Vol. 34 No. 14 · 19 July 2012

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A Bad President?

Much as I admire David Bromwich, I find his unremittingly acerbic, ungenerous treatment of Barack Obama depressing and misguided (LRB, 5 July). Obama has been far from an unqualified success, but in the face of a depressed economy and a mean-spirited, fanatical opposition, he has achieved far more than Bromwich gives him credit for. He staved off total economic catastrophe, largely disengaged the United States from Iraq, has made significant progress on gay rights and immigration, and passed landmark legislation that finally addressed one of this country’s greatest social problems: healthcare. All of this seems to count for naught with Bromwich, who prefers to dwell solely on the president’s mistakes and personality quirks. Had Bromwich been alive in 1864, I suspect that he would have mercilessly hectored Abraham Lincoln for such shortcomings as not extending the Emancipation Proclamation to slaves in the border states, and not yet winning the Civil War, not to mention his manifold personal oddities. Obama may not be a Lincoln, but he is not a ‘bad president’, either.

David A. Bell
Princeton University

Tap and Tell

Sadakat Kadri calls Camillagate and Squidgygate ‘tap-and-tell stories’ (LRB, 5 July). But the recordings the Sun used as the basis for the Squidgygate story were not acquired by phone tapping. The conversation between James Gilbey and Princess Diana was picked up by a 70-year-old amateur radio enthusiast called Cyril Reenan and sold to the Sun. It was also recorded by another Oxfordshire-based hobbyist, Jane Norgrove, who offered her tape to the Sun but backed out when it came to taking money for it. Neither of the hams had hacked a phoneline. Gilbey and Diana talked on New Year’s Eve 1989, not on 4 January 1990, which is when Reenan made his recording. Analysis of the tapes showed that the recording had originally been made via a wire tap, and doctored to sound as if it had been picked up over the airwaves, then rebroadcast – by whom is anyone’s guess. At the inquest into Diana’s death, her former bodyguard Ken Wharfe accused GCHQ, though official reports issued under the Major government had cleared British intelligence of any responsibility. These reports were criticised by one MP as little more than ‘old buffers saying that in their opinion the security services act with integrity’.

Rufus MacKenzie
Leatherhead, Surrey

Reports of a Death

One of the pleasures of archival research, as Thomas Jones demonstrates, comes from the need to travel to find sources in local repositories (LRB, 21 June). The recent weather may have made Aberystwyth a less attractive destination than Florence, but excellent records are to be found here too. In October 1913, the Cambrian News provided two (differing) accounts in successive weeks’ editions of the death of Jones’s great-great-grandfather Richard Roberts, who fell down a lift shaft in Florence. Jones appears to accept the version of events given by the Italian authorities and reported in La Nazione, that Roberts went up in the lift by himself and fell when he tried to get out on the wrong floor. But his son Ellis gave a quite different account to the Cambrian News:

The lift at the Hotel Metropole, Florence, is an old-fashioned lift worked by an outside rope and cannot be worked except with great difficulty by anyone using the lift. His father never used it at all unless he (Mr Ellis Roberts) was with him and they never went up in it without an attendant. When Mr Roberts’s body was found at the bottom of the lift well the lift was at the top of the building and the probability is that Mr Roberts mistook one of the lift doors (which is like other doors and had been accidentally left open) for the door of a room and so fell down the shaft.

I also tracked down Roberts’s grave in the cemetery here. His epitaph is from St John’s Gospel: ‘What I do thou knowest not now; but shall know hereafter.’

Helen Palmer
Ceredigion Archives, Aberystwyth

So why is it on the list?

Owen Bennett-Jones uses my book Terror Tagging of an Iranian Dissident Organisation as a point of departure to discuss his views on the organisation most prominent in rejecting clerical rule for Iran – the Mujahedin e Khalq (LRB, 7 June). He correctly asserts that the book deals with the puzzling question of why the MEK remains on the American terrorist list and reports that I suggest it should be delisted. He alleges that advocates of delisting are financially motivated, infers and criticises their political intentions, ignores the law and skips over the facts.

Critics of the MEK recite ad nauseam the non-legal grounds that justify its listing: they say it is a cult, that it is reminiscent of the Iraqi National Congress, the lobby group led by Ahmed Chalabi, which talked democracy and, according to Bennett-Jones, ‘paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq’. But the law does not hold that an organisation belongs on a terrorist list because of such allegations.

Regarding facts: in 2007 the UK’s Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission concluded after reviewing classified and unclassified evidence that the proscription of the MEK was ‘perverse’ and had to be set aside. In 2008, the English Court of Appeal, in upholding the judgment of POAC, emphasised that a review of classified material had reinforced its view that the MEK was not engaged in terrorism and did not intend to do so in the future. Based on a similar review in June 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ordered the secretary of state to deny or grant a petition from the MEK to be delisted not later than 1 October. If Hillary Clinton fails to take action before that date, the court said, the MEK petition will be granted. Bennett-Jones cites what he imagines is an FBI report: ‘In November 2004, the FBI reported on the group’s activities in Los Angeles, stating that it had recorded phone calls in which the MEK leadership in France discussed “specific acts of terrorism to include bombings".’ Yet this document explicitly states that ‘this document neither contains recommendations nor conclusions of the FBI.’

Raymond Tanter
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Access of Butchness

Edward McGuire needs a more up to date dictionary (Letters, 5 July). Alan Bennett was using ‘access’ in the sense, current since the 18th century, of a sudden onset of emotion. The Shorter OED quotes Joseph Heller to illustrate it, and a cursory search of the LRB’s online archive shows that it’s also been used in that sense in the paper by contributors including Angela Carter, Jeremy Harding, Geoffrey Hawthorn, Christopher Hitchens, Hilary Mantel and James Wood.

Simon McTeer
London W1

Not as Bad as That

‘In central Budapest,’ Jan-Werner Müller writes, ‘paramilitaries in black uniforms patrol the streets – they are supposedly “fighting Gypsy crime" – and tourists emerging from the beautifully restored Fin de Siècle Kaffeehäuser are liable to find themselves facing an angry crowd burning the EU flag’ (LRB, 21 June). Such patrols took place in Budapest during the Gyurcsány government before 2010. Paramilitary groups and uniforms were prohibited by the Orban government more than a year ago. It’s true an EU flag was burned several months ago by opposition party (Jobbik) representatives, but that was the only incident of its kind that has been reported.

George Kadar

Amis resigns

Michael Newton finds that D.H. Lawrence used the term ‘murderee’ before Martin Amis (Letters, 5 July). I always associate the word with William Plomer, whose poem ‘The Murder on the Downs’ ends:

Under a sky without a cloud
Lay the still unruffled sea,
And in the bracken like a bed
The murderee.

That postdates Lawrence, of course, but the OED cites a poem by Horace Smith from 1846:

Thus sat we grim and silent, cold and raw,
Two destined murderers and one murderee.

Alan Hollinghurst
London NW3

Floodgates Opened

I write to congratulate you on the editorial shift in emphasis evidenced by Jenny Turner’s article on women’s dresses (LRB, 5 July). Many loyal readers had become concerned over your worrying tendency to commission articles on politics, philosophy, culture and other ephemera. At last, back to essentials! I anticipate obvious sequels: ‘Shoes that shaped Western consciousness’; ‘Lip gloss of the ancients’; and, very much on my own wish list, ‘Eyeliners of the great philosophers’.

I remain, madam, yours in tremulous anticipation,

Bob Hall
Old Windsor

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