An incumbent US President loses office and goes down in history as a one-termer. No, I don’t mean Donald Trump; I mean Jimmy Carter. The same fate that has just befallen the Donald befell the Georgian peanut farmer exactly 40 years ago; and though, on the surface, the two Presidents have little in common, both swept to power as populist outsiders challenging a Washington orthodoxy in which the American electorate had lost faith – Carter in the wake of Watergate and Ford’s pardoning of Nixon, Trump appealing to the ‘deplorables’ left behind by the metropolitan political class and its queen regnant, Hillary Clinton. November 1980 came too soon for the personable Carter; the botched, aborted rescue of the US hostages in Tehran had damaged his popularity and reputation just a few months before and Ronald Reagan exploited it on a wave of patriotic, God-fearing fervour. Had Carter received an additional year’s breathing space, he may well have recovered; but unpredictable events can unsettle a political career right at the very moment when sailing appears plain; just ask Boris Johnson.

In November 1980, Americans and the rest of the West may have found the contest between the man in the White House and his born-again, movie star opponent intriguing, but many were more fixated on what was happening in the US city of Dallas rather than Washington. Wealthy oil magnate JR Ewing had just been gunned down by an unknown wannabe assassin and the world asked the question ‘Who Shot JR?’ Weirdly enough, the shots turned out to have been fired by Bing Crosby’s daughter, and that’s the point when we remember we’re talking about an entirely fictitious crime that nevertheless proved to be an early example of global water-cooler television. Less than 20 years earlier, a far more successful assassin had changed the course of American history in Dallas, but the imaginary shots fired in the city that November ricocheted around the world with a speed that suggested an appetite for violence was fine as long as nobody got hurt.

Just a matter of weeks later, a pop cultural giant who had emerged from self-imposed exile was on the receiving end of real gun crime; but there was precious little hint of the tragedy around the corner for John Lennon in November 1980 as he released and began to promote his first new recordings in five years. A decade less than twelve months old was still at that fascinating stage new decades stand at when their character has yet to form and there remain several optional routes to choose from; if the world of 1980 belonged anywhere, it was the late 1970s, with a hangover of stories from that era retaining their relevance. A murderous spree that had served to cast the North of England in a chillingly dark light, one which undoubtedly feels characteristically ‘1970s’, had spilled over into the 80s as the odious spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper continued to haunt women of that sprawling county – and 1980 saw a barbaric last hurrah for this hideous reign of terror.

The man behind the insidious myth seemed to taunt the police in the same way his Victorian namesake had a century earlier simply by evading capture and carrying on killing. His twelfth known victim, 47-year-old Marguerite Walls, was killed on 20 August; he then tried – and failed – to kill three other women: Uphadya Bandara in Leeds on 24 September, Maureen Lea in Leeds on 25 October, and Theresa Sykes in Huddersfield on 5 November. Peter Sutcliffe’s final grisly addition to a roll-call of 13 known murders came on 17 November when he killed Leeds University student Jacqueline Hill, leaving her body on waste ground behind a shopping parade in Headingley. The initial narrative perpetuated by West Yorkshire Police that this grotesque urban bogeyman primarily targeted prostitutes had already been contradicted by the 1977 murder of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald in Chapeltown, Leeds – a girl who was a shop-worker rather than a sex-worker; the fact that what turned out to be his final victim was the second student he had attacked within the space of a month confirmed every woman in the region was a potential victim – though every woman in the region already knew it.

It took just over a month after the murder of Jacqueline Hill before Sutcliffe was finally caught. Arrested in January 1981 when the car he was driving was found to be bearing false number plates, he was taken to Dewsbury Police Station and was questioned – not for the first time, it turned out – about the Ripper murders simply because he fitted the profile. The discovery of murder weapons discarded at the scene of the arrest when Sutcliffe had been allowed to go for a pee by the arresting officers implied this was more than just another cruising punter; two days later, he confessed he was indeed the Yorkshire Ripper and he was charged within 24 hours. An appalling catalogue of killings spanning five years had been extended into the new decade not only by the blinkered ineptitude and prejudice of the police, but by the inadequate systems for storing and collating information as well as the undeniably damaging red herring of the ‘Wearside Jack’ tape.

