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7 October 2020

First Thoughts: All the president’s medics, and the reality of Patel’s dystopia

Donald Trump's medical army is a typically American projection of power. 

By Peter Wilby

When a British prime minister or monarch becomes sick, we get a few grudging, opaque statements from a faceless official spokesperson. When Donald Trump goes to hospital, a posse of white-coated medics emerges the next day with the latest news. Led by the president’s personal physician, Sean Conley, they comprised three specialists in pulmonary critical care and two in infectious diseases; one anaesthetist; one army and two navy nurses; and one clinical pharmacist. Apart from Conley, only the two pulmonary specialists spoke. The others remained silent.

Some may see this as an American commitment to transparency. I see it as a typically American projection of power. Look at me, the president seems to say, I command a veritable medical army before which even a lethal virus must tremble.

Silent sicknesses

Historically, the US was no more transparent than Britain about its leaders’ health. In 1893 President Grover Cleveland had surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his mouth; the public was told he had toothache. Both the British and US leaders, David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson, caught Spanish flu in 1918-19. Lloyd George needed a respirator, Wilson was violently sick. Officially, they had “a little chill” and a cold respectively. Later, Wilson suffered a paralysing stroke without voters knowing. During the Second World War, Churchill’s two bouts of pneumonia and Roosevelt’s heart disease were hushed up. So was Churchill’s stroke in 1953. Two years later, President Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack was a mere “a digestive upset”. And nobody knew about the chronic health conditions of John F Kennedy.

An elite columnist

Peregrine Worsthorne, who has died aged 96, was briefly the editor of the Sunday Telegraph and had little interest in news, and less in design and pictures. But as a columnist, he was peerless. Though he was a High Tory who believed in hereditary elites, his elegantly composed columns avoided the predictable and consensual. There was, as he put it, “no nook or cranny of Tory philosophy that I have not thoroughly explored” and he travelled in surprising directions, sometimes leftwards, to find new ideas. To some degree, I modelled my writing style on his. I often found myself in sympathy with him: on, for example, meritocracy, which I disliked on egalitarian grounds, he on the grounds that a traditional upper class, aware that it ruled by accident of birth, was better than a bourgeois class of upstarts that thought it deserved to rule. “The old Labour left and old Tory right,” he once wrote, “should make common cause to save the England that they both love, in their different fashions.”

Worsthorne’s journey

Worsthorne became an occasional NS contributor, writing one piece on nationalism, another on racism, explaining how his thinking and prejudices had evolved. It is impossible to imagine any current national newspaper columnist, except perhaps the Times’s Matthew Parris, doing anything similar. The hacks may change their minds, but without any sense of a journey, declaring one thing with utter conviction and then something quite different a while later. The most striking example is with another erstwhile Telegraph columnist, Boris Johnson, who declared his support for Brexit in 2016 without a hint that he had drafted another column arguing the exact opposite.

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Patel’s blue wall

In John Lanchester’s novel The Wall, Britain’s National Coastal Defence Structure, five metres high and three wide, stretches around the entire coast. Every young adult spends two years patrolling it, keeping out “Others” from a devastated world. If a patrol fails in this duty, its members are put to sea with minimal provisions and sent into exile.

Now Priti Patel’s Home Office, it is reported, has considered floating walls in the Channel to stop migrants crossing in small boats. We aren’t in Lanchester’s dystopia yet. But the author must be relieved he got his novel published and on to the Booker long list in 2019. If he’d waited much longer, it wouldn’t have counted as fiction. 

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid