In The Critics this week

David Runciman on Kennedy's last 100 days, Rachel Bowlby on the changing nature of parenthood and Rachel Cooke on the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe.

To kick-start this week’s Critics section is a review to complement our "What if JFK had lived?" cover of two new books about the assissinated president. Political scientist David Runciman begins by commenting on the role luck plays in determining a politician’s legacy: “Luck plays a big part in presidents' reputations – and not just in terms of what happens while they are in office (wars give presidents a boost; financial crises don’t).” He then contrasts the way Lyndon B. Johnson struck gold, while Kennedy’s office was unfortunately placed in times less conducive to political success. As a result, Runciman writes, Kennedy is remembered as “the crowd-pleasing playboy president” who was “brave, attractive and ambitious” but “ultimately ineffectual.”

Runciman then begins a diatribe against Jeffrey Sachs’ To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace arguing that “Sachs is an economist, not a historian”. Runciman criticises two assumptions he believes the book rests on: firstly the idea that “treaties matter” and secondly, more dubiously, the idea that “speeches actually matter”. With reference to Kennedy’s “Peace Speech” of June 1963, he berates Sachs for devoting “too much of his book to analysing Kennedy’s rhetoric line by line talking up its logic, its beauty and its power to move.” Runciman deals the final blow by saying “he provides no evidence that it made the vital difference, beyond how it stirred him as a boy and stirs him still.” His damning indictment of Sachs’ argument draws to a close with the phrase “Sachs is surely right that the world needs another prod in the direction of justice. But the early-1960s oratory without the early-1960s context isn’t going to do it.”

The Cambridge don then moves onto Clarke’s account of Kennedy’s final 100 days in office (JFK's Last Hundred Days: an Intimate Portrait of a Great President), which he says is, when compared to Sachs’ account, a "warts-and-all" portrait. That said, Clarke is still too optimistic about Kennedy’s potential for Runciman’s liking: he argues that it is rare for presidents to achieve in their second-term what they failed to in their first. He goes on: “Kennedy kept talking up what he was going to do – “after 1964” became his mantra in 1963 – but he was also an inveterate ditherer who made sure there was always a get-out clause.” Ending on a realistic note, Runciman finishes with the statement: “Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, like most of the others.”

Second up we have Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, one half of the Vagenda, reviewing Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book Pink Sari Revolution: a Tale of Women and Power in the Badlands of India. Cosslett first describes the media storm created by a young female student’s gang rape in India late last year. The coverage entailed a swift arrest of the alleged perpetrators, who were eventually charged for their atrocious crimes (the girl later died from her injuries in hospital). However, as Cosslett identifies, this is not standard practice for the justice system in India, which is often rife with police corruption, victim-blaming and incredibly intrusive crime-confirmation procedures. Cosslett praises Fontanella-Khan’s book for conveying “not only the sense of injustice felt by these often-abused women, who live in the poorest of regions, but also their will to make things better by fighting, sometimes literally, to be heard.” The book follows Sampat Pal Devi, leader of the Gulabi “Pink” Gang and their struggle for women's empancipation in India. Cosslett concludes that “by the end of the book, it is difficult to view Sampat and her followers as anything less than superheroic”.

Our Critic At Large this week is Rachel Bowlby, author of A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories. In “Birth Stories” she looks at the changing nature of parenthood, arguing that “over the course of the 20th century, having children became, in most western cultures, more of an active choice than a post-marital expectation.” Bowlby traverses the various new types of parenthood: gay parenthood, single parenthood, step parenthood and argues that there are now multiple interpretations of what exactly “biological parenthood” means. She explores the debates about what forms a “biological connection” between parent and child can take and concludes that “there are many more parental narratives to be told or discovered.”

Finally, Rachel Cooke reviews Channel 4’s latest four-part crime drama Southcliffe. She begins by agreeing that the drama about a murderer who kills 15 people in a small market town ticks all of the boxes and that over at Bafta HQ in Piccadilly ears will certainly be pricking up. Cooke, however, feels that Southcliffe is somewhat far-fetched and potentially “emotionally overloaded”. She concedes that it has certain plus points: the script has some “decent lines, the kind you notice and turn over in your mind afterwards” such as “I feel like a dead pigeon”, said by the murderer’s mother to her son. The criticism finally ends as Cooke decides that “Durkin certainly has an eye for an interesting horizon, for strange weather, for peeling clapboard – but I’m afraid that I don’t buy it at all as the work of art it clearly longs to be. Art simply isn’t this brutal, this laboured, this insistently pedantic.”

In The Critics this week - Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book “Pink Sari Revolution". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.