The sweet (and sour) Bird of Political Youth

Howard Croft

It is commonly supposed in the UK that morally low electoral tactics are recent and peculiarly American phenomenon. Not so. In the 1945 General Election in Britain one candidate, Sir Melford Stevenson, opened his campaign by announcing that, as he wanted a clean fight, he would not therefore be mentioning the homosexuality of his opponent Tom Driberg. Driberg was elected and went on to become one of the more colourful and notorious public figures; Stevenson went on to become a High Court judge with a reputation for robust sentencing. The current US Presidential election campaign is the fourteenth I have witnessed, always with interest and often with excitement. Of these, one took place when I was living in Philadelphia where I saw more of the game than on previous and subsequent occasions. I am grateful to have had that opportunity.

Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, which took place when I was sixteen, was the first election I was aware of and the most exciting. At that time the world, or the parts of it that seemed to me to matter at the time, had been controlled by old men: Adenauer in Germany, de Gaulle in France, Franco in Spain, and so on. In Britain we had Harold Macmillan, an Edwardian actor-manager figure much mocked by the sixties satirists, and Winston Churchill’s premiership was a recent memory. It is an illustration of the backward reach of leadership then that Churchill, who survived Kennedy, took part in the last mounted cavalry charge of the British Army. What America offered in 1960 was something new: the candidacy of an attractive, vigorous young man with a beautiful wife and a young family. And it was all happening on television.

The idea of the levers of power coming within the reach of a new generation was very exciting. We believed that this change in America would lead to change in Europe, and hopes were raised. An indication of the extent President Kennedy captured the imaginations of young people around the world and inspired hope, is that on the day following his death students throughout Europe spontaneously went to their campuses (it was a Saturday) then silently stood about, looking and feeling lost. I was one of them.

It took time, of course, but change did come and the old men of Europe, some of them dictators, were gradually shouldered aside. Not in every case to advantage: in Britain our own “youth dividend”, Harold Wilson, turned out to be a disappointment. In his bid for power he made much of his supposed similarity to John F. Kennedy, which in truth extended no further than a similarity in age, but it did the trick and he was elected. Having none of Kennedy’s vision or oratorical gifts, he is remembered as a shallow trimmer with a shady character, even by the standards of politicians, with a murky past— allegedly having files at MI5 and the CIA.

There are features of American presidential elections that are mystifying to our eyes: the primaries, the circus-like conventions, the vice- presidential role (in Britain we sometimes have a Deputy Prime Minister, but it has nothing to do with succession) and, oddest of all to our eyes, the two month time lag between election and taking office. Here, we vote on Thursday, results are announced on Friday immediately followed by the furniture trucks arriving at 10 Downing Street for swift turn around. But only after the Prime Minister elect had visited Buckingham Palace to kiss the monarch’s hand, for which, I suppose, the US equivalent is the swearing in ceremony—less romantic, more hygienic. There is a brutality about the physical expulsion following hard on the heels of the voters’ verdict that we rather relish. The same principle applied when we had capital punishment: all appeals were exhausted within about three weeks of sentencing, then straight to the gibbet. That too was popular.

Youthful leaders did not prove to be the panacea we had hoped, of course. Tony Blair was certainly youthful, but his legacy has been disappointing to say the least. Whereas in the US Ronald Reagan was, judged from outside anyway, a very effective President in spite of his age. And Churchill, of course, became Prime Minister at an age when most men have already bought a boat and taught themselves to fish. An instructive example of the blend of age and youth is the Kennedy-Macmillan relationship and their Test Ban endeavours; the wily old fox in London nearing the end, and Kennedy just getting started in Washington, together achieved a great deal. Heads of government when they meet, especially US Presidents and British Prime ministers, put on a show of being best buddies, but I suspect it is seldom true. That it was true in the case of Kennedy and Macmillan became shockingly clear when Macmillan recorded a series of fireside chats about his public life for BBC Television. As he spoke of the death of Kennedy, a man he supposed would survive him by decades, he became so emotionally distraught that he could not speak for several minutes.

So, as my fifteenth US election approaches what can I tell you? Certainly I cannot tell you how to vote; that would be impudent. But this I can implore you to do – Vote! Low turnouts at elections are as big a threat to democracy in both our countries as anything external agencies wishing us harm can manage.

Howard Croft is a retired publisher, now writer, who possesses a keen insight into the ways of the world. From across the pond, Howard will offer his opinionated thoughts and perspectives on everything from lifestyle to politics in each issue of Collier’s. Submit your topics and questions to: