-eared level of insensitivity you need to say something like that at this moment...extraordinary. But that's Mittens. There will be plenty more of his malfunctions to look forward to this election season.
From the point of view of Seb Coe and co., Romney's foot-shot was perfectly timed. Suddenly, our poor indigenous moaners had all the air sucked away from them. Nobody wants to be associated with an American's criticism. (It reminded me of the last-minute boost to British support for the Iraq war created by France's stubborn opposition to it). Nothing brings the British together more than a foreigner doing what only we're allowed to do: have a moan about Britain.
Romney did, however, give Boris Johnson some ammunition to fire over the crowd at Hyde Park, who loved every second of the mayor's barnstorming speech. That was quite something in itself. Big aryan hair, a rabble-rousing speech, burning torches, chanting, and some rather good jokes. It was a very English version of Nuremberg.
Presumably, the Labour leader's handlers arranged this photo op, what with the Olympics nearly upon us and the perennial requirement for political leaders to be seen as dynamic and virile. But the gap between idea and reality can be a right bummer, as T.S Eliot once said.
Actually this snap may flatter Ed. I speak as one who has actually seen him running. It was a striking and memorable sight. Several years ago I was strolling down a hill leading to Wembley stadium, where U2 were playing a concert, when Ed hurtled past, perhaps late for some pre-gig hospitality or - who knows? - eager to secure a place at the front. Although he was clearly moving forward, every part of his body seemed to be moving on its own trajectory. It was as if his limbs had been gathered up separately and hurled down the hill.
The sad truth is that Ed Miliband, like many of us, was born to walk.
The Obama campaign's focus on Mitt Romney's time at Bain has been successful in one regard: they have kept the media's attention on that story for a few weeks. But there's no evidence, yet, that it's changed voters' minds. The polls continue to show a very close race, with Obama very slightly in the lead. Romney's ratings have shown no significant deterioration, nationally or (as far as I'm aware) in battleground states, where Obama's attack ads have been running day and night.
The Democrats may argue that such things take time to feed through to voters' perceptions. They may also believe that they are neutralising Romney's business background, turning a potentially winning issue for him into a draw.
There's another possibility, though, more worrying from their point of view: that the net effect of all this attention on Romney's track record is to inform voters who haven't been paying attention of one salient fact about the Republican candidate: he's a businessman. And hey, isn't a business guy just what we need right now?
That might explain why a new poll shows Romney with "a significant edge" over Obama when it comes to managing the economy. Given that economic competence is likely to be the most important factor in determining the identity of November's victor, that is quite alarming for the Democrats.
(Photo: White House/Pete Souza)
Jonathan Powell's book on Northern Ireland also features the occasional cameo from Bill Clinton, who showed an impressive commitment to the process throughout. In the crucial final 24 hours before the Good Friday agreement Clinton was on the phone to both sides, encouraging and reassuring. From the book:
For good measure Tony phoned President Clinton and asked him to call Adams. At the time we thought Clinton had called Adams once, but it turns out from Adams's memoirs that he in fact called him three times - at 1am, 2.30 and 4.45. The President stayed up all night following what was going on in the negotiations and talking to George Mitchell, and, if Adams's account is to be believed, called Adams to shoot the breeze, rather than to put pressure on him.
Which was, of course, exactly the right way to play it at that point. What you get above all from Powell's account of these negotiations is how much great political agreements can depend on the ebb and flow of emotion - on insecurities and grudges and night fears; the many vulnerabilities to which egos, even or especially those of politicians, are subject.
Would Obama have been much use in similar circumstances? I doubt it. Not because his intentions aren't good or his grasp of complex issues insufficient, but because he doesn't do people in the way that Clinton did. He's not really interested in the arts of personal persuasion.
I thought of this when I read the latest column by Peggy Noonan, Obama's most eloquent and devastating critic amongst the commentariat. She has this to say about the painful fiscal decisions that the winner of November's election will have to confront:
The next president will have to wrangle with Congress, and when lawmakers balk, he'll have to go over their heads and tell the American people the plan, the reasons it will work, and why it's fair and good. He'll have to get them to tell their congressmen, by phone calls and mail and by collaring them in the neighborhood and at the town hall, to back the president...The members go to the speaker, and suddenly the speaker is knocking back a drink with the president, and in the end a deal gets made. Things get pushed inch by inch toward progress, and suddenly there's a sense things can work again...
Anyway, the next president will have to do that sort of thing, and it will take deep political gifts. We have not seen that genius in Mr. Obama. Whether you will vote for him or not, you know you haven't seen it. He seems to view politics as his weary duty, something he had to do on his way to greatness.
I think this is funny - 'weary duty' - because it's true. Obama does seem to have a distaste for politics, or politicking. He stands aloof from Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. He doesn't do social calls or backroom wrangling. He doesn't enjoy rounds of golf with his opponents or indeed with members of his own side; he doesn't invite congressmen round for drinks or phone them at midnight or take their calls at 2am. Hell, he has Biden for that.
But people skills are most valuable in a leader when politics is polarised, as it is now. LBJ's feat of getting civil rights legislation through a Congress which was in substantial part fiercely opposed to it was a triumph of the kind of relentless, personalised persuasion that Blair and Clinton practiced during the Irish peace process (to read Clinton paying tribute to Johnson's genius in this regard, read this).
Politics, especially at these crunch points, isn't just about policy positions, but the messier business of psychology. It's fine to talk about bringing people together in the abstract. But the reality of doing so involves the kind of dirty work that Obama has shown himself so far unwilling or unable to carry out.
The same applies to appeals to voters. Obama likes the big set-piece speech. But every policy he has backed, from the stimulus to healthcare, has declined in popularity the more speeches he made about it. His speeches explain things very well, very precisely. But they don't change minds.
This, it turns out, was the big hole in Obama's campaign rhetoric of unification, of bringing red and blue together. He spoke about it eloquently, but he was never going to a be the president who put it into action. Obama is a preacher, not a persuader. He's terrific if you already agree with him, but doesn't have much impact on those who don't.
Peggy Noonan, it should be said, has no faith that Mitt Romney is the man for the moment either. She is concerned that as America steams towards its fiscal iceberg, there is no political genius on his way to the bridge, ready to help the nation's polity navigate around it. It's hard to disagree.
Photograph: Oliver Lang/AFP/Getty Images
The news that Marissa Mayer has been hired as CEO of Yahoo is exciting for a number of reasons. First, she's a high-profile, charismatic figure who will inject some much needed dynamism into a moribund brand. Second, she's a woman and there aren't enough of those running big companies, especially in the tech sector. Third, and relatedly, she's pregnant, which indicates a far-sighted approach on the part of Yahoo's board (and perhaps a dab of desperation - they are lucky to land her).
Having said that, I think she'll fail to make much of an impact on this youthful dinosaur. I have a Yahoo email account, having signed up for one not long after the birth of email, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. That means I spend quite a lot of time with Yahoo - albeit as little as I can these days. Over the years I've seen its pages and services degenerate from simple and useful to grotesquely over-complicated, ugly, and low-rent. Its email is full of useless 'social' features that nobody uses and serve only to annoy and confuse. The amount of clutter is epic. Any idiot - even me - can see how awful it is. Yet nothing is done about it.
Yahoo's interface is the manifestation of a company that clearly has too many product people and mid-level marketeers pushing their own pet projects, with nobody responsible for the whole - for the overall user experience. That's why this worries me:
“Yahoo finally has someone who has both business acumen and geek cred at the helm,” said Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist, who previously worked with Ms. Mayer at Google. “She stands for a work hard/play hard, product- and engineering-driven culture, and Yahoo has been missing that for years.”
Well I'm no expert, but I suspect that 'geek cred' is not the most important thing Yahoo has been missing. It doesn't need more of an engineering-driven culture; it needs a user-driven culture. (As for business acumen, there's no evidence that Mayer has that - she's an engineer and a great spokesperson, but hasn't been implementing Google's business strategy.)
What Yahoo has been missing is a Steve Jobs figure: someone who focuses relentlessly on what the people who use the company's products actually experience. Someone with enough hinterland to understand that most people don't think like engineers, and who has enough conviction to say "no" to the geeks.
