American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents - from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush

If you hate George W Bush and American neoconservatism, you will love this book. Taking Suetonius's Twelve Caesars for his template, the British historian Nigel Hamilton has written potted biographies of the 12 US presidents from 1933 to 2009, mostly with a pronounced anti-Republican bias. By the time he reaches "Dubbya", however, the bias has turned into what this reviewer considers to be a meaningless rant.

Greatness is accorded to Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy, with FDR rightly crowned as "the greatest Caesar of all". One might raise an eyebrow at Jimmy Carter being described as "the American Gandhi" who ran a stronger economy than his successor Ronald Reagan, or George Bush Sr being accused of having "made his pact with the Devil" in order to get elected, but none of the pen-portraits, not even those of Nixon and Reagan, comes close to the bile and loathing unleashed in the 41-page onslaught against the younger Bush.

Hamilton's distinguished life of Field Marshal Montgomery won the Whitbread Biography Award in 1981, but his descriptions of Bush, in my view, preclude him from being considered a serious commentator on contemporary American history. Casting historical objectivity aside, Hamilton describes Bush's "sneering contempt for those more intellectually gifted", and how he was "blinkered", "bewildered by adult life: spoiled, purposeless, self-destructive" and "ill-read to the point of near-illiteracy".

Bush's campaigning style was supposedly "cynical, relentlessly focused, manipulative, largely dishonest [and] negative" due to the baleful influence of Karl Rove, who is described as "short, ugly, prematurely balding and ambitious". Needless to say, all friends and supporters of Bush are written off as "cronies" or even, in Mafia terminology, as "capos".

Yet this portrait of Bush is backed up by next to no evidence. Virtually the only commentators quoted are Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke and Scott McClellan, all of whom were sacked by Bush or have fallen out with and written denunciations of him. Some of Hamilton's accusations contradict themselves. For example, he accuses Bush and Rove of "pillorying" John McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries. Yet, in the next paragraph but one, he quotes McCain's campaign director stating (correctly) that the smear campaign against his candidate was "usually anonymous", and thus it was impossible to blame it on Rove rather than fanatics in the blogosphere.

Hamilton also alleges that Rove was involved with the Swift Boat Veterans who questioned John Kerry's war record in Vietnam before the 2004 election, which Rove has strongly denied. And the idea that, after a "palace coup" in the White House, Bush "ceded control of economic policy" to Rove is ludicrous, as are Hamilton's remarks about the wholesale "moral depravity of Rove's huge team". Equally, the assertion that Rove "evaded justice" over the "Scooter" Libby scandal, in which a CIA agent's identity was leaked, ignores the years of intensive investigation by no less tenacious a prosecutor than Patrick Fitzgerald, which concluded that Rove had no case to answer.

Hamilton ascribes Bush's acquiescence to the secret service insistence that he not return to Washington immediately after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on 11 September 2001 to sheer "cowardice"; he also wrongly asserts that Dick Cheney, Bush's vice-president, "hid away" for weeks afterwards. He further accuses Bush and Cheney of "advocating something very close to treason" by promoting the invasion of Iraq, even though Bush gave the order to invade as commander-in-chief and both houses of Congress voted for the operation. The president's decision to go to war against Iraq was "infected" by "fevered madness".

The 11 September attacks "changed [Bush] into a buffoon", Hamilton asserts; Cheney wanted "a hopefully long and profitable war" because he "seemed mentally unbalanced". Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, is written off as "self-preening and arrogant", his deputy Paul Wolfowitz as "fanatical" and Condoleezza Rice as "incompetent". Furthermore, the administration's "illegal" attempts to intercept domestic communications under the Patriot Act smacked, the author believes, of "the KGB at its worst". And the war on terror, he concludes, "turned the US into a failed state", in which "Orwell's nightmare of 1984 had come true". If anyone has a "cartoon-like view" of the world, it is Hamilton, not Bush.

Bush received 14 standing ovations during his address to the joint session of Congress after the 11 September attacks, but Hamilton considers that, on this occasion, the president "seemed overexcited, or on mood-enhancing medication". Once again, he offers not a shred of evidence for such a serious allegation. As an objective analysis of what was really going on in Washington in 2001-2003, this is worthless, even for those who opposed the war, because it reduces political motives, whether misguided or not, to a series of unproven psychological disorders. As history - as opposed to mere polemic - this book is bunk.

The author falls for every conspiracy theory going, stating that, "with the president's approval, Cheney's office ordered the false authentication of suspect secret intelligence"; that the CIA knew for certain that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that Tony Blair was "Bush's poodle", rather than a true believer in the project from the start; and that "America", rather than a handful of renegade Appalachian warders, was responsible for the abuses of inmates at Abu Ghraib jail.

For all that he hubristically equates his book with those of Lytton Strachey and Suetonius, and for all that his biography of Monty was a first-class piece of work, Hamilton this time has allowed personal loathing to obliterate his historical judgement.

American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents - from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush
Nigel Hamilton
Bodley Head, 608pp, £25

Andrew Roberts's "The Storm of War: a New History of the Second World War" is newly published in paperback by Penguin (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.