Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Boris Johnson in Context

Boris Johnson said some of his outspoken comments had been "taken out of context" as he faced hostile questions in his first press conference as foreign secretary

In 2007, he wrote that Mrs Clinton, the Democrat candidate for US president, was "like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital".

So let us have a bit more context. He was candidate for Mayor of London by September 2007, but was not elected until May 2008. He was still an MP for Henley, until after he was elected, whereupon he resigned, but he was a back bench MP, earning most from journalism in a rather satirical vein.

What was the context? It was in fact a comment piece written for the Daily Telegraph on 01 Nov 2007, when he was a backbench MP and part-time freelance columnist for the Telegraph. and it is clearly not a serious and sober analysis; it is Boris as he might appear on “Have I Got News for You” or “Mock the Week”.

Here are some of the snippets from the Daily Telegraph piece, and you can see from the entire tone of the article that it is not by any stretch of the imagination to be taken without tongue firmly in cheek. It is true that there is an element of seriousness if he was genuine about wanting Hillary to be president, and in fact, of course, as we know, it was Barack Obama who became the Democrat nominee.

You know, I never thought it would come to this. Over the past 24 hours I have been trying to imagine the kind of person I want to follow George W Bush into the White House.

I have been scanning the faces of the competitors for what some have called the most open presidential race for years, and I have screwed up my eyes and tried to work out who should be in charge of us all.

Who should have their finger on the nuclear button? Who should be Commander-in-Chief of the American military, the hugest and most lethal killing machine in history?

I hum and I brood and then to my amazement a face seems to form in my mind's eye. She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital; and as I snap out of my trance I slap my forehead in astonishment.

How can I possibly want Hillary? I mean, she represents, on the face of it, everything I came into politics to oppose: not just a general desire to raise taxes and nationalise things, but an all-round purse-lipped political correctness.

How could I possibly emit the merest peep of support for a woman who seems to have acted out the role of First Lady, from 1993 to 2000, like a mixture between Cherie Blair and Lady Macbeth, stamping her heel, bawling out subordinates and frisbeeing ashtrays at her erring husband?

Supporting Hillary means passing over the powerful claims of other good candidates. There is the plainly brilliant Barack Obama; there is the chap who acted in the Hunt for Red October, and above all there is Rudy Giuliani. How can we prefer Hillary to the man who did so much to sort out violent crime on the streets of New York?

For all who love America, it is time to think of supporting Hillary, not because we necessarily want her for herself but because we want Bill in the role of First Husband. And if Bill can deal with Hillary, he can surely deal with any global crisis.

Obama and Kenya

On Johnson’s other main insult, there is less justification. Here is the man who was by now a powerful MP, and one of the main charismatic leaders of the Brexit campaign. This was an article in The Sun, by someone who should have known better, but who clearly had not really grown up much from his schoolboy satire:

Here is the context again

Something mysterious happened when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009. Something vanished from that room, and no one could quite explain why. It was a bust of Winston Churchill – the great British war time leader. It was a fine goggle-eyed object, done by the brilliant sculptor Jacob Epstein, and it had sat there for almost ten years. But on day one of the Obama administration it was returned, without ceremony, to the British embassy in Washington.

No one was sure whether the President had himself been involved in the decision. Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender. Some said that perhaps Churchill was seen as less important than he once was perhaps his ideas were old-fashioned and out of date.

My Comments
In the Guardian, it was Boris Johnson said he has no regrets about claiming that Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage had driven him towards anti-British sentiment. Johnson was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he had any regrets about the way he phrased comments. “Of course not,” he said.

However, the same issue was raised in 2009 by Guardian columnist Owen Bowcott, who wrote:

“It also sharpens the intriguing question of whether the president's dual colonial inheritance – of Kenyan and Irish ancestry – is helping reshape America's supposedly "special relationship" with Britain. The darker days of the UK's relationship with Kenya may resurface soon when lawyers lodge a class action in the British courts from survivors of the Mau Mau rebellion who claim they were tortured by British soldiers in the 1950s; Obama's grandfather was among those mistreated during the independence struggle.”

So while Boris is giving a very broad brush comment on Obama, there is a context in which it can make sense, although to attribute such unworthy motivations to Obama is certainly a slur on the President’s character, as if he could bear a deep seated grudge for past generational wrongs. That, if anything, is the real matter needing apology – the imputation of base personal motivation to Obama.

And in fact, the situation with regard to the bust is an extremely muddy one, as the Guardian itself points out:

“The bust in question, by British sculptor Jacob Epstein, was given to President George W Bush by the British government in 2001 and was placed in the Oval Office. But the statue was not donated, it was simply on loan for Bush’s term in office (a loan which the British government decided to extend when Bush was re-elected in 2004). Churchill disappeared from the White House in 2009, when the loan ended at the same time that Obama moved in.”

“So how was the White House able to claim in 2012 that the bust was still there? When writing the blogpost, the then communications director Dan Pfeiffer simply neglected to mention the fact that there are two Churchill busts – the one on loan to Bush from 2001 to 2009, and a second bust which the White House has had since the 1960s and still has to this day – a fact which Pfeiffer later had to clarify in an update at the end of the post.”

“Boris Johnson is wrong to claim that the vanishing Churchill bust symbolizes Obama’s antipathy towards Britain – it was never Obama’s statue to give away. But the White House’s initial claim that the bust was still in the Oval Office was also a convenient spin on the facts.”

If Johnson had checked his facts, he would not have made this mistake. He might also have checked with Obama about where the bust was. It is now outside the the Treaty Room - his private office on the second floor of his official residence.

"Right outside the door of the Treaty Room, so that I see it every day - including on weekends when I'm going into that office to watch a basketball game - the primary image I see is a bust of Winston Churchill," he said. "It's there voluntarily because I can do anything on the second floor. I love the guy."

So what can we say about Johnson and his rash remarks. 

Firstly, that remarks have been taken out with regard to Hilary Clinton, but his background is unfortunate in that he inhabited a world in which light hearted political fun was a part. It is like Ian Hislop becoming Foreign Secretary and “Private Eye” jokes coming to haunt him.

With regard to Obama, his assessment of the facts was negligible, and his judgement of Obama’s character was patently unfair. This was a comment after the intervention of Obama in the Referendum campaign, and it was clearly designed to discount Obama’s intervention.

The problem is that it is also part of a campaign which misled the general public on a number of highly significant issues. Can a politician be trusted as Foreign Secretary when they have said anything to win? I think an element of distrust will continue to dog him, and that is largely of his own making.

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