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Authority: Personal and Political, or just where is the tipping point with George Bush and Tony Blair? February 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine, United States, US Media, US Politics.
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Listening to To The Point on KCRW about Condoleezza Rice’s latest foray into the Middle East, and in particular her attempt to act as an honest broker between the Palestinians and Israeli’s, I was struck by how fragile authority can be.

Here we have the Secretary of State of the United States, still the global hegemon, clearly unable to bend the regional powers to her will. Indeed it’s telling how Saudi Arabia has moved strongly into the frame on this issue, no doubt eager not to allow the Syrians or Iranians further increase their influence after what they no doubt regard as the largely successful Israel/Hezbollah conflict of last Summer. The US hasn’t changed. It’s highly unlikely that US policy in the Middle East will change radically whoever finally arrives in the Oval Office. Yet somehow Rice is simply unable to project the necessary power and authority into the public space.

That piece was followed by another considering the Presidents Day public holiday in the US. Presidents Day is held on the third Monday in February and was originally brought in in the late 19th century to celebrate the birthday of George Washington. Since then it has expanded somewhat in scope with some states linking it explicitly to another President born in February, Abraham Lincoln. Yet, according to KCRW the holiday has now become something of a festival of shopping Here too we see the authority of the ‘myth’ (in the broad Barthesian sense of it being a cultural narrative or concept) being drained away from what was once a reasonably significant memorial.

And I was thinking that in some respects that over the past decade we’ve seen how Presidential authority in the US and elsewhere is draining away before our eyes and in two very specific ways. Indeed this can be drawn more widely to incorporate most political authority wherever it may be, but the US Presidency offers a more focused example.

Consider how the authority of Bill Clinton seemed to recede as the wash of scandal broke across him in his second term in office. This loosely could be considered personal authority, and in a way relates more to character, or perceived character. By contrast in the case of George Bush, also a two term President, we’ve seen how his authority has vanished in the wake of the Iraq debacle (if ever two words were made for each other surely it’s those two at this point in time). This is of course more clearly rooted in political and ideological authority.

And, as ever, Tony Blair, riding in the wake of Bush (his own personal and political tragedy to my mind) can be judged to be an interesting combination of both forms of authority deficit, with political and personal authority diminished both by Iraq without and scandal (albeit fairly low-level stuff, whatever the papers may say) within.

Now none of these thoughts are particularly original, political and personal authority has always leeched away in the wake of what Harold Macmillan referred to as ‘Events, dear boy’. Nixon in the 1970s can be seen as being the victim of his own personal and political misdeeds and his authority flat-lined rapidly. But what really interests me is not so much that this happens as to the point at which it happens. If I were to take a guess at it I’d suggest that Bush’s authority diminished in the lead up to the Mid-Term Elections late last year, not after those elections (his relatively unguarded response to them as a ‘thumping defeat’ was accurate, more worrying was his admission ‘I didn’t see them coming’ which whether in jest or not tells me rather more than I need to know about his political acumen).

And I’d make the case for that authority receding then because sometime between early last year and the Mid-Term vote the voting population shifted against Bush and the Republicans. The vote was the symptom, not the cause as it were, and it’s entertaining to see how the supertankers of the US media fought to turn from their courses and deal with a political landscape that had changed without their registering it. Some, needless to say, still have to make that turn.

Can we expect a similar process here? If one is charitable one could propose that Bertie Ahern (whose alleged misdeeds are venial in the scale of the events already noted here) has had a remarkable capacity to retain authority even in the most trying of circumstances. And that’s irritated some people no end. But whether there is a tipping point ahead, a rake hidden in the long political grass that has in some sense already been trodden on but hasn’t come into view yet, remains to be seen. I doubt it to be honest. I think that the political situation here is too confused for such clear cut outcomes. But, I’m prepared to be proven wrong.

And as for Blair. Well, despite his own authority slipping away somehow in some part he still retains sufficient to be able to continue in power. He’s been an exceptionally fortunate politician over the years both in his friends and his enemies. Winning the last British General Election, even with a much diminished majority gave him the political traction to continue in a way that Bush, prey to the minor key disruption of the mid-terms simply couldn’t emulate. Yet Blair has been damaged, damaged to the point where he had to concede that this year would be his last in office. Perhaps there were no mid-terms in the UK, but in some respect he too has passed the tipping point both with the British public and his own party.

They must wonder too if they loved (well, okay, tolerated) too well a man whose protracted demise has led them to a new low in the opinion polls according to the Guardian yesterday. And perhaps gaze nervously at the chosen successor and contemplate just what degree of authority he will have.

And lucky us, we too can look at Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte, consider their authority and contemplate our own possible future.

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1. Eagle - February 22, 2007

Holidays vary by state. When I was a kid we had holiday for Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday. I can’t remember exactly when the two were combined, but I think it was around the time we got MLK day in January.

Down south, Lincoln’s birthday was NEVER a holiday.

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2. WorldbyStorm - February 22, 2007

Why doesn’t that surprise me? :)

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