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Archives for April 2011

Will the royal wedding 'reboot' the British monarchy?

Matt Frei | 22:34 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

kate_William.jpgSuch is the fairytale nature of the imminent royal wedding that even London's notoriously treacherous weather has, in the build-up, at least been suitably deferential.

On the American television networks, anchormen and women are falling over each other to talk about the easygoing, recession-defying charm of a couple that seems perfectly in love, delicately thumbing their noses at recent family history, the straitjacket of protocol and, one hopes, the prying eyes of billions.

The world wishes them well. But hours of air time need to be filled and even the most gripping interviews with former Buckingham Palace pastry chefs, part-time nannies, dress designers and people who once had lunch with people who once had lunch with a royal do not do the trick.

So the discussion has inevitably turned to other matters. First, there is the question whether the British monarchy can be "rebooted" by the infusion of fresh blood after this wedding. After the nuptials have ended, the answer to this constitutional question will surely hinge on how the various palaces negotiate the messy minefield of whether Charles could step aside in favour of Wills.

Most monarchists and monarchy experts seem to think this question could open a terrible can of worms, best left closed even if the tabloids and much of the public want to prise it open.

Secondly, there is plenty of serious discussion about that persistent British poison: class. Does the pit-to-palace fairytale of the Middleton family represent a genuine rebirth for the monarchy and an example of social mobility? Admittedly, that transition from the coal mines of Durham to Buckingham Palace has taken 150 years. But is Kate Middleton the embodiment of a British dream?

Well, no. But the monarchy is less stuffy than it used to be. Diana dragged it publicly into the messy, modern age kicking and screaming. And like in America, all the economic indicators point to the idea that social mobility has stagnated or gone in the wrong direction. The middle class feels squeezed on both sides of the pond. Views of the future are bleak.

A majority in both the US and the UK believe their children will be worse off. The poison of class trickling down from the Palace through the aristocracy to the upper middle class, the lower middle class and so on (only Britain had these sub-categories) has left trace elements. There are still plenty of snobs who prove, as George Bernard Shaw once said, that no Englishman can open his mouth without being despised by another Englishman. But their numbers have dwindled.

Britain's new elite has made its money in the City of London. The gulf between the rich and everyone else is a chasm. And there is nothing that Wills and Kate can do about it.

A candidate with guts?

Matt Frei | 21:15 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Donald Trump

As a journalist, I am rooting for Donald Trump to plunge headlong into the presidential race. He will of course be entertaining. His hair will flop like a doormat in the chill winds of Iowa. It will labour and droop in the humid air of Florida. He will wave his fist, parade his beautiful daughters and smile about his wives. He will, no doubt, "fire" any number of real and imaginary foes, pick fights with the Chinese, squirm about his connections to Wall Street and tie himself into a few knots about why he called President Barack Obama "amazing and phenomenal" in his modestly entitled book, Think Like a Champion.

And of course Donald Trump has already had a campaign plane for years, parked at La Guardia airport in New York, with his short name in super-sized letters emblazoned on the belly.

Trump is a brand, a showman, an icon. But he is no joke. Karl Rove, that Machiavellian master of elections, got it wrong. Trump may never even get close to owning that once renewable lease on the white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. But he represents a chunk of this country that yearns for a blunt-speaking, successful man to take America firmly by the hand and slay its various dragons.

Trump is from the gut, as George W Bush used to like saying about himself. And "guts" is something in relatively short supply if you look at the current line-up of Republican contenders. Mitt is cerebral with almost extra-terrestrial perfection. You're afraid that if you pinch him your finger will glow. Tim is too nice to be truly of the gut. Mike's guts are diluted by his sense of humour. Newt only does bespoke gut. That leaves the potential women candidates, Sarah and Michelle. Plenty of guts there, for sure. As they used to say about Margaret Thatcher: "She's the best man we've got."

The point about The Donald's flirtation with presidential politics is that he sees America's deep rut of self-doubt as an opportunity. The Republican Party is scrabbling around for a suitable candidate like perhaps never before. This is a party in search of itself. The old genteel rule of allowing a dauphin to rise to the helm no longer works. These are ranks fraught with insurrection. It's a bit like the Apprentice. Anyone can have a go. Guts will not be the only quality that a successful candidate needs. Sound judgement, clear policies and money also help. The Donald has at least one of the above.

America's royal envy

Matt Frei | 00:12 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

William_Kate.jpgWhy is America so obsessed with Britain's Royal Wedding?

It is a weighty question of our time, and I discussed it for BBC Americana with a woman who has her finger on the racing pulse of humanity... Dolly Parton.

"I think everyone loves a fairytale set in a castle... to dream about," she said.

Ms Parton, who grew up in the gritty poverty of Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, knows of what she speaks. In her hundreds of songs and dozens of films, this "iron butterfly", as she describes herself, has been peddling escapism all her life. She also happens to be the only living human with a theme park named after her - Dollywood. And Ms Parton herself is royalty, of sorts.

But of course not every British royal wedding gets this much attention. America did not get up early to follow the nuptials of Charles and Camilla. And the US barely knew that Sweden - a nation that adores its royals more than the Brits - even had a royal wedding last summer. The US is oblivious to the ups and downs of Spain's constitutional monarchy. So why does the monarchy against which this country fought a bitter war of independence capture its imagination so much?

America has never quite purged its monarchical instincts. The First Family is treated like elected royalty. Michelle Obama's wardrobe receives the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for a queen. From the plane to the fanfare to the motorcade, the procession of an American president is, let's face it, a very regal affair.

The founding fathers feared America's weakness for the monarchy and set up a series of speed bumps to regal power. The cultural affinity between Britain and the US (Dare I mention the dreaded "special relationship"?) is the bloodstream which nurtures the American fascination with Britain's royalty. Both The Queen with Helen Mirren and the King's Speech with Colin Firth produced a harvest of Oscars and box office profits, even though or perhaps precisely because these films displayed monarchy with its human weaknesses.

But back to the wedding. Yes, these days we could all do with a bit of Dollywood escapism. In an era of the instant reality TV celebrity, there is something to be said for the more durable kind that comes with birth. And finally there's the couple itself - enough to make even the most hard bitten Republican weak at the knees. The helicopter pilot who inherited his mother's looks and evokes the memories of her tragic life. And Kate. As one senior diplomat said at a dinner in Washington last night pointing at a picture of Her Majesty the Queen: "That's the soon-to-be-grandmother-in-law of Kate Middleton."

As radiation leaks, truth is slow to follow

Matt Frei | 22:07 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Police man a checkpoint in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, about 20km (12-miles) from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

It is cruelly ironic that as we approach the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the world should once again be transfixed by the inability of humans to plug a poisonous leak created by our need for energy.

Last year it was the spewing orifice at the bottom of the sea brought to us 24/7 courtesy of the dozen or so "spillcams" that became a fixture in the corner of just about every cable news TV screen.

This year we have the unseen wafts, leaks and seepages of radiation from the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The fact that the threat level of this crisis has now been raised - one month later - to seven - the highest possible - is alarming.

The fact that Japanese authorities insist the radiation level is still one-tenth that of Chernobyl - the only other nuclear disaster that has earned a seven - is puzzling.

The leaking information has made the leaking radiation all the more perplexing. Not surprisingly, the patient people of Japan are getting angry. They feel - not for the first time - that their government and Tepco, the power company, have been economical with the truth.

The oil leak in the Gulf was terrifying because of its relentless filthy incontinence. The leak of radiation is terrifying because it remains unseen and is in part dependent on the whim of the wind.

Though the casualty figures from the nuclear disaster have been mercifully low - so far - I still wondered whether that cool breeze caressing my face was a potential kiss of death.

When I was in Tokyo last month, nervously fingering my very own personal BBC-issued Geiger counter, I too was mugging up on some nuclear basics that I thought I would never need.

The fear of the unknown is complemented by a hunger for solid information. In both leaks - oil and radiation - the truth about the true extent of the disaster flowed as reluctantly as molasses.

France's new-found appetite for foreign adventure

Matt Frei | 20:55 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Almost exactly eight years ago, George Bush's America was marching into Baghdad and Jacques Chirac's France was howling with indignation that Uncle Sam had become an imperialistic bully.
Indignation there was matched by mirth here. Jokes dwelling on French cowardice became de rigueur.
One of the better ones was: "French gun sold on eBay. Never fired. Dropped once."
The French were famously described as cheese eating surrender monkeys.
Bill O'Reilly built much of his career on Fox News by chastising them. But only last week he was heard praising the French for showing some muscle. So what's got into Bill O'Reilly?
Or more importantly what's got into France?
It was the French, after an initially lukewarm response to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, who led the call for enforcing Libya's no fly zone.
French jets launched the first air strikes. Before you knew it, France was pounding the headquarters of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, a former French colony.
The diminutive Nicolas Sarkozy, who had enjoyed even more diminutive approval ratings, suddenly struts the world stage like another under-sized French leader with an over-sized ego.
Has Mr Sarkozy become Bonaparte? Those who are surprised by this transformation should remember that France has never been as lily livered as its opponents have made out.
The French Foreign Legion has long been a robust, not to say bruising presence at international conflicts.
I remember them well in Bosnia, wearing blue UN helmets but behaving with more clout than any of the other peacekeepers. The French military has frequently shown its muscle in former African colonies, like Chad and the Central African Republic, mostly on the side of embattled regimes.
Ultimately this new-found appetite for foreign adventure may have more to do with domestic woes.
Mr Sarkozy had hit almost historic lows in the opinion polls with an election looming. But it's also about France's continuing quest for the right role on the international stage, motivated by a nostalgia for grandeur that refuses to go away and a desire to be seen, unlike Britain, as a benign counter-point to the United States.
So when it comes to foreign policy it is now US President Barack Obama who is now being accused of smoking without inhaling, to coin a phrase.

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