If Alistair Cooke reported the Obamacare standoff: “A real shutdown… not really!”

Alistair CookeThere are voices from history that cannot be forgotten. Among them is that of Alistair Cooke, a Brit who understood America like no other.

There are times when I really miss Alistair. He had a unique ability to explain to us the seemingly bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible machinations of American politics and government.

Of course, he spoke of much more than politics in his Letter from America broadcasts. His tale of Gershwin and Russian immigration still gives me goose bumps. His lament on the closure of Woolworths captured the aspirations of a generation. He even managed to make golf sound entertaining, even vaguely important.

Many of Cooke’s political pieces are also unsurpassed. I remember sitting in a squalid bedsit in Fulham in 1974, listening in thrall to his account of the events leading to Nixon’s resignation just hours after we had learnt of the news in the Evening Standard. Five words of that broadcast – “and the rest you know” – have gone down in radio history, not least because of Cooke’s own account of how they came about.

Obama is in a standoff with Congress. Much of the federal government has shutdown, with many workers on “furlough”. The battle began over the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – which Republicans want delayed and changed. Now that is almost paling into insignificance over the debt ceiling. If that is not raised, then there is a possibility of the government defaulting on its payments.

The political manoeuvres seem arcane. The very thought that political disputes could lead to the government world’s biggest economy defaulting is plainly absurd. Yet, so many aspects of American politics seem absurd. That’s why we needed Alistair Cooke and why I still miss his analysis.

So what might he have said if he had lived to cover the crisis over Obamacare? My guess is that he would take a very wry, even whimsical look at the politics works on Capitol Hill. He’d argue that this drama will not lead to a crisis.

Here are just a few extracts from his November 1995 Letter from America, in which he explained the background to the shutdown during Clinton’s administration:

Here’s a howdy do! Here’s a state of things, US government shuts down. Last Wednesday morning, you could see that headline everywhere on every sort of paper from the trashiest tabloid to what we used to call, the good grey New York Times and in every language from English – still the main language in most parts of the country – to Lithuanian, Yiddish and I suppose Cherokee Indian – the Cherokee Oklahoman is printed in that dialect, “Why was the government shut down?”…

Well only partially shutdown, what they call the ‘non essential’ services. If you’re going abroad and needed a passport you’d have to wait. Or the national parks, monuments and other tourist attractions, the Washington monument, Yosemite the Statue of Liberty was shut up or shutdown. The people doing all the paperwork in every department, except maybe the CIA, busy there in its huge secret building in Virginia, using its radar vision to spot spies or invent them…

So why do they [the politicians], did they, go on being so boringly self righteous? Because neither side dared say ‘we surrender’. That would mean either the president or the Dole Gingrich team could crow and declare it a great sign for 1996 when there is, they never forget for an instant a presidential election…

I said earlier that if you went behind or outside the television cameras and talked to only a few of the three quarter of a million federal workers who are workless at home… you’d have noticed an air of happy resignation before this national crisis. Something of the same mood was noticeable among the ordinary folk that you see and do business with everyday. It must be because most of them know and remember that this threat has happened nine times since the middle 1980s and four times the government has been shutdown, well partly, well for a day or two. A real shutdown… not really!

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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  • You won’t find any “air of happy resignation” in Washington today; the mood is actually quite sour.

  • daft ha'p'orth 4th Oct '13 - 10:27pm

    “I said earlier that if you went behind or outside the television cameras and talked to only a few of the three quarter of a million federal workers who are workless at home… you’d have noticed an air of happy resignation before this national crisis. Something of the same mood was noticeable among the ordinary folk that you see and do business with everyday. It must be because most of them know and remember that this threat has happened nine times since the middle 1980s and four times the government has been shutdown, well partly, well for a day or two. ”

    Oh yeah. I was in the US the day this happened and believe me, none of the national park workers I spoke to were particularly happy about it, as they locked the gates and shooed the tourists out of the parks where they’d planned (and paid) to spend their holidays. Nor were the TSA workers who, as they readily explained to us, were required to show up to work although there was no guarantee that they would ever receive any pay for doing so. Many people used the term ‘childish’ with reference to the situation.