UPDATE: OK, maybe - misled by that VC quote - I got Mayer wrong. Here's the excellent Farhad Manjoo:
Mayer’s most prominent role [at Google] was as the czar of the firm’s user experience—for most of the company’s history, decisions regarding Google’s Web design flowed through her... At Yahoo, Mayer won’t be able to rely on data to come up with the next big thing. But that gets to her big strength: More than any other tech executive, she is an enthusiastic, shameless consumer, the sort of person who can easily identify with what regular people, not software engineers or media execs, want from the Web. When you ask other Googlers to talk about her strengths, you’ll always hear some version of, “Marissa is the voice of the user.” That’s a perspective that Yahoo has long been missing.
Having said that I tend to agree with Manjoo that whatever her strengths, Yahoo will prove impossible to turn around.
Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher shaking hands after signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement on November 15 1985. Photo: AP.
I'm reading Great Hatred, Little Room, a detailed account of the successful Northern Ireland peace negotiations, written by one of their chief protagonists, Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff.
If you like that kind of thing, it's a great read, and apart from anything else I'm finding it a useful primer on the history of the Troubles and the politics of the region.
It contains some great little vignettes, like this one, a useful antidote to all those stories about how Margaret Thatcher was superhuman because she only needed two hours' sleep a night or whatever. Yes, she was clearly exceptionally energetic, but even the Iron Lady was prone to napping:
One one memorable occasion, at a meeting with [Irish PM Garret] FitzGerald after a particularly long and tiresome EC meeting, Thatcher fell fast asleep soon after sitting down with him. Fitzgerald looked at my brother Charles Powell, Thatcher's foreign policy aide, to ask what they should do. Charles suggested that FitzGerald carry on making all the points he had intended to make and Charles would dutifully note them down. They could then wake her up to agree the joint press statement. To their credit neither FitzGerald nor the Irish Cabinet Secretary Dermot Nally who was with him seemed to mind, and as they finished the meeting Thatcher woke up and asked to be briefed on what they had agreed.
I also enjoyed this anecdote from the Major years:
He [Major] had a difficult meeting with Ian Paisley in No.10 immediately after the ceasefire. They saw each other in the Cabinet Room, which Major used as his office, and Paisley was at his hectoring worst, accusing Major of lying about a secret agreement with the IRA. When he wouldn't withdraw the accusation, Major stormed out of the meeting, but was left in the awkward position of Paisley still occupying his office and refusing to leave. The moral of the story is: never storm out of a meeting in your own office.
Mitt knows how to enjoy himself. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP. More Romney vacation photos here.)
I've been unsure of whether or not this is the right strategy - sometimes, voters decide to elect bastards as long as they think they'll get the job done. I've always thought that Romney's biggest vulnerability is his record of flip-flopping. Even in comparison to his peers, this is a politician of unusually little conviction or consistency. It shouldn't be difficult to make him look shifty and weak.
But by drilling away at Romney's Bain record, the Obama campaign has struck oil. Somehow - and with the unwitting collusion of a surprisingly hapless Romney operation - they have come upon a way of making Romney look heartless and weak.
The Democrats have zeroed in on the three years from 1999 after Romney left Massachusetts, where he had been running Bain Capital, to take over the Winter Olympics in Utah. After making a success of the Olympics, Romney returned to Massachusetts to run for governor, and was forced by opponents questioning his eligibility as a candidate to make the case that he had never really left Massachusetts, or Bain, at all.
Now, those three years are at issue again, but this time the positions are reversed. Obama and the Democrats are pointing to a series of controversial decisions made by Bain during those three years, involving outsourcing and mass layoffs, and attempting to pin them on Romney, while Romney's people are arguing that he had effectively retired by that stage. As you can see, things are getting rather complicated. Here's a Romney spokesperson attempting to clarify:
"There may have been a thought at the time that it could be part time, but it was not part time," Gillespie said. "He took a leave of absence and in fact he ended up not going back at all, and retired retroactively to 1999 as a result," he added.