It seems hard to believe now that Sutcliffe could have killed as many as he did and got away with it for so long; but one could say the same of Harold Shipman, Fred West or Dennis Nilsen, his contemporaneous serial killers. Along with their equally awful predecessors Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, all are now deceased, with Peter Sutcliffe joining them in that rather hot location reserved for the worst mankind has to offer as of – perhaps fittingly – Friday 13th. We have Covid-19 to thank for the killer blow, by all accounts. His death also comes just four days short of the 40th anniversary of Jacqueline Hill’s murder. Sutcliffe lived the 40 years he robbed her of, 40 years in which she could have enjoyed a dozen wonderful life experiences whilst he was shuttled from prison to prison and a gory industry sprouted around him. To be fair, though, the media generated that industry when he was busy killing by giving him such a salacious nickname; it was no great surprise it thrived during his lengthy incarceration, but the region he terrorised for five years didn’t buy into it. His name remains one spat out rather than spoken and he is just as loathed there now as he was when finally nicked for his crimes. The sense of disgust and hatred towards him there is no less vociferous than in January 1981. Time doesn’t heal everything.

I pass the site of Jacqueline Hill’s grim resting place most days; without knowledge of what happened there, few would give this undistinguished plot of land a second glance. Up until around a decade ago, it still looked the same as it did on the day Jacqueline Hill’s body was discovered, no different from the film footage that turns up in the endless documentaries, the overgrown and untendered spot packed with police furtively looking for clues. Then it was eventually converted into a private car-park for employees of the various businesses lining the shopping parade it stands behind; as befits lockdown, there are no vehicles parked on it today, and I fully expect someone to anonymously leave a bouquet of flowers at the gates next Tuesday; they often do periodically, though next Tuesday has a particular poignancy. That Peter Sutcliffe should exit a mere four days beforehand perhaps gives it an additional emotional punch. But if doesn’t really need one. The accompanying photograph I took this morning on the surface says nothing, but knowing a gruesome chapter in the history of the region drew to a bloody close there says something. After all, the fields where some of the nation’s most brutal battles took place centuries ago are similarly placid places today, giving no hint of the terrible tales they could tell. But there remains something in the air there, for sure.

© The Editor


trumpOn paper, it’s already beginning to resemble a bizarre social experiment – replace the time-honoured tradition of a country being run by career politicians schooled in years of public office and hand over the reins of power to a man whose sole working experience has been within the field of big business and entertainment. Light the blue-touch paper, stand at a safe distance and watch the fireworks.

It won’t be until next Monday that Donald Trump marks just one month as resident of the White House, yet so much has been crammed into the last four strange weeks that it feels much longer. Just this week has seen the first resignation from his administration – his National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, over allegations of uncomfortably close associations with the Russian Ambassador to the US; the FBI are currently investigating Flynn and perceiving his relationship with Sergey Kislyak as part of the ongoing suspicions over the Kremlin’s involvement in the Trump Presidency.

Trump has already set himself against the judiciary following the ramifications and legal challenges to his 90-day ban on visitors from seven selected Islamic countries, not to mention invoking the ire of those who were opposed to his Presidency from day one. Ordinarily, Americans will display inbred respect towards their President, whichever side of the political divide he stands on; all of this has been turned on its head by Trump; displaying that inbred respect in 2017 is the aberration, not the norm. Every policy so far announced has been a red rag to the liberal bull, yet every policy also appears to have reinforced the majority of his campaign promises – something most imagined would be quietly swept under the carpet once he took the oath of office. Even that bloody wall has been threatened. This isn’t what usually happens when people are elected.

Then again, under normal circumstances, when people are elected they’ve usually become so skilled in the art of saying one thing when in opposition and then doing another when in government that the public are accustomed to being let down. Lest we forget, however, these are not normal circumstances. Donald Trump is not a normal politician. In fact, I’d question whether or not he’d even find that job description as applicable to him, despite the lofty position he now finds himself in.

