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All the presidents who were men

  • Published at 08:14 am November 2nd, 2020
File photo: US President Donald Trump speaks during the third and final presidential debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, US, October 22, 2020 Reuters

Why should we care about the US election?

Four years ago this weekend, at a Deshi dawatI confidently made two predictions -- the one I got wrong, about the race to the White House, was met with a yawn, while the one about the Iron Throne: Well, I did explain how it was a show about Bangladesh, but that is for another time. 

With this year’s voting well under way, in another adda, a more fundamental question came up: Why do we care?

We being the more than 95% of humanity who are not American, of course. And the answer obviously reflects the fact that the United States remains, to use Madeline Albright’s words, “the indispensable nation.”  

For good or evil, what is done there affects us all. One doesn’t have to support hegemony to accept that reality. Indeed, denying it would be to behave like an ostrich. 

Alternative facts

“We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future” -- Secretary Albright went on to say in that 1998 interview. America surely stood tall when President James Marshall unequivocally stated that there would be no negotiation with terrorists, and backed it up with some serious actions, resulting in the iconic words: “Get off my plane!” 

And America stood tall when President Thomas J Whitmore thundered: “Today, we celebrate Independence Day.” And we listened earnestly to President Tom Beck’s awesomely seriously reassuring words: “Let us begin.”

Wait a minute, this isn’t real, you say?  Sure, but does it matter in a world where fact is fiction, and TV is reality? Wait, wait, wait -- didn’t Bono wail three decades before the era of alternative facts that he couldn’t tell the difference between ABC News and the Hill Street Blues

Outside it was America, of Ronald Reagan and Hollywood cowboys who retorted “yippee ki yay,” of thousand points of light for the homeless man -- the America that millions behind the iron curtain looked to for freedom.  

The Berlin Wall came down a generation ago. And a generation before that, President John F Kennedy inspired all free men by claiming to be a donut. And a generation before that, young Jack Kennedy tussled with Reinhard Heydrich to steal an Enigma machine on the order of President Roosevelt -- okay, that’s alternative facts as told by Francine Mathews

Our next imperial overlord

Lest you think otherwise, however, it wasn’t just in a moral sense that American presidents stood tall -- they stood erect in more sordid ways: President Allan Richmond was, for example, violent; both the incumbent and the successful challengers of the 1992 election inspired novels (adapted into great movies) in the form of Wag the Dog and Primary Colours.  

And then there was the scandal that led to the only American president to resign, despite having claimed that he was not a crook

So, as de facto subjects of the de facto American Empire, should we not have an interest in who our next imperial overlord will be? 

Then again, does it really matter?

In his book on the Bangladesh war, Garry J Bass convincingly portrays Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as hot-tempered, emotionally unstable men who let their racism -- “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country,” that is Nixon on India -- and misogyny -- Nixon refers to the Indian Prime Minister as “the old b*tch” -- guide their decisions.  

The then occupant of the White House comes off in Bass’ pages as every bit as vulgar and unhinged as its current resident, and Dr Strangelove pales in comparison to the supposed grandmaster of geopolitics when it comes to deranged counsel, leaving one to wonder whether the supposed glory days of the rules-based order of Pax Americana had really been all that it is made out to be?

Closer to our time, before America First, under two very different presidents with very different foreign policy philosophies, America invaded an Arab country without the support of most of its allies and killed its dictator, then reluctantly bombed another Arab country at the urging of its allies and armed the rebels that killed its dictator, and did nothing while a popular uprising against yet another dictator in another Arab country descended into one of the worst wars of this young century. 

It is not at all that clear whether US power made things better for the people of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. 

A different time

Back in the 1990s, however, none of these mattered to the pundits. For example, during the 1996 campaign, Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam informed us that the incumbent was too fat and the challenger was too old; and four years later they told us that one candidate was too dumb and the other was too boring. 

The 1990s truly was a different time, which ended as the planes crashed into the New York skyline one September morning. It was late evening where I lived, and on TV was The West Wing, where President Jeb Bartlet‘s men were negotiating education policy with Republicans.

The episode didn’t finish as the channel, like all others, switched to live from New York.  

What if … 

In a thought provoking article, Ezra Klein ponders what might have been had Al Gore won the 2000 election: Perhaps he would have used 9/11 to galvanize the world to act against climate change; or perhaps he would be blamed for failing to prevent the attack, and a President McCain would have made Dick Cheney look like a peacenik by turning to Tom Clancy’s fantasies as foreign policy doctrine.

The what if, and historical parallel, to ponder, however, is between Nixon and Gore -- both boring vice presidents to popular incumbents who lost to scions of political families. In both cases, the young presidents were tested by foreign crises, leaving the country stuck in unwinnable wars in distant lands. 

Nixon came back in 1968.  That is, not only did Hillary Clinton lose twice to rank political underdogs, but she might also have thwarted two vice presidents in the process.

Of course, 2008 was very much foretold in the last season of The West Wing: A three-way race between an establishment candidate, a smooth talker hurt by scandal, and the exciting challenger who wins the nomination and beats the maverick republican. 

The reality, however, might not have played out that way. In an early use of big data, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (then studying for a PhD at Harvard) found that continuing racial animus in the United States had cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the national popular vote in 2008, yielding his opponent the equivalent of a home-state advantage country-wide.

That is, if he was a white guy named, say, Joe, with an Irish surname, the democratic candidate might have won a historic landslide in 2008.  

I write this as my 10-year-old hosts a “Halloween hang out” with friends. He reminded me that The Simpsons predicted the current American president. One day, their prediction of a female president will also come true. But if next week a decent, sincere man with integrity and empathy wins, it will be a better world.

That, dear reader, is ultimately why we care about this election.

Jyoti Rahman is an applied macroeconomist. This article first appeared on www.jrahman.wordpress.com.

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