Michael Carlson


5 June 2018

The Last Campaign

John Stewart and Buffy Ford warmed up the crowds for Robert Kennedy as he went on the stump in California. ‘Truly as the sun, truly as the rain,’ Stewart later sang, ‘Truly I believe, that it was the last campaign.’ Kennedy won the state’s Democratic primary, of course; and after making his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on 5 June 1968, he was assassinated. In 1968 I was still four years away from voting age, but I was one of those young people who fuelled Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to Lyndon Johnson. We thought we heard the beginnings of a voice that would penetrate the political machine that was sending us off to die abroad, and resisting the end of apartheid at home. McCarthy didn't win the New Hampshire primary, but his close second-place finish was enough to prompt Johnson not to seek a second term, and enough to prompt Bobby Kennedy into the race.


16 August 2017

At Mount Rushmore

On Sunday evening I took my son to see Mount Rushmore. He is 13, born and raised in Britain, but with an American father and, as he put it, not enough of a British accent to impress the locals in South Dakota. Unexpected pride welled up in me when we climbed the stairs from the car park and he gasped at his first glimpse of the giant, granite-carved faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt staring down at him. ‘Wow’ isn't a word you often hear when touring with teens. Then we got distracted by a flat-bed trailer parked in the access road between us and the visitor centre, the walkway decorated with the 50 state flags, and the outdoor theatre facing the monument. Martial music was blaring from speakers attached to the trailer’s sides, and built up from its bed, like a float in a holiday parade, were large letters spelling out TRUMP.


4 February 2017

Before the Super Bowl

Tomorrow's Super Bowl LI (or 51, if we are still allowed to use Arabic numbers) will not only be the biggest holiday in the American calendar, but also a test of a national mood we haven’t seen since the 1960s.


6 June 2016

Bells after Fifteen Rounds

1. When We Were Kings is the fitting title of Leon Gast’s superb documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali's battle with George Foreman in Zaire, where he regained the heavyweight crown. It was a time of giants in boxing’s most glamorous division. Foreman said that he, Joe Frazier and Ali were like one person; they had been forged together in the public imagination, but there were also Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Henry Cooper, Ernie Terrell: men over whom Ali needed to triumph to establish himself, and who now shine in his reflection. Watch the moment Foreman falls in the film: at ringside George Plimpton is frozen in drop-jaw disbelief; Norman Mailer is already beginning to celebrate. 2. Muhammad Ali would have been the most important sportsman of the 20th century even had he not become a symbol for battles of conscience, for racial justice, for people far removed from power, for religious belief, for so much else.


26 May 2016

Homage to Madeleine LeBeau

It’s one of the most memorable close-ups in film: Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, tears streaming down her face, shouts 'Vive La France!' after joining the patrons of Rick's Café Americain in the ‘Marseillaise’ to drown out the Nazis’ singing of ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’. LeBeau died on 1 May, at the age of 92; she was the last surviving cast member of Casablanca.