Previously, outsider was a term political observers had used to describe the likes of Jimmy Carter or Margaret Thatcher. In the case of Carter, he was a State Governor barely known outside of that State, but a country decimated by the fallout of Watergate turned to him as a break with the established Washington elite that had let the nation down; in the case of Thatcher, she may have had prior government experience, but she too was seen as a break with the recent past of continuous industrial turmoil that had characterised the British 70s; and, of course, she was a woman. Both were outsiders, albeit outsiders on the inside. The same could be said of Barack Obama, who was at least a State Senator before running for President. Trump has never been on the inside and that was his genuine outsider’s sales pitch; it worked.

Disillusionment with the old order has been gathering speed for the last decade, with the 2008 economic meltdown cited by many as the moment when the public realised things were not going to get better and the powers-that-be had no interest in making any country great again. The ground had been laid for a figure like Trump to come along a long time before he actually emerged as a candidate, yet a media machine in bed with those powers-that-be was not going to benefit from them being deposed; therefore, Trump’s campaign was understandably mocked and ridiculed from day one – an eventuality he himself aided and abetted with his behaviour. Even some of us not belonging to that media machine couldn’t really foresee Trump actually going all the way because it was such a dramatic severance of the world order as we had always known it that it seemed impossible to imagine that kind of surreal scenario. But it happened.

I often doubt the sanity of those who hanker after the highest office in the land, whether President or Prime Minister; we can all cite examples of past Presidents or PMs who were either chronically stupid or criminally devious – or both; the aphrodisiac of power has always eluded me, but there’s no doubt it serves as an irresistible element for the men or women in public office who crave it like a drug. That in itself suggests to me symptoms of mental disorder and potential demagoguery, so amateur diagnoses of Trump’s state of mind shouldn’t be restricted to him alone; they should be applied across the board.

Former Labour Foreign Secretary and founding member of the SDP, Dr David Owen combined his medical knowledge with his political experience by covering the subject in a couple of books, ‘The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power’ and ‘In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 Years’; and I reckon the connections are entirely relevant. You’d have to be mad to want to run a country, and I guess that’s why so many world leaders are.

As for the Donald, what happens next is anyone’s guess. 2020 seems a hell of a long way off at the moment and right now it’s difficult to picture him reaching the end of four years, let alone contemplating a second term. But for all the wishful thinking by the left of impeachment, we shouldn’t forget his Vice President Mike Pence. Trump may be an outsider, but he’s chosen to surround himself with some Republican stalwarts whose narrow minds make Trump’s stated vision of America seem radically liberal. Many may not be comfortable with the thought of Trump’s finger hovering above the button, but the prospect of President Pence is considerably more concerning; Pence is an insider, the kind of establishment figure Trump was supposed to be a break with. So, be careful what you wish for, you Twitter Oswald’s.

© The Editor


carterTo call this weekend’s New York bombing (and two other terrorist-related incidents on American soil) a potential game-changer in the ongoing US Presidential race is not necessarily exaggerating. Such events, and the way in which those hoping for power respond to them, can have an impact on public opinion; and it pays for the competing candidates to have stock responses in reserve just in case they occur. Thirty-six years ago, when President Jimmy Carter was running for a second term in office, his attempts to boost his falling ratings by staging an audacious rescue of the hostages being held at the American embassy in Tehran ended in tragic disaster and arguably cost him the Presidency as the country was won over by the untarnished Ronald Reagan.

The Georgian peanut-farmer and former Governor of his home state had swept to power in the wake of Watergate at a moment when the US was suffering from an acute decline in self-confidence; state-of-the-nation movies in that intriguing, immediate pre-‘Star Wars’ era, such as ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Network’, perfectly capture the uncertain mood of the moment in all its ugly albeit undoubtedly compelling glory. Despite being a relative unknown – and an unfashionable Southerner to boot – Jimmy Carter capitalised on the unpopularity of President Ford after his pardoning of Nixon by promising to lead the nation out of the untrustworthy darkness that had characterised the first half of the 70s and into a new era of more open and honest governance. Pardoning Vietnam draft-dodgers of the 60s on just his second day in the White House, Carter made an encouraging start, particularly in the field of foreign affairs.

