This will be the 16th consecutive Christmas and New Year I have spent in the United States. I will listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve – and to the bidding prayer for “the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed, the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children, and all who know not the loving kindness of the Lord” – and wonder why, as ever, a supposedly Christian America cannot show similar compassion for the poor and the helpless. “Tell the wimps to get a job,” is much more the spirit of President George W Bush’s America, as we approach his second term.
There are two images of him that I will remember most from this year. The first was a billboard above the I-4 motorway in Florida, showing Bush looking out beside four, huge words: “George Bush – Our Leader”. I’m told it was put there by a right-wing media group which endlessly lambasted John Kerry during the election. But it reminds me of a teenage visit I made to Albania, where I found the ludicrous dictator Enver Hoxha gazing imperiously out at the masses from every hill and mountain in the land.
The second is an image that came out of Bush’s visit earlier this month to the National Archives of Canada in Nova Scotia. The White House set up a photo opportunity for Bush in front of a lifesize photo of FDR and Churchill; the angle and lighting were such that it looked for all the world as though Bush was sitting with the two men (the third seat was occupied by Stalin in the original photo, but he was airbrushed out).
That Bush has the effrontery to see himself as “a war president” who is the rightful equal of two real war leaders demonstrates breathtaking ignorance of his own position in history. Yet Americans really do believe that they are currently “at war”, even though the US’s overseas excursion in Iraq simply does not impinge on the lives of the overwhelming majority. If I tell them that Nazi air raids killed 60,000 Britons, that everybody was subject to stringent food rationing and – to make it personal – that no fewer than 70 past and present boys from my school, Luton Grammar, perished in the Second World War, their eyes merely glaze over.
But then, just after the 11 September atrocities, Tony Blair proclaimed that “my father’s generation went through the Blitz . . . there was one country and one people which stood by us that time . . . That country was America.” If only America had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain during the Blitz, subsequent British history might have been very different. But if the two men are so ignorant of a war that cost 60 million lives not long before they were born, is it surprising that they should rush to war in Iraq with such insouciance?
I find myself scouring agony-aunt columns in newspapers these days, having come to see that they provide useful clues to how the country sees itself. That doyenne of agony aunts, Ann Landers, once told me that she received her record haul of letters on that most vexing of subjects, whether to hang toilet paper with the end hanging nearest the user or the wall. She and her twin sister, known as Abigail Van Buren, had a virtual monopoly on advice columns from the 1950s, until Landers’s death in 2002 at the age of 83. For much of their personal and professional lives, there was vicious rivalry between the two, with Landers believing that her sister had gone into the agony-aunt business purely to spite her.
That, I’m sure, says something. But it was a casual letter to “Dear Abby”, now written by Van Buren’s daughter, that caught my eye the other day. The stepmother of a nine-year-old was worried that the boy was “turning into a feminine little boy” who “knows all about girly products”. Abby tut-tutted and fretted over this, providing several possible solutions before finally offering her last resort: “Since he isn’t interested in the usual ‘boy things’, perhaps it’s time for you and your husband to expose the boy to art, music and dance.”
That encapsulates one of the things I find most depressing about this country – a pervasive belief that it is not normal for boys or men to be interested in the arts. I suspect that explains why America produces so few world-class musicians or artists and has such a barren cultural life: the arts are increasingly ghettoised as the province only of women and gay men. I don’t see this changing, either.
The same nihilistic principles prevail in politics wherever you look. Indeed, I have found that there are few spectacles in Washington as unedifying as the spectacle of an ungifted newcomer trying to make his name. Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, was sworn in last year to succeed the Democrat Paul Wellstone, one of the few genuinely left-wing politicians in America until his life was cut short in a plane crash in 2002. Norm, 55, has used his chairmanship of an obscure Senate subcommittee to tap into an ugly vein that has developed here in the past two months: a swelling, McCarthyite hatred for the UN and its secretary-general, Kofi Annan.
The pretext is the so-called “oil-for-food scandal”. It is astonishing to see how easily a highly experienced and principled international diplomat can be reduced in the American mind to a conniving, filthy African on the make, worthy only of the contempt of all good Americans. Few in the US meanwhile are aware of the role of their own country, in both the private and governmental spheres, in the UN oil-for-food programme.
But Norm has appeared on countless television screens to call for the resignation of Annan, with President Bush weighing in to ask for “the full disclosure of facts”. Americans cannot bear the notion of any non-American who is not beholden to the US, or who voices disapproval of US foreign policy.
I always like pointing out to Americans that the most power- ful and influential member of the UN is – America itself. But amoral ego usually wins in Washington, and I suspect we have not heard the last of Norm. Annan has more principles in his little finger than the likes of Norm have in their entire bodies, but that doesn’t mean that the good and the right will win in this coming year and beyond.
And so we move on to 2005. I will miss a dramatic voice booming “Darling!” to me down the transatlantic phone line in the New Year, when Cristina Odone finally leaves the New Statesman. I knew Cristina in a previous life, before she was famous, in Washington, DC – but wild horses will not persuade me to say more about what she used to get up to in those days. Her six years at the NS have coincided with mine, and I can attest to what Peter Wilby, the editor, has already said: that her departure as deputy editor is universally mourned. To Cristina and all who are kind enough to read what I have to say: Happy Christmas.