So, that's clear then.
You just know that when a campaign has to invent concepts like "retroactive retirement", they are in big trouble. As Josh Marshall says, Romney is looking ridiculous, which is lethal for presidential candidates.
The public won't follow the details of this debate. But the overall impression it creates is of a man uncomfortable with his own past and unable or unwilling to come clean about it. In the words of David Frum, "this is not what a president looks like."
NYT report on Romney and Bain here.
This really is the chip that breaks the camel's back, or something.
I'm not against sponsorship of the Games on principle, and as someone who has worked in advertising, I can understand where the sponsors like McDonald's are coming from. They are laying out huge sums of money at the invitation of the government - thus making the Games possible - and they want, reasonably enough, to ensure that they get bang for their buck.
As someone who is generally positive about the Olympics coming to London, I'm also inclined to be sympathetic to LOCOG's (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) travails, as it tries to stage the world's biggest sporting event on the terms the government has set for it.
But this - this is just abject. LOCOG could easily have drafted a contract that allowed for independent caterers to serve chips if they wanted to. McDonald's might not have been thrilled about that, but I suspect they wouldn't have too bothered either. To state the obvious, McDonald's is not sponsoring the Olympics so that it can sell some more chips in the Olympic Park. It is sponsoring the Olympics so that its brand is associated with the biggest sporting event on the planet. Its audience is global. The number of fries sold in Stratford during July will not be a key measure of success.
The chips memo, of course, is just one example of private companies exerting overweening power over an event that is meant to be for the public. Every one of these stories undermines the spirit of the Games. And although the government and LOCOG would like to present themselves as hard-headed realists in this debate, it's them who have been and are being naive.
Companies like McDonald's do sponsorship deals all the time. They're very good at negotiating them. But this isn't just any old sponsorship deal. It's a massively important public event, in which it's a privilege - for spectators, athletes and sponsors - to participate. Every potential sponsor should have been made very strongly aware of that from the outset.
In other words, if LOCOG had been stronger negotiators - if they had been more confident in what they had to offer to sponsors - the Olympics, for God's sake - then the balance of power would be more even and we would be reading fewer of these depressing stories.
Everyone has the right to work in a non-abusive environment. So why are the Olympic authorities allowing the Games' sponsors to abuse their power like this?
LIke most Americans, the Romneys like to have fun on vacation in their $60k speedboat.
(btw - Ann and Michelle - arms race?)
The presidential race hasn't really got going and is unlikely to until the conventions at the end of the summer. But a fierce battle is going on just beneath the surface, focused in swing states and occasionally erupting into the national conversation. Both candidates are attempting to win the election before the election campaign really starts. But it's the Obama campaign that is making the early running.
The basic dynamic of this election goes like this: Obama wants to define Romney as Gordon Gekko, while Romney wants to define Obama as Jimmy Carter. The Obama people think their best hope is to make voters think of Romney as the kind of guy who is more likely to fire you than get you a job. The Romney people want voters to think that the man in the Oval Office is asleep at the wheel.
Obama is currently spending more than Romney. Voters in swing states can't switch the TV on without hearing about how rich Romney is, how many layoffs he forced through when he was head of Bain Capital, and how many jobs he outsourced.
This won't necessarily work. Voters tend to think, rightly or wrongly, that if a guy's made a lot of money, then he's probably quite smart. They may also think that if Romney's a ruthless bastard - well, that's what the country needs.
But it will work if the Romney campaign doesn't change tack. So far, it has been concentrating the poor state of the economy, day-in, day-out, attempting to fix the sense of national stagnation firmly to the president. That's understandable: we all recall James Carville's famously simple winning strategy for Bill Clinton in 1992.
But as Charlie Cook - veteran political commentator and toupee-wearer - points out, it's not enough to persuade voters to fire a president - you also have to persuade them to hire you. Romney hasn't communicated a clear plan of his own for the economy, other than a vague sense that he would "fix it" in the way he used to fix failing companies. If the Obama campaign succeed in damaging his business credibility, then he really has nothing left.
The other problem with Romney's strategy is that it misinterprets the significance of Carville's Law. Bill Clinton's campaign may have focused on its economic message, but there were three big differences with Romney.
One, Clinton had a clear economic plan, rooted in a coherent theory of America's problems - and of course, he was a master at communicating that plan in a way that connected with voters.
Two, Clinton had more than an economic message. As William Kristol (!) points out, Clinton was a "full-spectrum" candidate, with detailed policy proposals on everything from education to healthcare. Voters may not have known the details or agreed with the policies, but they got a clear sense that here was a man who had spent a long time thinking about what he wanted to do as president.
Three, Clinton was a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood personality. Yes, there was a little too much flesh and yes, he wasn't to everyone's taste. But by the end of that extraordinary primary campaign, voters felt they knew him pretty well.
The same can't be said of Romney. Voters can't see beneath the sculpted hairdo and robo-pol grin. Furthermore, whatever Obama's weaknesses, a big strength of his is likeability. A new poll contains an extraordinary statistic: even one-third of voters backing Romney consider the president to be the more likable of the two.
This isn't necessarily a fatal problem for Romney. In fact, you could say it's evidence he has room to grow as a candidate - voters just don't know him yet.
But his relentless focus on economic bad news isn't helping him. He needs to show voters that he's applying for President, not Trade Secretary.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” is the ringing phrase that opens the most famous sentence in the American Declaration of Independence, published on this day in 1776.
That wasn’t how it was first written, and I have long loved the story of how it came to be the way we know it today. It’s the supreme example of good editing, and a wonderful lesson in good writing.
The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, renowned then, as today, for the eloquence of his prose. But the person who turned its opening in something truly unforgettable was Jefferson’s fellow revolutionary (and my favourite Founding Father), Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson, a Franklin biographer, explains:
On June 21, after he had finished a draft and incorporated some changes from Adams, Jefferson had a copy delivered to Franklin…Franklin made only a few small changes, but one of them was resounding. Using heavy backslashes, he crossed out the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed it to read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Genius. By sweeping away those big, windy adjectives (‘sacred and undeniable’) and replacing them with the unadorned simplicity of ‘self-evident’, Franklin makes the phrase, and the sentence, a hundred times more powerful.
Good style is never a superficial matter, and beneath Franklin’s modification lay a whole philosophy, as Isaacson goes on to explain:
The concept of “self-evident” truths came…from the scientific determinism of Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. Hume had distinguished between “synthetic” truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia” ) and “analytic” truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition. (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees” or “All bachelors are unmarried.” ) When he chose the word “sacred,” Jefferson had suggested intentionally or unintentionally that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. By changing it to “self-evident,” Franklin made it an assertion of rationality.
Happy birthday America.
(Isaacson's biography available here.)
This is a picture of the American South, showing the 2008 presidential election results by county; red for Republican, blue for Democrat.
You'll notice that although it's mostly red, there's an inverted arc of blue that sweeps down from Virginia and the Carolinas in the east, to Arkansas and Mississippi in the west.
Now look at this:
This is a geological picture of the same area, showing Cretaceous rock formations - following the same path as the blue in the first picture - in green.
During the Cretaceous period, 139-65 million years ago, much of what is now the southern U.S was covered by shallow seas. That green path was where the coastline was. As a result of being bathed in fertile tropical waters for millions of years, massive chalk formations arose along that ancient coast.
When the seas withdrew, the chalk gave rise to well-drained and fecund soil along an arc which later became known as the Black Belt, originally because of the soil's dark rich colour, and later because it had such a high African-American population. One led to the other: the fertility of the soil made it exceptionally productive for cotton farmers, who required plenty of slaves to work the land for them.
African-Americans still make up over 50% of the population along the Black Belt. It has a distinct cultural and social identity; as the author of the wonderful post from which I'm borrowing points out, if you take two counties from either end of the belt you'll find that they have an extraordinary amount in common, from average household incomes, to place-names and pastimes.
Politics, too. Despite running through heavily Republican states, the counties along this band regularly elect Democrats. The Black Belt has become the Blue Belt.
I urge you to read the whole thing, over at Deep Sea News.