Anyone who was around in this country during the late 70s will recall Jimmy Carter’s visit to the UK in 1977, and in particular the memorable diversion from the routine London meeting-and-greeting that constituted his unexpected trip to Newcastle. After the toxic legacy of Tricky Dicky and then the Presidency of a man who (to quote Lyndon Johnson) was so dumb he couldn’t ‘fart and chew gum at the same time’, Jimmy Carter seemed to be a breath of fresh air, and his overseas popularity was certainly strong, even if it couldn’t be replicated at home. His role in the building of bridges between Egypt and Israel won him considerable plaudits on the international stage, as did his joint signing of the Salt II treaty with Brezhnev, reducing the escalating arms race with the Soviet Union. Ironically, considering his success abroad, it was an event beyond America’s borders – the November 1979 capture of 52 American members of staff at the US embassy in Iran – that proved to be Carter’s undoing.

Operation Eagle Claw was the name given to the project planned as a means of releasing the US hostages from captivity in Tehran by force in April 1980. Had it succeeded, it would probably have been regarded as one of the American military’s greatest peacetime triumphs as well as a masterstroke on the part of the President that would have virtually guaranteed him a second term in office. But it didn’t. He’d already fought off a Democrat challenge from Teddy Kennedy (claiming he would ‘whip the Senator’s ass’) and then he was up against a former movie star whose Republican renaissance needed a calamitous blunder by Carter to give it the boost it required to ‘make America great again’. Funny how Republican aims always remain the same.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978/79 was the first tangible sign of Radical Islam as we know it today, and the end of the Shah’s unpleasant American-sponsored regime was marked by a new hostility towards the West (especially America) from former Middle Eastern allies. When students inspired by the Revolution took over the US embassy in Tehran, seizing 52 staff members for a period of what eventually turned out to be 444 days, American eyes turned to the President in the hope he would act. He took his time, despite the public clamour for action; and when a sequence of events contributed towards the failure of the mission to end the hostage crisis, Carter bore the brunt of the blame.

The hostages remained held against their will, whilst eight servicemen lost their lives in Operation Eagle Claw when the mission was aborted in the desert, just 52 miles from Tehran. An ill-thought-out project ended when a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft packed with fuel for the intended operation and this was when the lives were lost. It proved to be a devastating blow for Carter’s re-election ambitions as well as one for national prestige; and Reagan couldn’t have wished for a better boost to his campaign. In fact, the Ayatollah Khomeini deliberately withheld the release of the hostages until the day of Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, simply to deny Carter the credit for the belated end of their captivity. To his credit, Reagan offered his predecessor the opportunity to greet the hostages upon their return to the US, but he politely declined.

In many respects, Jimmy Carter’s post-Presidential career in the field of human rights has won him more admirers, and aged 91, he is currently the longest-retired President in US history, breaking Herbert Hoover’s long-standing record four years ago. In terms of history, however, it seems to be the failures rather than the successes that most associate with his term in the White House.

The situation in 2016 is somewhat different to 1980 in that the incumbent President isn’t seeking re-election, though Obama has given his endorsement to Hillary Clinton’s efforts to succeed him. However, Clinton’s recent health problems have served to momentarily stall her campaign, with a renewed terrorist assault on New York just a week after the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 the last thing she needed. Donald Trump’s ignorant willingness to play into the hands of ISIS by proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the US received a gift with the latest (mercifully failed) attempts at claiming American lives in the name of Allah, though his uncompromising reaction to the bombing has been utterly predictable and precisely what his supporters wanted to hear.

It is too early in the campaign to discern how much of an impact these events will have upon it, though Trump’s hardline approach is precisely the kind of rhetoric many in America welcome; that Clinton is prepared to dredge up her time as Secretary of State in relation to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden (presumably proving she’s not ‘soft’ on Radical Islam) is perhaps a measure of how far both candidates are prepared to go when it comes to exploiting an incident that is being promoted within the US media as more a case of what could have happened than what actually did.

© The Editor