    Maybe at one point this sort of thing was viewed as a bit of a joke, but I’m not convinced that many people are seeing the funny side this time around.

  • Patrick Smith 5th Oct '13 - 8:54am

    I think the wise Alistair Cooke would have said that it can be seen today, that the great ascendant star of democratic theory embodied in the first global `American Constitution’- written by a team of constitutional `wizz kids’ circa 1781(aka Washington,Madison and Jefferson)- has now succeeded in 2013, in bringing the government of the biggest Nation on Earth i.e. 300 m, to a standstill, by dint of that little know French political philosopher Baron De Montesquieu, who declared in his `Spirit of the Laws’ in the `Separation of Powers’ (1714) that the Executive,Legislature and Judiciary should function apart to protect the free citizen.

    This fact has yielded a good Liberal intentioned President powerless in the face of a hostile Congress.

    I support the immediate passage of Obama-Care as being long overdue as the worst off American families deserve this help and are those who do not have an enlightened template equivalent like the British National Health Service.

  • Simon Banks 5th Oct '13 - 10:24am

    Do Americans really spell “furlough” as “furlough”? I am disappointed. Shouldn’t it be “furlow”?

    Yes, the separation of powers is part of the problem. but non-separation of powers brings its own problems, notably excessive executive power. The American constitution worked pretty well for a long time and even the Civil War, while it painfully stressed one key ambiguity in the constitution, arguably also showed its strength as it continued to operate during a quite long and desperate war . The current crisis, of which the shutdown is only one example, is brought about not only by the separation of powers but also by the extreme polarisation of American politics: as late as the 1970s party groups hardly ever voted 100% one way on key divisive issue, the ranks of moderates and compromisers were well-filled and a President was recognised as worthy of respect in recognition of his office by at least some people who didn’t vote for him .

    This has happened party because of the deep cultural divides in America. The internet, on which it’s so easy to seek out like-minded zealots and screen out disturbing messages from non-believers, is partly to blame and Fox News has a lot to answer for, but a less-well-known guilty party is electoral gerrymandering approved by both parties, which has reduced the number of marginal seats in the House of Representatives to create more and more safe seats for one party or the other, reducing the motivation to be moderate, coupled with the Primary system which rewards politicians who hit the right buttons for the committed activists and punishes those who express doubts or shades of opinion.

  • Simon Banks 5th Oct '13 - 10:28am

    Woops – more typos than usual. KEY DIVISIVE ISSUES and THIS HAS HAPPENED PARTLY BECAUSE. I also apologise for the tangled grammar of the third sentence.

  • Patrick Smith 5th Oct '13 - 1:51pm

    If ever one Country was crying out for an end to the hegemony of the constant staccato of `2 Horse Race’ Congressional Elections it is the USA.

    If ever a country was crying out for a proportional reform like STV or even AV+, so that votes cast are counted equal to the number of elected Congress members from all parties so to open out the bi-partisan political culture that has remained dominant in modern American, since the `Founding Fathers’.

    Has there been any notable democratic debate held in the US on the merits/demerits of PR?

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Oct '13 - 4:08pm

    There used to be an old joke about USA politics, it went like this:

    “They have a two-party system like ours. They have the Republican Party which is like our Conservative Party, and they have the Democratic Party, which is also like our Conservative Party”.

    There was a time when USA politics didn’t seem very partisan – the two parties had almost become formalities, needed as part of the system, but not representing big political differences, as that old joke puts it, very different from how the UK was with its clear ideological differences between the two big parties.

    Now it seems the other way round, although there are forces in our Conservative Party which seem intent on turning it into the sort of ideological extremist party the USA Republicans have become.

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